Residency does not only entail the enrolment at the local registry office. It also refers to the concrete space “where a person has his or her habitual dwelling”, as stated by the article 43 of the Italian Civil code. While this definition suggests that all dwellings can be the site of legal residency, in reality, accommodations have to fulfil certain requirements for people to use them as formal addresses. In practice, a wide range of people are thus excluded from the possibility to have residency. Refugees, due to their difficulties to access formal housing, represent a significant section of the excluded population, with significant implications for the enjoyment of social, civil and political rights. This post describes the particular case of Rome.
What is your address? Exploring the gap between legal residence, social rights and informal housing in Rome
by Aurora Massa and Milena Belloni
Ponte Mammolo, a shanty town in the periphery of Rome (cleared in 2015)
Without an address
Fitsum is an Eritrean refugee in his thirties whom we met at the beginning of 2018 in a café in via Montebello – the historical meeting point for people from the Horn of Africa in Rome. He had just arrived in Italy after being deported from Norway according to Dublin regulation, and looked very troubled. Landed in Lampedusa in 2009, he tried many times to move to other European countries, but each time national authorities found his fingerprints stored in EURODAC and rejected his asylum application, sending him back to Italy. However, that day his worries were not much related to the further failure of his migratory projects. He was rather concerned about his legal situation in Italy. During his last attempt of secondary mobility towards Europe, he had been deleted by the registry office of the municipality where he lived before. He was also not in the condition to ask for a new residenza (residency), as he was living in a shanty town in the periphery of Rome. In other words, residenza is the registration as a resident in a local administration. This registration allows accessing several basic services, such as health service. Since he was in need of medical treatments, he was afraid that the waiting time for a new residency would worsen his health condition.
This episode points to the importance of considering the many layers of legal provisions which enable migrants to be legally at home in their new country of settlement. While the most obvious one is related to those papers which allow foreigners to be legally present in a country, these may be not sufficient to guarantee the full enjoyment of social and political rights. In Italy, as Fitsum’s case shows, a critical role is also played by the residency. Based on our joint fieldwork in public offices and among residency-less refugees in Rome, in this post we aim to provide an history of this local membership and point to the main implications of the lack of it for migrant everyday life.
What is residency?
Residency does not only entail the enrolment at the local registry office. It also refers to the concrete space “where a person has his or her habitual dwelling”, as stated by the article 43 of the Italian Civil code. While this definition seems to suggest that all dwellings can be the site of legal residency, in reality, buildings and accommodations have to fulfil certain requirements for people to use them as formal addresses. Moreover, simply dwelling in a place is not sufficient to obtain a residency there: the link between the individual and the dwelling has to be attested by an official document regarding ownership, tenancy, and so on. In practice, a wide range of people are thus excluded from the possibility to have residency. Refugees, due to their difficulties to access formal housing in Italy (MSF, 2018), represent a significant section of the excluded population, with significant implications for the enjoyment of social, civil and political rights.
Residency, as Gargiulo (2017) writes, is “a sort of local membership granted by each municipality to the people who habitually live within its territory”. For people regularly living in Italy, the enrolment at the local registry office is both a duty, since registration allows municipalities to control their local population, and a right. Getting the “residenza” is a precondition for accessing several social rights connected with services provided by smaller administrative units than the state, such as the city districts, municipalities and regions (Gargiulo, 2016). These include social and health assistance, public housing, education and so on.
A fictitious address for the homeless
Although residency has to do with private accommodation, from the 50s onwards Italian law had aimed to partially solve the contradictory situation of homeless people, by introducing the so-called “fictitious residency” (law n.1228/54). By this law, a homeless person is considered to be resident in the municipality (or in the city district in case of cities) where she\he has established his\her habitual dwelling. In Rome, since the 80s, these residencies have been located at Via Modesta Valenti, a fictitious address named after a homeless woman who died in the city centre in 1983.
