Inside the Fuggerei, the world’s oldest social housing complex

Before the Rothschilds, and well before the Rockefellers, a single German family dominated global commerce and merchant banking. The Fuggers had a near-monopoly on the copper trade in the 16th century, and their patriarch Jakob was, by any conceivable metric, one of the richest men ever to live. Yet in their native Bavarian city of Augsburg, the memory of this Roman Catholic dynasty is preserved not by a palatial estate but by a modest development that claims to be the world’s oldest social housing project.

The Fuggerei, as the complex is known, continues, much as it has since its establishment in 1521, to house some of Augsburg’s least fortunate residents. The roughly 150 beneficiaries of Jakob’s bequest live in 67 terraced houses covered in ochre-coloured stucco and ivy, in a walled site near the city’s medieval heart.

A current resident, Ilona Barber, 71, says she waited three years for one of the coveted apartments after struggling to survive on her state pension. Her annual rent is just 88 euro cents — the equivalent of the single Rhenish gulden demanded annually when Jakob set up the project. The sum, which has never been adjusted for inflation, was originally enough to support a resident priest, among other amenities.

Barber, a former country and soul singer, shares her 60 square metre home with two cats, two dogs and several budgies. Without the Fuggerei, she says, she would be living “under a bridge”. Her gratitude is manifest in the copy of Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of Jakob that occupies a prominent place in her apartment. It is surrounded, like a miniature shrine, by three red candles.

As it marks its 500th anniversary with a year-long celebration, the Fuggerei is attracting attention for its ability not only to shelter residents but to maintain a strong sense of community that is largely absent in surrounding commercial developments. Doris Herzog, a social worker who supports the Fuggerei’s residents, says the community is so tight-knit it acts as an informal warning system. As an example, she points to how it has sometimes alerted her to serious illnesses among residents that might otherwise have been missed.

The Fuggerei in the 1950s
The Fuggerei in the 1950s © Bridgeman Images

The Fuggerei
Each dwelling has an individual entrance, each with a differently shaped doorbell. Common areas include a baroque chapel, a beer garden and a mess © Jens Schwarz for the FT

“One person gets the [local] newspaper every day, and then shares it with their neighbour once they are done, about two hours later,” she says. “If the newspaper doesn’t come when it is your turn to have it, you know there is a problem.”

The resilience of the Fuggerei — which over five centuries has provided board and lodging for thousands of people, including an ancestor of Mozart — continues to draw international curiosity. Past visitors have included Mikhail Gorbachev and the King of Jordan, alongside throngs of town planners and civil servants. On a sunny Saturday afternoon this May, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen came from Brussels to see the project and address dignitaries gathered in Augsburg’s Venetian-style Golden Hall for a celebration of the Fuggerei’s half-millennium.

The project, she said, could provide inspiration for the eventual rebuilding of war-torn Ukraine and vowed to float the idea with president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Europe, she added, needed “more Fuggereis”.

The complex’s atmosphere partly reflects its design. Each of the dwellings — which were rebuilt and equipped with electricity and modern toilets after being damaged in the second world war — has an individual entrance, each with a differently shaped doorbell. But the site features common areas including a baroque chapel, a beer garden and a mess, where weekly breakfasts and regular entertainment are served up, free of charge. The oldest inhabitant is 93 and the youngest seven months. All can stay as long as they wish. Few depart before they need round-the-clock care.

Residents also face some obligations, alongside the privileges. Applicants to the Fuggerei must be living in Augsburg, demonstrate that they are in genuine need and, crucially, be Roman Catholic. They must commit to praying three times a day for the welfare of the Fugger family — in the form of one Our Father, one Creed and one Hail Mary. The prayers are private, and thus unenforceable. But Ilona quips that those that skip the ritual will have to account for their negligence “when they get up there”.

Fuggerei resident Ilona Barber
Resident Ilona Barber says that without the Fuggerei, she would be living ‘under a bridge’ © Jens Schwarz

A 10pm curfew, originally put in place to protect Fuggerei residents from belligerent drunks roaming the streets, also remains in force. Those who stay out beyond that deadline pay a penalty of up to €1 for readmission, depending on the degree of lateness.

Alexander Erbgraf Fugger-Babenhausen, a member of the family’s 16th generation, says that, despite the widespread interest, no one has so far precisely replicated the Fuggerei’s model for a community. He is currently one of three family members who oversee the charitable foundation that funds the complex’s work.

Fugger-Babenhausen, an investment banker with combed-back silver hair and a direct, unfussy manner, says the Fuggerei’s success stems from the narrowness of its goals. Jakob’s modern equivalents, such as Elon Musk, are more interested in solutions that — in modern commercial parlance — are “scalable”, he suggests.

