Day 6

At the world's oldest social housing, rent hasn't changed since 1521

The Fuggerei is a landmark in Augsburg, Germany, not only because it resembles a medieval village, but also because the rent hasn't changed in 500 years. Residents pay about $1.30 — or 0.88 euros — per year for their apartments and commit to daily spiritual reflection.

It costs less than €1 a year to live at the Fuggerei in Augsburg, Germany

The Fuggerei in Augsburg, Germany, is the world's oldest social housing complex still in use. It was founded by wealthy businessman Jakob Fugger five centuries ago. (Konstantin Yolshin/Shutterstock)

Months before his 18th birthday, Noel Guobadia and his family fell on hard times. 

His parents had separated, and his mother was struggling to make ends meet. She announced the family would move into the Fuggerei, the world's oldest social housing project, in Augsburg, Germany.

"I was like, 'People really live there? Are you sure?" recalled Guobadia, who is now 27 and remains one of the youngest residents of the complex. 

The Fuggerei is a landmark in the city not only because it resembles a medieval village, but also because the rent hasn't changed in 500 years. Residents pay about $1.30 — or 0.88 euros — per year for their apartments and commit to daily spiritual reflection.

Roughly 160 residents live in the Fuggerei, ranging from retirees with scant pensions to young adults priced out of an increasingly expensive city. Just an hour's drive from Munich, Augsburg is in demand with commuters trying to escape Germany's hottest rental market. 

Guobadia credits the Fuggerei's low rent for the ability to concentrate on his education. 

Noel Guobadia moved into the Fuggerei just before his 18th birthday. Now 27, he says his subsidized apartment has afforded him opportunities for growth. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

"You can really build yourself in here," he said. "I'm getting my degrees, I'm getting job experience all because it's financially possible for me to focus on that."

In 1521, the wealthy banker Jakob Fugger founded the Fuggerei as a home for the city's poorest Catholic workers. He envisioned a place where residents could live debt-free while still participating in the community. Fugger charged residents one Rheinischer gulden a year, the equivalent of one month's salary at the time. 

Today the walled enclave is a magnet for tourists. Adult guests pay 6.50 euros (about $9.70 Cdn) to walk through the maze of 67 quaint terrace houses. Each one is two-stories high, painted a distinctive burnt yellow and topped with terracotta roof shingles. 

Three conditions for living at the Fuggerei

To be eligible to live in the village, applicants need to meet three basic criteria: they must demonstrate financial need, have lived in Augsburg for at least two years and be of Catholic faith.

Social worker Doris Herzog is the first point of contact for most applicants. She checks church registers to ensure they're Catholic and interviews them on their living situation. 

Doris Herzog, a social worker at the Fuggerei housing complex in Augsburg, acts as a support for current residents. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

She estimates there are about 80 people on the waiting list for the Fuggerei. Depending on their accessibility needs, those applicants could be waiting years for a callback. 

"More people want to have an apartment on the ground floor, so they have to wait a long time for an apartment there — maybe five, six or seven years," said Herzog. 

Current residents of the Fuggerei still live by guidelines established in the 1500s. They contribute to the community, volunteering as gardeners and night watchmen. After the Fuggerei gates lock at 10 p.m., residents who are late pay a small fee to the gatekeeper. 

Ilona Barber, who moved in six years ago, sells tickets at the tour admission window. 

"For me, it's fun — even when some are surprised at the ticket prices," she said, laughing. "I used to work in the United States in a casino so I'm used to interacting with all kinds of people."

At 71 years old, Barber said she is grateful for the friendships she has with fellow residents. She and her neighbours host potluck dinners and chat often on WhatsApp. The regular stream of tourists allows her to meet new people while the locked gate at night helps her feel safe. 

Ilona Barber sits in her one-bedroom apartment with her dogs Linda and Pino. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

There is, however, one Fuggerei rule that remains difficult to enforce.

Original residents of the Fuggerei were asked to offer three prayers a day for Jakob Fugger and his family. Several residents currently living in the complex were coy about their adherence to the rule. Several said they interpret it more broadly, spending a few minutes a day reflecting on things they're grateful for. 

"Jakob Fugger says they have to pray for him. Our administrator always says he is in heaven and will see if you do that. You are responsible for that," said Herzog.

In other words: that part of the deal is between residents and God. 

Raising rent 'would defeat the core purpose'

The Fuggerei marked its 500th birthday on Aug. 23 with a celebration attended by Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder. Attendees sang Happy Birthday to the housing complex and dined at long tables lining the Fuggerei's main boulevard. 

But this village's longevity has been hard won.

The Fuggerei is a walled enclave in the city. Night watchmen guard the complex when the doors close in the evening. If residents arrive back after the gate has closed at 10 p.m., they pay a small fee to the gatekeeper. (Konstantin Yolshin/Shutterstock)

It survived the Thirty Years' War when Augsburg was a flashpoint for clashes between Protestants and Catholics in the 1600s. 

Much later, during World War II, residents sheltered inside a bunker that remains on site today. As they hid, allied bombers destroyed roughly 75 per cent of the Fuggerei, leading to a lengthy reconstruction process. 

The Fuggerei is still managed by the Fugger family. Money for maintaining the village comes from investments in forestry, real estate and entrance fees. 

Count Alexander Fugger-Babenhausen, a descendant of Jakob Fugger, helps run the Fuggerei endowment fund. He said there remains zero interest in raising the rent. 

"We can house 160 people that wouldn't otherwise be able to live in the way that they do," he said. "Increasing the rent would defeat the core purpose of the Fuggerei."

Alexander Graf Fugger-Babenhausen is a descendant of Jakob Fugger. The Fuggerei is still managed by the Fugger family. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

Those who visit the homes today will notice that above the main gate is a stone tablet that reads in exemplum. The phrase refers to Jakob Fugger's hopes that his charitable settlement would be a model — or an example — to others. 

Five centuries later, it seems Jakob Fugger's hopes have been realized. During the Fuggerei's birthday celebration, organizations in Sierra Leone and Lithuania revealed they are studying the village with the intent of replicating it in their own countries. 

In Sierra Leone, activists Rugiatu Neneh Turay and Stella Rothenberger expressed interest in creating a Fuggerei-style settlement for women and girls in the fishing village of Tumba. In Lithuania, there is interest in building a Fuggerei with a focus on poverty in old age. 

Martin Schenkelberg, Augsburg's counsellor for social affairs, said he would love to see more Fuggerei in Germany and exported around the world. 

"Affordable and safe housing is the basis of good living in our society," he said. "When you have a home … you are able to determine your life and your own future."

Written and produced by Vanessa Greco.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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