Cash for babies, $10,000 gifts, $1 homes: The battle for the soul of rural Italy

Jan 29, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership

(CNN) — Tempted by the recent offer of an Italian home for just over a $1? Well, you might want to hold out for a better deal.

Now one town in the country is offering foreigners $10,000 to move there. Another says it will even pay newcomers more than $1,000 per child to make babies.

The deals may seem too good to be true for many who dream of escaping the rat race for the idyll of a rustic Italian village. For the destinations involved, they represent a last-ditch battle to save the souls of their dying communities.

But it's complicated -- this is a country where local property regulations are often tangled up in byzantine legalities.

And, of course, it's a place where attitudes towards foreign incomers are sometimes ambivalent, as highlighted by a recent rise in political hostility towards economic migrants arriving from Africa and the Middle East.

The latest deal to beat them all comes from Giovanni Bruno Mattiet, the mayor of the tiny Alpine village of Locana, in Piedmont, the mountainous northwestern region of Italy that borders France and Switzerland.

He's willing to pay up to €9,000, or $10,200, over three years to families willing to move in and take up residency amid snowy peaks and flower-strewn pastures, as long as they have a child and a minimum annual salary of €6,000.

"Our population has shrunk from 7,000 residents in the early 1900s to barely 1,500 as people left looking for a job at Turin's big factories," Mattiet tells CNN Travel. "Our school each year faces the risk of shutting down due to few pupils. I can't allow this to happen."

Ghost towns

Italy wants you: In a fight to save their dying communities, numerous small towns across Italy, like Borgomezzavalle pictured here, are offering incentives to encourage foreigners to move there.

In Locana each year there are 40 deaths versus just 10 births. It's a familiar picture across Italy where, in the last 30 years, one in four small communities have become ghost towns. There are now 139 villages with fewer than 150 residents.

And while Mattiet's deal was initially offered just to Italians or foreigners already living in Italy, he's now so desperate to save his town from dying, he's extending it to non-Italians abroad too.

"We're looking to draw mostly young people and professionals who work remotely or are willing to start an activity here," he says. "There are dozens of closed shops, bars, restaurants and boutiques just waiting for new people to run them."

Locana isn't the only town in Piedmont badly in need of a rebirth. A little farther north, on the Swiss frontier, the mayor of Borgomezzavalle is playing what he hopes will be a winning card.

To revitalize a population that's dwindled to barely 320 residents, Alberto Preioni is not only selling abandoned mountain cottages for just €1 -- just over $1 -- he's also paying all newcomers who are starting a family.

"This town was created in 2016 with the fusion of two neighboring villages which were disappearing," he tells CNN Travel. "We've got tons of money to invest but we need kids and youth.

"That's why I'm offering €1,000 for each newborn and another €2,000 to anyone willing to start a business and register for VAT."

Local taxes are very low and Preioni also promises free public transport to all students. There's not even any need to take up residency.

Borgomezzavalle -- the name means "the town between the valley" -- is stuck inside a canyon, but there's sunlight all day thanks to a huge mirror placed on the opposite hillside that reflects the rays.

Brightly colored houses with thatched roofs, carved from the mountain flank, are clustered around neat cobbled piazzas with wooden benches and flower pots.

Narrow winding alleys lead to frescoed arcaded porches with decorated columns and lavish palazzos featuring loggias. The €1 buildings on sale include crumbling wood and stone cottages, barns, stables and former farm and artisan dwellings.

The only catch is that the new owners must commit to refurbishing the houses within two years.

"I invite anyone interested to come see what a peaceful place this is, our untouched nature offers a detox and unplugged stay far from the madding crowd", says Preioni, who's also recovering abandoned agricultural lands for use by would-be farmers.

Borgomezzavalle and Locana are just the latest in a series of towns in Italy offering cheap, dilapidated properties to foreigners or paying them to move there (and take note, it's intended to be a permanent move, not just the offer of a cheap vacation home).

Extremely low taxes, great life quality, cheap services and rentals have successfully turned many dying spots into havens for foreign retirees.

In the Sicilian towns of Partanna, Caltabellotta, Giuliana, Siculiana and Cianciana renting a 50-square-meter apartment costs just €150 per month, while breakfast at the bar with local pastry specialties is €2.

Is it working?

If this all sounds too good to be true -- well it is and it isn't. Andrea Ungari, contemporary history professor at Rome's top LUISS University, says shoring up communities with an influx of foreigners will fail to address the issues that caused people to desert the towns in the first place.

"It's OK in the short run, foreigners love Italy's beauty and crave for an eternal holiday in a sunny spot," he says. "But in the long run, even they need upgraded infrastructures, good and nearby hospitals, efficient services, especially retirees.

"You need a long-term plan to develop the local territory and keep people there."

One solution might be to populate the dying towns with the migrants who flock to Italy on boats across the Mediterranean, fleeing peril or hardship in Africa or the Middle East. Indeed some have moved into places like Riace, in the southwest Calabria region or Val Camonica in northern Lombardy.

