Friday, August 19, 2016

Nobody Home: Venice's Population Drops to a Historic New Low

Venice drops toward historic low: from the 9 August 2016 edition of La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre

In the past week local and national media have been all abuzz and atwitter with the dismaying news that the population of Venice is about to drop beneath yet another milestone in its steady decline. By September the number of city residents is estimated to stand at less than 55,000.

To put this number in perspective, consider that, as Il Gazzettino reported on 16 July, the population of Venice numbered 84,500 in 1986. In 1976, it was 102,000.

I've forgotten a lot about my first short visit to Venice as a teenager in 1982, but one thing I still remember quite clearly is how our tour guide described the the worrisome loss of population from which the city was already suffering. Because of a lack of good jobs and the expense of living in the city, she said, young natives had no choice but to leave.

In 1991, as John Keahey reports in his excellent book Venice Against the Sea, the Italian parliament passed Law 360, which was "directed to finding a solution to the exodus of Venetians from Venice's historic center to the mainland."

A quarter of a century later, it's not only obvious that a "solution" has yet to be found but, even worse, it's widely suspected that the search for one was given up some time ago. In recent days ( has posted articles from 2007 and 2009 in which (in the former article) the city's Assessor, Laura Fincato, states that only Mestre has a future, while "Venice is a slave to the past," and (in the latter article) that the mayor should govern from Mestre.

On May 27, the current mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, made exactly the same point about Mestre, "where people live", being the "future of the city" while speaking to (or, rather, haranguing, as is his wont) an audience at the Architectural Biennale--before backpedaling from this claim a couple of days later and claiming that the many people who'd been disturbed by his words had merely "misinterpreted" them (and willfully, too).

But let's consider some other numbers related to the problem of spopolamento or depopulation:

2.6: The average number of residents Venice lost each day over the last year

40,000: The number of people who are estimated to commute from the mainland to Venice to work, according to researcher, author and co-founder of We Are Here Venice, Jane da Mosto.

1,371: The number of vacant apartments in the sestiere of Cannaregio alone, according to a 6 February article in La Nuova di Venezia. That amounts to 14% of the 9,668 total apartments in the sestiere. Some of those apartments are believed to be rented either to tourists or residents, but there is no information on whether, in either case, they are being rented legally. (It should be noted that Cannaregio remains one of the most "local" of sestiere; in those of Dorsoduro and San Marco, for example, the proportion of dwellings either empty or entirely devoted to tourist lodging would be, it seems safe to assume, much higher.)

1,190: The number of new apartment listings in Venice that have appeared on the Airbnb website in just the last 11 months, according to an article published last week in La Nuova. Overall, the same article states that there are now 3,949 rooms (391 of them on the islands of, for example, Burano or Murano) listed for rent in Venice on Airbnb.

According to Fabio Carrera, a Venetian professor and the director of the Venice Project Center, 64% of those posting these tourist rental listings own more than two structures. The top ten listers of Venice apartments on Airbnb each own eight or more apartments or rooms for rent.

200: The number of illegal, unregistered tourist rentals uncovered in the last year by the Guardia di Finanza.

€ 800-1,000: The monthly rent that can be expected from renting an apartment of 80 metri quadri (861 square feet) to a resident

€3,000: The monthly income that can be expected from renting the same apartment to tourists.

21%: The tax rate due on income earned by renting an apartment to a resident

40-60%: The tax rate due on income earned by providing tourist accommodations

€1,000: The penalty imposed upon a landlord whose declared term of a lease differs from the actual span of time in which a renter or renters stayed in an apartment.

These last five numbers come from a 10 August article in La Nuova, centered upon an interview with Giovanna Massaria, head of the real estate agency Heim Immobiliare, who's chosen to handle only those rental apartments designated for residents, not tourists. Massaria states that given the far greater income to be made from renting to tourists, the absence of oversight, and the insignificant penalty levied for being found guilty of such abuse, it's no wonder that profit-seeking Venetians themselves are among the prime forces behind the depopulation of the city.

The 10 August 2016 article on tourist rentals in La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre

Indeed, given the gap between the monthly income that can be expected from renting to residents and that likely to be received from renting to tourists, a landlord can absorb a €1,000 fine and still come out well ahead of what he or she would have made from legally renting to residents.

(Compare this €1,000 penalty for landlords who operate illegally to what I understand is the €5,000 fine levied on illegal street vendors in Venice. I leave it to you to decide which group of abusivi actually does more damage to the city--and which group has more friends in local government.)

