Italy’s Villages Are Dying. Who’s Saving Them? Sometimes People Who Buy Houses for €1. Sometimes Refugees.

A Sardinian village is selling off its abandoned real estate for a euro ($1.25) hoping to entice rich investors, but there are plenty of other villages giving homes away for free.

Helle Christensen

ROME—Every now and then, an Italian hilltop town mayor realizes there are suddenly more citizens in the cemetery than in the corner coffee bar and decides to employ the fail-proof plan of selling crumbling villas for euro pennies.

The trend started a decade ago when the mayor of Salemi, Sicily, sold houses that had been destroyed after an earthquake for one euro each, which back then was around $1.40. The town is now a booming AirBnB holiday hotspot, with most of the refurbished homes rented out for the summer months.

Since then, a number of dying communities followed suit and upcycled their old structures to nouveau riche who couldn’t afford villas in coastal towns like those of the Amalfi Coast or Portofino, but still wanted the sea views.

Just last year, the Italian government even joined in, giving away old castles it could no longer afford to keep. Even the town of San Gimignano near Siena is getting into the act, renting out its ancient towers to anyone who will develop them into structures for tourism.

The cheap real estate deal always comes with a catch: a minimum investment of $28,000 in Sardinia, preferential treatment to the under-40 set bidding on the giveaway castles, and the Salemi villa owners had to invest $100,000 into those structures, in part to make them earthquake-proof.

The €1-house incentive plan works well when the buildings are rundown, and there are several companies like Casa A 1 Euro (Houses for a Euro) with listings all over the country.

But there are thousands more abandoned houses in Italy that aren’t run-down enough to sell cheaply, sometimes because the patrons have died heirless or the banks have foreclosed on the mortgages and they haven’t been resold. Other houses or even full communities have been confiscated from thugs involved in organized crime or simply gifted to the towns by elderly residents whose grandchildren have since moved on.

In all, there are estimated to be around 200 such dying communities with a majority of houses empty but still very liveable scattered across the country. And many of those are now home to refugees and migrants who, in fact, are breathing new life into these old communities.

The first refugee revitalization success story was Riace, on the southern Italian coast, which had dwindled down to less than 100 people. The school was set to close and most of the businesses had shuttered. The town’s mayor, Domenico Lucano, had to convince the remaining residents and secure a government grant, which he did, to offer the houses and the tools for maintenance and repairs to the refugees who had been awarded political asylum.

He also won a grant to teach vital skills that fit with the historic enterprises of the town, including ceramic potters, tailor shops and bakeries. The refugees were all trained for jobs at shops that already existed. Now the town has more than 450 new refugee residents from 20 different nations running its various businesses, which are all booming because everyone is working. The school has reopened and there are children bicycling in the streets once again. Fortune Magazine even listed Lucano as one of the world’s 50 best leaders for 2017 alongside the pope, Melanie Gates, and John McCain.

"The multiculturalism, the variety of skills and personal stories which people have brought to Riace have revolutionized what was becoming a ghost town,” he told BBC. “There were people without a house here, and there were houses without people here. It's simple."

Several other towns have followed suit, including Sant Alessio Aspromonte in Calabria, which had also lost the bulk of its population to old age or better opportunities elsewhere. Now the town takes 35 migrants at a time to slowly integrate them, offering language and cooking classes and providing work opportunities before taking the next batch to ensure a smooth transition to a multicultural community.  

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But not every Italian town agrees that refugees are the answer for repopulation. The northern Italian town of Vaccarozzi di Erbezzo near Verona protested against plans to house 80 refugees and migrants seeking political asylum from other parts of the country as part of a distribution plan by Italy’s interior minister late last year. The townspeople protested to such an extent that the refugees had to be housed in former army barracks in what has become a gated community, not to be integrated at all. The houses there are worth more than a euro and few need to be fixed up, so instead they will simply stay vacant.