There were angry protesters and shattered glass in the corridor leading to the office of Nicola Galloro in the EUR district of Rome. The protesters must have broken into the building earlier because two glass-fronted noticeboards had been smashed. Now, blue-uniformed private guards were manning the doors.

A tense-faced factotum explained: Theyve just been thrown out of their flats. You cant imagine the condition theyre in. Theyre living among rats. And theres no solution.

Galloro, in a huge but quite empty office with whitewashed walls, looked like someones caricature of a certain type of Italian: a thickset man with slicked-back hair, sitting behind a lone oversize desk. He sported an electric-blue suit, huge sunglasses, a gold watch and a loosened white tie. But despite appearances, he knew his brief to the last comma. A member of the Democratici di Sinistra (DS) party, Galloro was chosen two years ago by Romes mayor, Walter Veltroni, to tackle what is officially designated as Romes housing emergency.

Its become an impossible problem, he acknowledged, repeating alarming figures just published. Last year, evictions were up 71 per cent compared with the year before, he said, and 60 per cent of those thrown out were now on the street because they were unable to pay the rent. Rents have skyrocketed, continued Galloro. An average rent is now 1,500 a month, which is incredible. If families with children to feed cant get to the end of the month, obviously the first thing they give up on is the rent.

Across the city, banners draping over faades now cry: Stop these evictions! The situation in Rome, Galloro said, was without parallel in Italy. Some 5,000 families have already been ejected from their homes this year, with the figure expected to reach 8,000 by the end of 2005. It is estimated that some 16,000 more are currently living in houses from which they will be moved eventually, 3,000 of whom already have the bailiff on the landing.

Among the most recent causes of the emergency Galloro listed the rise in the cost of living, which has doubled since the arrival of the euro, prompting owners to increase their rents. Furthermore, a drop in bank interest rates, together with a collapse of stock markets has prompted investors to revert to putting their money into property, sending prices soaring. The Pirelli tyre firm was a case in point, said Galloro. Theyve turned from tyres to real estate. As a result the price of property in Rome has risen by some 60 per cent in the past five years and it is now grossly overvalued, higher than in other European capitals. Yet another cause has been the recent auctioning of housing owned by insurance companies and provident funds, such as Inail (Istituto nazionale per lassicurazione contro gli infortuni sul lavoro), which were subject to strict rent controls. The new owners can now legally charge what they like.

However the housing problem in Rome and Italy is anything but new. Its the result of mistaken past policies, said Galloro. One past mistake was for the state to have invested so little in council housing, which was never more than five per cent of the total. Figures that Galloro produced showed that Italy had built only 900,000 such homes since the end of world war two, against four million in Britain for example.

Up to the 1960s, Galloro went on, there was a flourishing rent market which then gradually crumbled away. First, governments obliged builders to provide bigger and better flats. One clause even obliged them all to have garages. It was like forcing the country to switch from Fiat 500s to big American Fords, which of course cut a lot of people out of the market. I was forced to change flats three times in that period.

Then the accent shifted to home ownership, with state incentives to stimulate purchases, though even today 40 per cent of Rome residents are still not homeowners. The freezing of rents under a fair rent law of 1968 then made it almost impossible for landlords to increase their rents or evict their tenants at the end of a lease. In the 1990s the trend swung in the opposite direction, giving more rights to the landlord. Since then the rent market had become a free-for-all, said Galloro.

Nowadays, nobody is investing in the renting market any more, he continued. I calculate that Rome currently needs some 65,000 new homes for renting and clearly theyre not going to get built by tomorrow morning.

A first step toward alleviating the crisis was a town council ruling in June obliging builders to set aside 20 per cent of all future housing for renting only.

But for the foreseeable future, housing will remain an enormous challenge for whatever government, concluded Galloro.

The Berlusconi government recently postponed all evictions in Rome until September this year, a measure described as ridiculous by Massimo Pasquini, head of the Lazio office of the tenants union, Unione Inquilini. They should be blocked for at least two years, he said.

Roberto Costantino, a union official in Galloros office, said: In Italy nobody has ever recognised that having a home is a fundamental right. If you havent a home, its the same as having nothing. But now weve reached the stage where tenants are completely ignored. We dont exist.

l For further information on evictions in Rome and in other cities see www.habitants.org.