Fictitious residence may be useful not only for homeless people, but also for all those, like many refugees we met in Rome, that live in informal settlements, in housing arrangements that are not recognised as institutionally habitable, or in sublet conditions. Likewise, domestic workers without a regular working contract have to face challenges to register a formal address. Moreover, landlords are frequently reluctant to allow tenants to have their formal residence in their own home, especially if the tenant is a foreigner. The possibility for tenants to elect (or not) a certain apartment or a room as formal residence can even influence the rent price (Della Puppa, Gelati 2015).
In Rome, however, Modesta Valenti was not the only fictitious address which homeless people and alike could provide to authorities. Since the 90s, some charities (such as Centro Astalli, Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and Casa dei diritti sociali) have also issued formal residence for those in need. Many of the latter were migrants and refugees who lived in squats and other informal settlements around the city. Indeed, Via Modesta Valente could not be easily used for foreigners for two main reasons, as an experienced practitioner of Centro Astalli told us. Firstly, newcomers, such as migrants, asylum seekers and refugees could rarely “prove” to have an habitual dwelling in any city districts. Secondly, the local administration had not enough resources and skills to handle the multiple legal, social, health and educational needs of migrants. Even simple matters like a reliable post service could not be given for granted. And this is not an irrelevant issue, given the fact that most asylum cases as well as renewal procedures for labour migrants take place through mail exchange and assume a reliable post address.
In spite of the benefits of these multiple fictitious addresses, this system also had negative implications linked to a disconnection between official residence and real residence. While dedicated charities are all located in the city centre, asylum seekers and refugees usually live in the outskirts. This led to a limited relationship with the services located in the neighbourhoods where migrants actually lived and increased the dependency on charities among refugee population. Moreover the gap between real distribution of refugees in the urban territory and their nominal addresses has contributed to an unbalanced partitioning of economic resources among city districts, normally distributed according to the numbers of residents (Cittadini del mondo, 2017).
Recent developments on legislation and practices
In recent years the legislation on residency matters has been subjected to several modifications. The first change has occurred at national level, with the article 5 of the Housing Plan (Piano Casa, also called Piano Lupi) of 2014. This article prevents people from registering a formal residence in informal accommodations, such as squats. This has progressively been applied in different municipalities. In Rome the shift was slow and many of the squats we researched between 2012 and 2018 were still considered as legal residences (Belloni 2016). In fact, the possibility to have legal residency in a squat was seen by interviewed refugees as an important sign of institutional legitimation and a step towards their own housing and existential stability. The real shift took place when the 5 star movement – led city government started implementing stricter policies towards squatting practices (Massa 2017). As of March 2017, charities were not allowed to issue residency. City districts were instead appointed to manage this new service. Although this policy change was long needed according to the associations we interviewed, the lack of resources and clear procedures resulted in a significant number of people without any legal residence. The timing for obtaining residency is long and requires more work to the already overcrowded social services, which are expected to check the real dwelling of the “homeless” person.
Moreover, without clear procedures, each city district has handled this transition in a different way. This situation created a significant population of legal residents without a legal address. As described in a report by Medicine sans Frontières (2018), for example, applicants from the city district 4 (Municipio 4) had to register in an online system to get an appointment with the registry office. This system required the tax code, a document which many migrants do not have and which some local offices issue only to those who already have a formal residency, trapping people in a vicious circle. In the city district 5 (Municipio 5), instead, the absence of the online system made it easier to get an appointment with the registry office. However, applicants were asked for a passport. This systematically excluded asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection from the possibility to have a formal address. This formal address was not only needed to access local health care but also for the police to renew visas. Conversely, the municipality would not issue residenza to those without visas, thereby leaving many people without the two documents. Yet the situation is very fluid and changeable. The internal procedures of some city districts and of Roma’s police headquarters are now less rigid, for example allowing visa renewal without asking for residency.
Residency, inequalities, exclusion
As some scholars pointed out, local residency – as a sort of sub-national membership and ground for urban citizenship (Baubock, 2003) – has the potential to equalise citizens and non-citizens by granting them the same legal recognition at the local level. However, in practice, this potential is not only often unexpressed, but also reverted to opposite consequences. As Gargiulo shows (2017), municipalities tend to use the bureaucratic and administrative procedure to issue residency as a way to regulate, symbolically and sometimes materially, the composition of the people living within municipal territories, distinguishing between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ individuals.