At this point, one significant difference should be noted between Massaria's characterization of the sales market in Venice, and that provided in April of this year by the international luxury real estate agency Engel & Vöelkers, which, among many other places in the world, has an office in Venice.

Massaria rather surprisingly describes the number of foreign buyers of residential properties in Venice as being rather insignificant: placing it at around 20% of all sales. Engel & Vöelkers, on the other hand, presents a far different picture, stating in its spring report:
International buyers account for around 70 percent of residential property sales in Venice. 25 percent of these foreign investors are British citizens, constituting the largest group, followed by the French (20 percent) and Germans (10 percent). 15 percent of all transactions involve buyers resident in the Netherlands, Argentina, the USA, Thailand and Switzerland. The majority of buyers acquire real estate as a capital investment and often generate income through tourist rentals. The market is dominated by investors, with only a quarter of buyers acquiring residential property in Venice for their own private usage.   (my italics) 
I assume that Massaria is accurately reporting the sales figures of her own small agency--which make the culpability of Venetian landlords in the depopulation of Venice seem all the greater. While the figures provided by Engel & Vöelker represent a broader, and therefore more accurate overview of the Venetian sales market.

Taken together, the figures provided Massaria and Engel & Vöelker add up to a large percentage of Venetian apartments being steadily taken out of the residential rental market. And to these figures I can add the anecdotal personal experience of myself and friends: I know first-hand that it's become nearly impossible to find an apartment to rent if you are a resident--the pickings are quite slim. And the narrowing of residential rental options has been dramatic since the first time we looked to rent an apartment nearly 6 years ago. 

So, given all of the above, what is to be done?

During the course of the mayoral election campaign Brugnaro promised to return tens of thousands of residents back to the city through the creation of new jobs.

But if ten of thousands of people are commuting from where they live on the mainland to their jobs in Venice is it really a matter of creating new jobs or, rather, of creating the conditions in which rental apartments are available to residents at affordable prices? These 40,000 commuters from the mainland already have jobs. What they don't have are affordable places to live in Venice.

Which is not to suggest that Venice doesn't need new jobs, and, ideally, new kinds of employment options beyond the monoculture of tourism. But to focus exclusively on creating jobs is to ignore the market for housing that already exists among those 40,000 already-employed commuters.  

In fact, the thousands of jobs Brugnaro has mentioned most often since his election are the 5,000 that he claims would be lost if the city does not submit to the demands of the cruise ship industry.

Indeed, like so many other die-hard neoliberals around the world, Brugnaro binds the survival of his constituents to their total submission to the desires of big Capital. Concerns about the deleterious effects of proposed "developments", their feasibility, their promised benefits, or the extreme likelihood (or evidence) of rampant corruption, are all dismissed by Brugnaro and his supporters as the cowardly and even traitorous ("unworthy of 'True Venetians'", as the boy from the mainland said last spring) braying of "Those who can only say No."

Solutions to Venice's problems, Brugnaro is fond of suggesting, are simply a matter of "thinking big"--which inevitably means getting the hell out of the way of him and his business pals. 

At the end of last week, as the public exclamations about depopulation peaked, the head of Brugnaro's political movement, Maurizio Crovato, claimed that if the green light were given to 13 construction projects that have been sitting in the file cabinets of Ca' Farsetti (Venice's city hall) since at least 2013, 5,041 new homes would be created: "Il Comune metta i terreni, le autorizzazioni e si faccia promotore di trovare le imprese private che li realizzino: 50 appartamenti al privato perché li venda sul mercato e 50 al Comune per affitti a prezzi calmierati (The city would provide the land and permits and find the private companies to build them: half of them to be put on the market, and half to be given to the city for affordable housing.)"

Given the €1 billion in corruption estimated to have been siphoned off the €4 billion (and counting) cost of the long overdue and over-budget MOSE watergates, "big projects" and the big contracts they promise to certain well-connected firms are rather understandably viewed with a certain suspicion around here.

True, construction or, even better, conversion of un- or under-utilized, already-existing buildings will be an important part of any re-population of Venice. But considering the information above, aren't there more immediate approaches to be tried in the mean time? Changes in the tax code, targeted economic incentives to landowners, effective oversight, stiffer penalties, and so on? Measures whose aim is "to fill vacant houses"?

With this last phrase I'm thinking about something I recently read in Joanne M. Ferraro's book, Venice: History of the Floating City. Writing about the fourteen outbreaks of plague that struck Venice between 1456 and 1528, Ferraro notes that each such "cycle of demographic depletion prompted concerned authorities to provide economic incentives to newcomers, not only to rebuild the labor market but also to repair the truncated families and to fill vacant houses."

