There's no heat in my apartment in Rome tonight. All afternoon, as the temperature dropped in the room where I sat working at my computer, I kept getting up to touch the radiators to see if it had come on yet. But those labyrinthine coils were stone cold. It's not that boiler has broken down. It is working fine! It's not that we haven't paid our heating bills. I just paid over 700 $ advance for this winter's heating bill. The problem is that a large number of families in this apartment complex haven't paid their bills for a long, long time, and we were recently informed that unless their debts were paid back, only minimum services would be guaranteed to the whole complex. Even though we have paid our full bill this year as every year. Minimum services does not include heat every day in the winter, heat that I have paid for in advance for my apartment.
It sounds like a story of the recent crisis that has dragged our neighbors in Greece to despair. But the origins of this story go way back in time, seven or eight years, when the previous administrator of this condominio organized some maintenance work that not everyone in the complex apparently agreed to. The expenses were divided up among the five hundred families residing in the complex, but a great number refused to pay. So the administrator took the funds we had all paid in advance for the heating and used those to pay the maintenance work, leaving an unpaid bill of over 100,000$ owed to the gas company.
Since then, we have been living with this debt over our heads. Money for this year's heating gets scraped together from the few who do pay to try to pay back the prexisting debt. Sometimes the gas company comes and puts a lock on the gas meter, so nothing comes out, and no heat gets turned on, like tonight. It is ten degrees centigrade on my balcony tonight and will keep dropping till dawn.
Stringent laws protect the privacy of those who don't pay. Their names can't be revealed, so they are spared dirty looks in the elevator. In theory the administrator is required to prosecute them to recover the outstanding payments, but the previous one never did, and the current one doesn't seem inclined to do so, either.
Then there is the question of "the law of solidarity," -- whether binding law of the land or only general policy, I have yet to discover -- according to which, those who can pay are required or encouraged to cover the debts of those who can't or won't in hopes that the sums will be paid back once the law courts and collection agencies have snapped into action.
But court cases here drag on for decades, and it is unlikely that the sums will ever be paid back. There are also rumors that one of the biggest "retardees' in paying the outstanding gas bills is actually the owner of a dozens of apartments in the complex, which he rents out, and can well afford to pay the bills. For some reason he has never bothered to collect heating bills, or the condominio bills -- covering things like cleaning, lights on the stairs, regular building maintenance. Up till a few years ago, the administrators were able to juggle things so that life went on as usual, but the crisis has made things worse. Ten years ago it was probably 25% who neglected to pay. Now it's more like 50%, perhaps more. and it will probably keep increasing.
So what can you do? It sounds outrageous. But that's real life in Rome.
Thank goodness I bought an electric heating pad when I was in Finland last year.
Maybe if I am lucky there will be heating tomorrow.