This certainly applies to the most recent national developments in the legislation on “residenza”. In the recently approved Decree 113/2018 (also known as Salvini decree), asylum seekers are expressly denied the possibility to access residency. As asylum seekers have not been judged as “deserving refugees” yet, this decree states that they cannot access local membership and its connected rights (see also Campesi, 2019). This is especially worrisome because many asylum seekers remain in this status of “applying subjects” for several months if not years, in which they are likely to be in need not only of medical assistance (also considering the traumatising journey they have faced) but also of a formal address to move onwards in their legal and bureaucratic application.
Many human rights associations have harshly criticised the decree, raising doubts on its legitimacy, and the majors of several medium and big cities have openly opposed it, declaring that they will not to implement it. A recent decision of Florence court has also overruled the decree stating that the asylum application implies the right to have a legal address in Italy, as written in the Constitution. Although the debate is still open on the real implications of the decree for the right of asylum seekers to access a legal address, the discourse surrounding it points to the crucial role of administrative membership in larger discussions on participation, rights and deservingness (Casati, 2018).
Belloni, M. (2016). Learning how to squat: cooperation and conflict between refugees and natives in Rome. Journal of Refugee Studies, 29(4), 506-527.
Baubock, R. (2003). Reinventing urban citizenship. Citizenship studies, 7(2), 139-160.
Campesi, G. (2019, 7 January), Il divieto di iscrizione anagrafica è un tassello decisivo della strategia che mira a rendere impossibile la vita ai richiedenti asilo. È il confinamento umanitario. https://www.rivistailmulino.it/news/newsitem/index/Item/News:NEWS_ITEM:4580?fbclid=IwAR2BQAdQAwRc_2f72QfRz2pppAJTfO8_jPw19dJ0gXx61-ykGgA5Nmr4XfY
Casati, N. (2018). How cities shape refugee centres:‘deservingness’ and ‘good aid’in a Sicilian town. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(5), 792-808.
Cittadini del Mondo (2015), “La residenza fittizia e il luogo di dimora abituale: un rapporto da ripristinare per garantire la prossimità delle istituzioni”, available at https://www.associazionecittadinidelmondo.it/la-residenza-fittizia-e-il-luogo-di-dimora-abituale-un-rapporto-da-ripristinare-per-garantire-la-prossimita-delle-istituzioni/
Della Puppa F., Gelati E. (2015), Alte Ceccato. Una Banglatown nel Nordest, Trento, Professionaldreamers.
Gargiulo E. (2016), “Un lungo percorso a ostacoli. Il difficile cammino dei non cittadini verso l’integrazione e la cittadinanza”, Società, mutamento, politica, vol. 7, n. 13, pp. 309-321.
Gargiulo E. (2017), “The limits of local citizenship: administrative borders within the Italian municipalities, Citizenship Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13621025.2016.1277982.
Massa A. (2017), “Spatial compression and spatial dispersion: the homemaking of Eritreans and Ethiopians after the august eviction in Rome”, available at https://homing.soc.unitn.it/2017/09/29/aurora-massa-homemaking-of-eritreans-and-ethiopians-after-eviction-in-rome/
MSF (2018), Fuori campo. Insediamenti informali, marginalità sociale, ostacoli all’accesso alle cure e ai beni essenziali per migranti e rifugiati, Secondo Rapporto.
 See for instance http://www.lacostituzione.info/index.php/2019/01/06/ma-cosa-prevede-davvero-il-decreto-salvini-sulliscrizione-anagrafica-dei-richiedenti-asilo/ and https://www.asgi.it/asilo-e-protezione-internazionale/liscrizione-anagrafica-e-laccesso-ai-servizi-territoriali-dei-richiedenti-asilo-ai-tempi-del-salvinismo/
 Image drawn from http://www.cronachediordinariorazzismo.org/la-residenza-un-diritto-a-esercitare-altri-diritti/