Illegal Buildings Get Reprieve in Italy
Culture of Impunity Is Back in Force as Government Grants Scofflaws Immunity
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 28, 2003; Page A31 ERCOLANO, Italy -- Just a few hundred yards from the lip of Vesuvius, the sleeping yet menacing volcano that overlooks Naples, there's a new tourist attraction that looks wildly out of place on the green-black mountain slope. Called Ercolandia, it is a small amusement park that features a carousel, a fright ride, a swimming pool and an ersatz Eiffel Tower. Ercolandia is also illegal. Not only does it stand inside a zone that is supposed to be off-limits to construction because Vesuvius is likely to spew oceans of lava over the area one day, it is also technically in a national park, local officials say.
No matter. Ercolandia and thousands of what are known as abusive structures across Italy will soon benefit from an amnesty granted by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government. Luxurious villas as well as modest homes and additions, newly created windows and staircases to rooftops, big and small hotels and offices buildings -- all built without permits in defiance of construction laws -- will suddenly, for a fee, be legalized.
It is the latest episode in contemporary Italy's public culture of impunity, in which bribe taking, tax evasion and all manner of scofflaws go unpunished or are forgiven. The culture was supposed to have evaporated in the early 1990s, when massive corruption investigations known as the Clean Hands campaign upended Italy's dominant Christian Democratic party and brought an end to the First Republic. An outraged public demanded reform and an end to governmental bribery, favor-seeking and officially condoned lawlessness.
More than a decade later, elements of First Republic impunity have returned in force, many Italians say. Berlusconi has moved to protect himself against old charges of corruption by passing legislation that decriminalizes falsified bookkeeping and restricts the use of evidence gathered abroad. Parliament has also granted him immunity from prosecution while in office. Now, some of the benefits of impunity are being passed to the larger public with a proposed amnesty on illegal construction.
Government officials offer two rationales. By taking in money to regularize the illicit structures, the government predicts it can close a budget gap of $2 billion to $4 billion next year. Moreover, legalization would reflect reality: Such structures have been going up for years, and no one has been able or willing to stop them.
The view, however, is rather different at the harried local-official level here in Ercolano, a shabby mixture of tenements and decayed 18th-century palaces on the Mediterranean coast south of Naples. Functionaries in charge of enforcing building codes regard the amnesty as encouragement for Italians to break the law.
"The amnesty makes our work impossible," said Franco Leone, who works in the city's office of abusive construction, which tries to identify and prevent illegal building. "Lawbreakers know that if they can tangle up a case in court long enough, the government will come through and grant an amnesty. Italians are clever. They can see that the odds are in their favor."
"This amnesty may be convenient for the government," added Salvatore Catalado, Leone's colleague. "But it is certainly an insult to people who stick by the rules. They must think, 'What an idiot I am to follow the law.' "
The proposed amnesty would be the third in 20 years. Berlusconi granted the most recent one, in 1994, when he headed a short-lived right-wing government. The one before that was granted in 1985 by Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, a friend and mentor of Berlusconi's who later fled into exile ahead of corruption charges. Craxi died in 2000.
Dossiers on illegal construction fill a pair of cabinets in Leone's and Catalado's office. Over the years, only a handful of buildings and annexes have been demolished. Leone said his office lacks the financial resources to tear down many structures and in any case, appeals to government offices and courts take so long that far more illegal buildings go up than are brought down.
"We have to give what we call necessary time to tear down a building," he said. "It can be years, if ever. Sometimes owners put old people to live inside the illegal place. In Italy, it's hard to evict old people."
Word of Berlusconi's amnesty, which has been circulating for more than a year, spurred an increase in illicit activity, Leone added. His office has identified more than 200 structures, mostly additions to houses, built without permits in 2002, more than twice as many as the year before. Some, like Ercolandia, intrude on the national park, "green preserves" and agricultural areas, while others are potentially dangerous top-floor additions to existing houses.
Last year, 28 percent of 5,000 houses built in Campania, the region that includes Ercolano, were illegal, according to government statistics. The government has counted more than 300,000 abusivi constructed nationwide since the 1994 amnesty.
Recently, Rome's city government expressed shock when it discovered that a prefabricated house had sprung up overnight on land adjacent to the Appian Way, the famed Roman Empire road that is now an archaeological zone where building is meant to be restricted. The owner had planned to apply for an amnesty, city officials said. Thus sanitized, the prefab house would have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars because the shell could have formed the basis of a legal, permanent villa.
Last Saturday, the city government, which is controlled by opposition political parties, sent bulldozers to raze the building. The owner pleaded unsuccessfully that the construction was an act of altruism: He intended to turn it over to Romanian refugees.
Many pre-amnesty abuses in Rome are subtler, but equally lucrative, forms of speculation. A rooftop terrace adds tens of thousands of dollars to the value of a residence, but it is difficult to get a terrace approved unless there was a preexisting entrance from the floor below. A cursory glance at central Rome's skyline reveals numerous new holes in the roof, railings around the edges and new shacks built as entrances to staircases.
A downtown resident explained how some people planned to cash in. "They will go to city hall and ask for an amnesty for some abuse that has not been committed. Then they can build later, at their leisure," he said.
Sicily has produced some of the most imaginative pre-amnesty building schemes. In Agrigento, builders have taken out dozens of permits for cisterns, in theory to capture scarce rainfall to irrigate crops. Over the past year, the cisterns have gradually grown higher, and began to include rooms and plumbing.
Then they were turned into houses. In order to hide the work from the prying eyes of environmental activists, the builders covered what are known as cistern villas with dirt and debris.
Up at Vesuvius, a mangy, friendly dog silently greets visitors to Ercolandia. The owner has been absent for several days, neighbors say, and the front gate is locked. Leone and Catalado survey the remains of other old buildings -- without permits -- and ponder whether they, too, will fall under the coming amnesty. A few hundred yards away is the skeleton of a large house, whose construction the government succeeded in stopping a few years ago. Above, near a bend in the road, there's a failed restaurant, also illegal in Leone's view.
"All these will probably be condoned," Leone said. "Only Vesuvius can sweep them away."