By Zoe Farrell @zoefarell
According to the UK charity Shelter, there are currently more than 1.8 million households on the waiting list for social housing in England; an 81% increase since 1997. The ‘Housing Crisis’ is perhaps one of the defining issues of modern society and is likely to be at the forefront of the political agenda for many years to come. Social housing is perhaps more important now than ever, yet we can trace its existence long into the past. To find one of the most interesting examples of early modern social housing we need only to travel to present-day Germany, where Augsburg’s Fuggerei still exists as the oldest functioning social housing complex in the world.
Completed in the early 1520s, the Fuggerei was the creation of Jakob Fugger ‘the Rich,’ one of the most significant merchants and bankers in Europe in the sixteenth century. Jakob was a descendent of the Fugger family, which witnessed remarkable ascendancy in German society after his grandfather Hans, the son of a peasant and weaver, immigrated to Augsburg in 1367. Jakob further enhanced his family’s fortunes, becoming Grand Burgher of the Free Imperial City of Augsburg and ultimately one of the wealthiest men in history.
The Fuggerei was a new community designed to home the poor labourers and artisans of Augsburg. Jakob was a devout Catholic, who wanted to create a place where the needy of his city could pay a subsidised rent and live debt free. Although the institution was a charitable one, this rent amounted to around one month’s salary for those living there. In addition to this, residents were expected to be notably pious and were required to say three daily prayers for the Fugger family. Catholicism was, and indeed remains, central to the community.
The complex took only a few years to construct. The houses were built to be uniform, developed along straight alleyways, making total use of the site in its gated walls. Whilst relatively small, between 45 to 65 square metres, the apartments were designed to provide independent living to families within a devout community. All apartments opened up to street level and the ground floors provided small gardens for the residents. Craftsmen also often practised their trade within their homes, and many workshops and small businesses operated within the community.
The Fuggerei was designed specifically for those labelled Hausarmen, that is, people who worked to earn a living, but struggled to meet their living costs. This came at a time when an increasing distinction was being drawn between the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘underserving poor,’ with organisations and governments concerned by the rise in the numbers of beggars in early modern cities. Jakob Fugger created his institution for the “honourable” poor of his city on a far larger scale than had been previously seen.
The Fuggerei has been continuously inhabited since the sixteenth century and has become a living museum, with one display apartment providing an insight into the daily lives of the residents. Although extensively damaged by bombings in World War II, the Fuggerei was rebuilt to match its original aesthetic and today contains 67 buildings, with 147 apartments, along with an administrative building and the community’s church. According to the UK charity Shelter, the average weekly rental cost for social housing in England was £78.78 in 2012/2013, yet to this day the 150 residents of the Fuggerei pay a mere €0.88 per year. Whilst this represented a month’s salary to the workers living in the community at the time of its establishment, it is now a symbolic token and the complex still houses those in the city in need of aid. This is not the only tradition to remain. The gates to the Fuggerei still close at 10pm, with residents required to pay 50 cents to the night-watchman for admission after this time. Residents are also still required to say their daily prayers for the Fugger family and are asked to complete small services for the ‘common welfare’ of the community.
The foundation of the Fuggerei, as a settlement for the ‘deserving poor’ echoes many of the uncomfortable debates currently being had in British society surrounding welfare. In 2012, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke out against government policies towards welfare and the “quiet resurgence” of the language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. However, this community also provides an enduring example of how small spaces can be used to create aesthetically pleasing and pleasant living conditions for those in need.
 Hamberlein, Mark, The Fuggers of Augsburg: pursuing wealth and honor in Renaissance Germany (Charlottesville, 2012).
Image: Fuggerei at night (Public domain via Wikimedia commons)