It's a strategy unlikely to gain traction in Italy's current political climate though. The country's new coalition government, particularly the populist League party of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, has spoken out against hosting migrants in Italian villages.

In two shrinking towns first reported by CNN -- Ollolai and Candela -- the deals aimed at attracting more economically attractive foreigners seem to be working out well.

Candela, in southern Puglia, offered people up to €2,000 to move there plus tax credits. It now boasts a dozen new residents of all ages, nationalities and professions, says former mayor Nicola Gatta.

In just over a year Ollolai, on the island of Sardinia, has sold several dozen €1 houses that have already been refurbished. Six are currently being restyled while another 20 will soon be handed over to new owners.

Foreign newcomers are mostly young professionals who work remotely or retirees, but there are also Italians who have returned to their hometowns.

"We weren't expecting such a success, with people coming from Europe, the US, Brazil and Australia as our new next door neighbors", says Ollolai's deputy mayor Michele Cadeddu.

Fashion designer Marije Graafsma, who sold her home in the most northerly part of the Netherlands to relocate to Ollolai together with her partner, is enthusiastic about the move.

"It's great, I'm so happy," she says. "We're almost done restyling our lovely house with a fantastic view of Sardinia's wilderness. We can't wait to settle in for good.

"In Holland people are always on the run, they don't talk much. Here they're welcoming, very friendly, you get offered coffee and treats. We feel part of a big family."

Red tape

Graafsma has spent €75,000 on rehabilitating her attractive new dwelling. It's a good price compared to average property costs in Italy.

She says she didn't mind having to deal with a bit of red tape given she was "prepared for it" and the local mayor's office helped with the paperwork.

Bureaucracy can be hell in Italy -- but some say it's worth it. In the Sicilian town of Gangi, where 200 crumbling €1 euro dwellings have been sold mainly to European professionals and artists, it took Danish computer science engineer Torkel Jensen almost two years to jump through all the necessary administrative hoops.

"That's OK, I knew what I was in for," he says. "But finally, now, this lovely house, 150 square meters, is our new home. I used to live between Sweden and Denmark, so cold and dark, we wanted a sunny place", he says.

"Here it's gorgeous and warm, people are so nice and open. My wife and I will be spending six months a year, hopefully more. I've retired but keep working remotely".

Jensen has spent about €100,000 on an elegant renovation. While basic building materials are cheap, specific items can be more expensive. "Still a great deal, though," he adds.

But, says Jensen, there's another issue to consider for families. "These towns are great for retirees and couples without kids. For children it's not so great if you plan to live here all year-round."

Empty gimmicks

While a few copycat towns have been unsuccessful in the endeavor due to real obstacles others have turned out to be empty gimmicks or too complicated to sustain.

Bormida, in the northwest Liguria region that adjoins France, rescinded its offer to pay people to move there when its mayor admitted he was just trying to draw attention.

Montieri in Tuscany initially advertised €1 homes but then placed them on the market for prices starting at €20,000.

The mayors of Carrega Ligure in Piedmont and Lecce nei Marsi in central Abruzzo tried hard to get their own deals off the ground but were thwarted by red tape, Italy's hellish property restrictions and bickering between family members over who owned old houses.

"It was impossible to track down and convince all the originals owners of the crumbling ruins, most had migrated in the 1940s, says Guido Gozzano, the former mayor of Carrega Ligure.

< p> "And even when we did, the state wouldn't allow us to dispose of the land where the dwelling was built on.

"In the end, I gave up."

Unrepentant teen with a long list of offences is why some parents shouldn't breed

Nov 25, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership

Ralph Wee Yi Kai, a 19-year-old Singaporean man, has pleaded guilty to eight charges on Nov. 25 during his plead guilty mention before District Judge May Mesenas.

The charges include consuming weed, causing unnecessary suffering to a frog, possessing imitation tobacco products, trespassing into the rhinoceros enclosure at the Singapore Zoo, and committing mischief by damaging property, reported CNA.

Another six charges will be considered during his sentencing.

Probation is "not realistic"

Wee pleaded guilty via video link from his place in remand, where he has been since Nov. 6.

The prosecution strongly objected to a probation suitability report, noting that Wee is "beyond the control of his parents, which renders probation unsuitable", according to CNA.

The prosecution asserted that probation "is not realistic" for Wee, based on his repeated offences and conduct in court.

They cited his "blatant disregard for rules", and urged for a reformative training suitability report instead.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Melissa Lee said Wee "has a tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol", which caused him to behave aggressively towards his parents.

He also "posed a risk" to them, which led him to be admitted to the Institute of Mental Health.

"Never expected it to come to this"

Wee's defence lawyer Shashi Nathan requested for the addition of a probation suitability report, according to CNA.

Shashi maintains that his family is able to supervise Wee, and added that his client "comes from a good family" who are "able to look after him".

