There are records at Ellis Island in New York showing that between 1892 and 1924, the small Sicilian town of Gangi lost about 1,700 of its residents to the American dream. They abandoned their homes to board trans-Atlantic ocean liners, sold to the prospect of a better life by shipping agents pushing emigration in the region. Those homes, some empty for generations now, are today being handed out for free. Of course many of them are in a pretty rough shape, but to most of you reading, I know that where “dilapidated home” means one thing to most, to us it spells “fixer-upper”– and it smells of opportunity!
The Comune di Gangi itself has sent out a press release simply titled in upper case letters “FREE HOUSES IN GANGI”, stating that “in the town of Gangi there are old houses that will be granted free of charge to those who request them. The request may be submitted both by companies who want to transform the houses into hotels and from individuals for their own private use.”
But of course, with a free historic home in Sicily comes responsibility. Since the wave of emigration to America, followed by hoards of Gangi’s residents leaving for Argentina in the 1930s and 40s, the town has been left in a slump, shrinking from a population of 16,000 in the 1950s to about 7,000 today. The empty houses and lack of business in Gangi has been pulling down the economy and threatening its very existence for long enough. They need to be restored and breathe life back into this ghost town.
“Those who will be assigned the free houses have to bear the expenses for the transfer of ownership and must undertake to present the project of renovation of the property within one year of purchase and complete renovations within three years.” So that gives you four years after getting your free house in Sicily to complete your dream DIY project.
The homes in question, around 300 of them, are traditional tower-like structures, typical to the town. They are mostly three-story farm houses, where on the ground floor the donkeys would have been kept with the straw, chickens and goats on the middle floor and the family living quarters in the penthouse*, many with panoramic views of Mount Etna. *(We are talking real estate after all).
English-speaking lawyers or better even, non-Italian lawyers are of course being advised. This is Sicily, where offers are made “that you can’t refuse” (and you could dearly regret later). Bear in mind renovation costs and outstanding taxes, but the local government is doing everything they can to facilitate the handing over of the town’s abandoned houses, leaving out the bureaucracy and acting only as a mediator between the sellers and buyers, bringing them together in this bold approach to revive the town once and for all.
Already 100 houses have been given away, mostly to Sicilians in search of weekend homes. One Florence-based investor got two free houses and then offered to buy another seven with the plan to open a 22-suite hotel in the historic centre. Buyers from around Europe have also snapped up properties in Gangi’s mass giveaway, as well as one candidate from Abu Dhabi. And I say “candidate” because for the remaining 200 houses, there is now a sizeable waiting list. However, the mayor claims he’s not interested in those who can flash the cash to bump them up the list. “We don’t want people just because they have money,” Mr. Ferrarello, the mayor said. “We want to know what you’re going to do with the houses.” Hopefully the most creative and unique ideas will come out on top.
If you miss out on Gangi’s giveaway, and the initiative turns out to be a success, perhaps other mediterranean ghost towns (we’re seen a worrying amount of them)* will take note. Only dreamers with incurable nostalgia for days gone by need apply.