Cash-strapped authorities are hunting tax-dodging landlords: a mixed blessing for foreign tenants?
In Rome, finding accommodation is one thing; getting on with the landlord is quite another.
The city welcomes ten million tourists per year. Its universities host 190,000 out-of-town students and 20,000 exchange students. The attraction of the Eternal City is such that many are willing to spend a minimum wage to rent a run-down shoebox room.
Last year, a Corriere della Sera reporter went undercover. Pretending to be an out-of-town academic, he contacted fifteen landlords. And were they helpful! The owner of a flat near the Gemelli hospital: "Don't worry about traffic; the area is rather quiet." Another one, praising the location of a flat in the periphery: "Underground line C will be running very soon."
Any newcomer who is looking for a place to stay has to become familiar with strict gender separation ("Si ricerca ragazzA"), overlapping academic years, singolas and doppias and, last but not least, the absence of renting contracts.
Of the fifteen landlords the undercover reporter contacted only six proposed a renting contract. One of the other nine asked the reporter why he wanted a contract -is he by any chance a tax inspector?
No contract means that property owners can rearrange their property and rent it out as they please. A one-bedroom apartment becomes a two-bedroom apartment after moving the kitchen to the hallway. A room can never be too small to rent out and any large room will be a doppia –two times three hundred Euros beats one time five hundred Euros. Most landlords prefer their tenants to leave the room empty, travel around and not come back before the next rent is due. And any morning tenants may discover that the landlord –Good Samaritan he is– helped someone out with the couch in the kitchen (for, say, a hundred Euros).
Since last year, the City of Rome, the fiscal police and Rome's three main universities are helping out-of-town students. A camper is on campus to inform students of their rights. Students receive the "Studia e vivi a Roma" guide. And on students can denounce illegal rental: Law 23/2011 guarantees a four-year contract, renewable for another four years, at a rent that is 60% of the market rate to any tenant who legalises his/her rent.
So far, only 1,200 tenants have legalised their rent. It is not obvious to denounce a landlord whilst staying in his property. And why would one bother to start such a strenuous procedure?
The fiscal police have conducted 847 inspections. Tax evasion figures skyrocketed with 419%. The primus inter pares? An 80-year old landlord who lets 41 apartments. This former convict, who manages an estate worth 13 million Euros, evaded taxes for 4 million Euros. Though he accepts contracts, he 'forgets' to register them.
Officially, 2,900 landlords are under scrutiny. But a similar exercise done in 2005 –30,000 students received a questionnaire; their answers would be crosschecked with data from utilities companies– came to nothing. Lately, national press revealed that the heiress of a large Roman constructor lets 1,042 apartments without paying taxes. People who get away with earning tens of thousands of Euros a month without paying taxes usually do not operate on their own.
The fiscal police recorded 55% of Italian students being their landlord's guest. In other words, more than half of Rome's student population is staying with a host and does not pay any rent! A landlord can avoid a contract, and thus taxes, by pretending (s)he is lodging a guest. A guest can be a relative, a friend or even an acquaintance. And, of course, one would never make a guest pay.
Feeling the taxman breathing down their necks, will landlords extend this ruse to foreign tenants? "Signore inspector, this is a very good friend I have met abroad" or "Rent? What rent? This boy's great-grandfather liberated my parental village from the fascists!"
The authorities are not aware of it, but the inspections and Law 23/2011 may turn Rome into much friendlier a place!

(Just for the record: I am very fortunate to have stayed with a superb landlord. Roman-born and a student of Archaeology, he has taught me a lot about Rome and its history. Now, years later, we are good friends and meet each other whenever I am in town.)

Mike Dilien Belgium

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