He said that Wee was undergoing "a severe emotional crisis" when he committed his offences, and shared that the case has also affected Wee's family, especially after their home address was released to the press.

"While Ralph understands that what he did was wrong, he never expected it to come to this," said Shashi.

Difference between probation and reformative training

Wee was ordered to go though both assessments for a probation suitability report and a reformative training report, reported Yahoo News.

Offenders who undergo probation will not have a criminal record, while reformative training, which provides a more structured environment, results in a criminal record.

What Wee's lawyer said

Wee's lawyer said his client acted out after breaking up with his girlfriend, 18, who was the one who filmed the video of Wee backflipping in the zoo.

The defence lawyer, Shashi, said Wee spiralled into an emotional crisis as a result of his break-up.

Wee is homeschooled.

The court was told Wee saw a video of a man riding a giraffe and decided to make a video in the rhino enclosure, Yahoo News reported.

The ex-girlfriend had filmed the act and posted it on her private Snapchat account.

Wee posted it on his public TikTok account and a police report was made by a zoo personnel within the same day.

Wee removed the video when he was told to do so by the police, but reposted it on Dec. 18, before being told to remove it again, claiming he thought the video had been made private when he reposted it.

Wee had also included a link in his Instagram account biography to directed to a page selling t-shirts with the words "rhino ralph".

But he denied creating the merchandise profile.

He later removed the link.

Wee will return to court on Dec. 20 for his sentencing.

Timeline of events with updated details

Oct. 9, 2020, 2:40am: Allegedly committed an act of vandalism by hitting an information panel at a bus stop in Sixth Avenue, off Bukit Timah Road, causing S$900 in damage.

Allegedly caused damage to two cars -- S$2,800 to a Mercedes-Benz and more than S$1,600 to a BMW -- in nearby Sixth Crescent.

A taxi driver passing by reported him to the police, as Wee was standing in the middle of the road with a beer bottle in hand.

Dec. 16, 2020: Wee was placed on compulsory supervision for 60 months from Dec. 16. He was required to present himself for urine tests on each Tuesday and Thursday, but failed to turn up on four occasions.

He was placed on e-tagging during this period of time, after having been charged for his earlier offences.

He had to stay at home from 10pm to 6am as part of his bail conditions.

Dec. 17, 2020, 2.40pm: Accused of trespassing into the rhinoceros enclosure and taking a video.

Dec. 18, 2020: Reposted zoo video, despite taking it down earlier after being told to do so by the police. Told to remove video again.

Dec. 24, 2020: Accused of abusing a frog, which subsequently died, by hitting a ball against it on a foosball table, causing "unnecessary pain and suffering".

The incident allegedly took place at a Sentosa Cove property.

July 2021: First hauled to court and charged with two counts of mischief, as well as one count each of vandalism and criminal trespass.

Bail was then set at S$15,000.

Aug. 6, 2021: Allegedly consumed cannabis while out on bail. Arrested at his residence and two urine samples obtained tested positive for weed. S$15,000 bail revoked.

Sep. 14, 2021: Allegedly possessed an e-vaporiser and six e-cigarette pods at a ward in the Institute of Mental Health.

Three police officers showed up at IMH, where Wee was warded, to arrest him for failing to attend court.

He was admitted to IMH due to his drug and alcohol abuse, as had acted aggressively towards his parents when they demanded the drugs from him.

He was warded in IMH due to the risk he posed to his parents.

Oct. 13, 2021: Charged with one count of drug consumption while still in remand.

Bail raised to S$20,000 and Wee was released.

While out on second bail, Wee committed a string of offences, including cutting his electronic tag, according to ST, as well as not reporting for his urine tests on a few occasions, CNA reported.

The prosecution has called for an urgent bail review hearing to have Wee's second bail revoked for the alleged fresh offences.

Oct. 26, 2021: Allegedly cut a S$100 GPS ankle tag at an address on Leedon Road at about 12:10am.

Prior to this act, Wee was upset at his father, who had asked Wee to sleep early since he had to report for his urine test in the morning.

After arguing with his father, Wee decided to leave the house, and used pliers to cut off his e-tag before cycling to his friend’s house.

Upon discovering that Wee was missing, his father called the police.

The e-tag, worth S$100, was damaged and could no longer be used.

It was found in Wee’s house.

Oct. 28, 2021: Allegedly possessed an e-cigarette pod at the Leedon Road address.

Nov. 5, 2021: Warrant of arrest issued, as Wee could not wake up to attend court.

Nov. 6, 2021: Wee arrested.

Nov. 12, 2021: Slapped with four additional charges.

Nov. 25, 2021: Pleaded guilty to consuming weed, causing unnecessary suffering to a frog, possessing imitation tobacco products, trespassing into a rhino enclosure, and committing mischief by damaging property belonging to others.

Ordered to go though assessments for a probation suitability report and a reformative training report.