Faced with what is sometimes metaphorically referred to as the new "plague" of mass tourism, contemporary Venetian leadership has shown no ability to "provide economic incentives," nor to "fill vacant houses." Rather, in the name of protecting, if not actually "rebuilding the labor market," Brugnaro has pushed short-sighted concessions to the cruise ship industry and big works projects (such as a new deep water channel needed by ever-larger cruise ships) that sound much more like extortion--either you submit to this or you lose your jobs--than actual community building.

Perhaps a better place to start would be to address problems such as the 21% tax on long-term rentals that realtor Giovanna Massaria points out was created as an incentive for landowners to rent to residents but which--because of the ease with which it can be abused and the insignificant penalty imposed on the off chance that one gets caught--has had the exact opposite effect.

Perhaps, too, as is already being done in cities around the world, it's time to seriously address the dramatic effects that Airbnb is having upon housing in Venice. 

Barcelona, for example, has a new website in which tourists or anyone else can type in the address of an apartment they have seen rented as a tourist accommodation and find out whether that accommodation is legal.

True, such approaches don't hold the obvious advantages for politicians and private companies that go along with the promise of huge construction contracts, but when your city is losing 1,000 residents a year perhaps it's time to turn your attention to something other than merely the big fat political sugar plums you find it so pleasant (and lucrative) to hand out or receive.

In the mean time, it strikes me as myopic to the extreme (sometimes willfully and cynically so), to cry out at every outrage visited upon "the dignity of La Serenissima"--all those plastered on local papers and social media sites: the tourists swimming (nude or nearly so) in the canals, jumping off bridges, picnicking in Piazza San Marco, camping out or urinating or defecating in the campi and calli, biking through the city, clambering up 500-year-old facades for selfies, etc*--without copping to the simple fact that in a city in which tourists outnumber residents (quite literally by more than 30,000 on some days) it is the tourists and tourist industry which will set the norms of behavior, not the residents.

On any given day, tourists outnumber residents 60,000 to 55,000--and this is a ratio which is only getting worse. On any given day, that is, Venice feels to a fair number of its residents like a city under foreign occupation, if not outright attack. And this sentiment, regardless of how valid one might consider it, and in spite of the number of Venetians who themselves profit from this state of affairs, is getting increasingly ugly. Not yet to the point of a sardonic sign that appeared in Barcelona asking "Why call it tourist season if we can't shoot them?", but more and more angry signs are appearing here--in the past two days, around Campo Bragora and on the bridge near the church of San Martino in English: "TOURISTS GO AWAY!!! YOU ARE DESTROYING THIS AREA!"

For the sake of the city's visitors as well as its residents, the time to act on the related problems of uncontrolled tourism and the depopulation of Venice is now.


*Three examples from the past week of tourist misbehavior (there are always many more):

1. would-be swimmers

2. bike riders

3. a near-fatal leap off the Rialto 


  1. Thank you for this excellent historical summary of the depopulation & mass tourism issues. There are many individuals (residents & tourists), community groups and political groups who agree with your assessments but the administration seems completely unwilling to take any productive steps. Brugnaro & Costa seem to answer to no one, not the Venetians, not UNESCO, not World Heritage, not celebrity, or political pressure. Not only does Brugnaro not acknowledge many of the problems, he seems to be going out of his way to exacerbate them. So, my question is, how will things improve? If not now, it may be too late.

    1. I'm pleased that you thought the piece was worthwhile, JoAnn, and I must admit I haven't a clue what the answer is. Brugnaro and his gang pride themselves on their belligerence. As someone remarked on Facebook, it's as if Brugnaro, who tried to buy the island of Poveglia for 99 years, believes his election as mayor amounted to the comune handing over the city to him as a concession: a property over which he and his pals could have absolute control, to "develop" as they wish (ie, in their own interests), for five years--and believing this, they are outraged whenever anyone questions their plans or suggests they have a certain obligation of transparency towards, you know, citizens. Like Trump in his run for the US presidency (and no shortage of other politicians), public office is a money-making venture, and as such should be as free of burdensome regulations (ie those involved in democracy) as they believe all private businesses should be.

      The term I've heard applied to Brugnaro is "un gallo ruspante": literally, a rooster scratching up the barnyard dirt. Metaphorically, a greedy yokel, intent on what he can dig up for himself.

  2. Thank you for your reply, Steven. As painful as the truth is, I believe it is far better to understand the extent of the duplicity and grievous mismanagement by the mayor and his minions. A very sad time for Venice. I have no idea how she will recover from these injuries.