Standing in the warm winter sun outside Sambuca’s 16th century church, the deputy mayor was listing the startling changes in his town since it started selling houses for a euro.
“There is a new estate agent, restaurant, café and food shop, while two ceramics workshops have opened,” Giuseppe Cacioppo said. “And there’s the $23 million we think people will spend doing up their new homes.”
It has been three years since Sambuca, a hilltop town south of Palermo on the west of Sicily, announced that it was selling empty houses cheap to reverse years of emigration that reduced the population from 9,000 to about 5,000.
Many of the homes needed renovation and repair after an earthquake in 1968. But officials hoped that the winding alleys of the town’s ancient Arab quarter, the nearby beaches and mountain hikes would attract buyers.
They were not prepared for the 110,000 email inquiries and frantic phone calls from around the world as prospective second homers salivated.
Due to demand, the council’s 32 houses were auctioned rather than being sold for a euro, fetching an average of $4,500 each. But that failed to satisfy demand. “Another 140 houses have been sold by private owners, bringing in a total of $3.1 million,” Cacioppo said. “There are another 200 that could yet be sold.”
Since Lorraine Bracco, the US actress who starred in The Sopranos, made a reality show about doing up her house in Sambuca, the town’s scheme has enjoyed the highest profile of about 60 similar sell-offs in hamlets and villages around Italy.
The government is plowing over a billion dollars into better Internet and services for more than 200 dying hamlets. Trevinano, a town in central Italy with a population of 142, was recently granted $22.6 million to bring in students and tourists.
The €1 scheme, however, shows that mayors are successfully battling chronic depopulation without waiting for handouts. Strolling past the orange trees lining Sambuca’s main street, Cacioppo ducked down an alley and pointed to some small houses. “That’s Belgium,” he said. “That one’s America.”
He entered a derelict-looking property where the new owner, Brigitte Dufour, a Canadian human rights lawyer, was studying cracked pots. A string of garlic hung from a nail in the wall under a partially collapsed roof.
In one room, the remains of a bale of hay suggested that an animal was once kept there.
“I think I can install a roof terrace with a view over the hills,” Dufour, 58, said. She spent $6,500 on the house after bidding from her office in Brussels. “I hadn’t seen the house,” she said. “But now I am totally reassured by its potential. All I need are plumbers and builders.”
She has three years to fix up the place, the condition for sale set down by Sambuca.
What she already feels is the sense of community. “I am used to feeling unwelcome in countries like Russia where I have worked on human rights,” she said. “So I am enjoying the real warmth of the welcome here.”
Dufour said that she was not worried at the prospect of many of her neighbors hailing from London, Los Angeles or Lausanne … and not from Sambuca. “I think this plan will also bring back Italians who can work remotely,” she said.
Lost in Translation
Owners who have been unable to travel due to Covid-19, such as Gillian Sweeney, from near Falkirk in Scotland, are impatiently waiting for a chance to fly in after holding tricky Zoom meetings with architects who do not speak much English.
“A couple in Blackpool who bought were given a quote for $90,000 for their restoration,” Sweeney said. “But I have a budget of $22-28,000.” She bought her house for $1,100 in 2019 and visited twice but has not been able to return since.
“I think the $170,000 Lorraine Bracco paid may have been too much,” she said. “But then again I’m Scottish and I don’t want to get ripped off.”
In Sambuca, Salvatore Maggio, 54, an architect, is juggling work on six houses and holding Zoom conferences with owners from Poland, Israel, Abu Dhabi and Hungary.
“English is a problem,” he said. “We use a lot of gestures. I communicate with the Hungarians via their son, who works as an actor in Hollywood and speaks Italian.”
Sabrina De Toni, a new owner who has spent $79,000 restoring a large, three floor, three bedroom house she bought for $28,000, had one piece of advice for Zoom users. “Get a translator,” she said.
De Toni, 52, a company manager, is one of a group of five women from around Varese in northern Italy who bought houses, showing that Italians are among the new arrivals.
“It was love at first sight,” she said. “It was May, the unending countryside was a blanket of flowers and I wanted to buy here before I even got to the town.”
Joining her at her kitchen table to eat Sicilian ricotta cakes and study plans for the two houses she has bought, Juanita Lorenzon, 49, also from Varese, said that she might be Italian but Sambuca felt like a foreign country.
“This is different world when it comes to builders’ deadlines,” Lorenzon, who manages an ice cream shop, said. “But they are not dishonest. Many of the ingredients I use in my ice cream come from Sicily and the ricotta here is pure poetry.”
Apart from second homers, the housing boom is bringing in permanent residents such as Pietro Motisi, 39, a Sicilian leather maker who has opened a workshop and is producing furniture for a buyer from Chicago who is knocking two houses together.
He said that the Arab control of Sambuca from the 9th to the 11th centuries had left a trace.
“When the Arabs ruled here they brought an idea of co-existence that still has an influence and makes the locals welcoming,” he said. Margherita Litata, a real estate agent, said that rolling out the red carpet also made economic sense. She works at the new office set up in a hurry next to the church to handle the flood of sales.
“After the 1968 earthquake, many locals used government cash to buy new houses and are now selling off the old homes they abandoned,” she said. As she spoke, the church bells announced the start of a funeral, a reminder of the town’s aging, declining population.
Outside on the corner, Giovanni Gulotta, 61, a council worker, said that he was happy the world was coming to Sambuca. “They get to drink and eat well,” he said. “And they pay taxes which is essential for a town with fewer residents.”
Cacioppo said that above all he valued the pride locals once again felt about Sambuca. He added: “The most important thing is that they have fallen back in love with their own town.”
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for The Times of London