“I think it is wrong [to] try and create one solution for everyone,” says Fugger-Babenhausen, who confesses to being a social libertarian, suspicious of grand, all-embracing schemes. “If you look at the Americans, the new donors . . . it is all about what is the highest impact I can have with a single dollar. We are a small foundation that has a very local impact.”

Alexander Fugger-Babenhausen, a descendant of the banking dynasty that founded the complex, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen  at the 500-year celebration  in May
Alexander Fugger-Babenhausen, a descendant of the banking dynasty that founded the complex, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at the 500-year celebration in May © Daniel Biskup

Increasing rents for private residential property are only underlining the importance of the Fuggerei’s role in housing those struggling to make ends meet. Other residential landlords in the city can charge monthly rents of more than €12 per sq metre — against a German average of just over €10 — because of the city’s proximity to Munich, Bavaria’s capital. However, the count says the institution would expand beyond its present boundaries only if it had the financial strength to do so “without jeopardising the core”. The Fuggerei is “not there yet”, he adds.

Yet two organisations with far fewer financial resources than the Fuggerei are planning attempts to build similar communities, far from Augsburg. A project in Sierra Leone will help women at risk of genital mutilation. Another, in Lithuania, will house older people facing poverty. A temporary exhibition in Augsburg to explore the “Fuggerei of the Future” claimed these projects would follow a “Fuggerei code”, with a strong emphasis on localism, sustainability, “self-actualisation” and “space for living”.

Fugger-Babenhausen insists that politicians and planners have neglected those principles. Having lived in London, he points as an example to Grenfell Tower, where a fire killed 72 residents of a local council-owned housing block in west London in June 2017. The disaster drew attention to the often poor state of the UK’s social housing.

He contrasts conditions at sites such as Grenfell with the Fuggerei’s gardens and fountains. “If you look at a Grenfell . . . did [those who designed it] think that each person might need . . . two square feet of ‘oh I can plant my flower there?’ ” he asks.

Noel Guobadia (right) has lived at the Fuggerei for a decade and become an ambassador for the institution
Noel Guobadia (right) has lived at the Fuggerei for a decade and become an ambassador for the institution © Jens Schwarz

At its core, Fugger-Babenhausen insists, the foundation is about nurturing the “sovereign individual”. Touches such as communal gardens offer the residents dignity. “The people who live in the Fuggerei are proud of it,” he says. “They don’t hide it.”

Noel Guobadia, a 27-year-old who moved into the Fuggerei a decade ago with his mother and brother, demonstrates that pride. The family had previously lived in social housing in Augsburg’s Kriegshaber neighbourhood. “In some ways it was the same, we had a sense of community,” he says. But the Kriegshaber’s community feeling grew out of a collective sense of despair, he says: “We had to stick together.”

Guobadia’s full-time job as an office administrator means he could now afford to leave the Fuggerei. But he has become a public ambassador for the institution and much prefers its atmosphere to that of any possible alternative. “I would move to a complex where nobody knows each other,” he says.

Guobadia has learnt even to live with the curfew. “You have to be smart — leave before 10pm and come back after 5am,” he says. “Saves you a year’s rent.”

Nodding to a passer-by taking a walk with a Zimmer frame, he adds: “This is the place people can find space and heal. Many people are healing”.

A religious statue on the facade of Ilona Barber’s house
A religious statue on the facade of Ilona Barber’s house © Jens Schwarz

 A portrait by Albrecht Dürer of Jakob Fugger, 16th-century banker and founder of the Fuggerei
A portrait by Albrecht Dürer of Jakob Fugger, 16th-century banker and founder of the Fuggerei © GL Archive/Alamy 

Yet the Fuggerei’s continued success depends as much on forward-thinking fiscal planning as its success as a social experiment. In order to ensure that his investment of 10,000 Gulden would continue to serve a public good for “eternity”, Jakob Fugger devised a bank account that nominally belonged to Augsburg’s patron saint Ulrich. He used it to create stipends for local causes.

While Jakob produced no heirs, his nephew subsequently created a legal structure for the organisation that continues to fund the Fuggerei. Since the 30 years’ war in the 17th century, its investments have mainly been in forestry, rather than finance.

Fugger-Babenhausen is proud of the family’s discipline in maintaining the foundation in the centuries since, despite declining power.

“No one emptied the bank accounts,” he says. “The fact that no one has screwed it up in 500 years is impressive, and I will work hard not to screw it up in my generation.”

Nonetheless, Fugger-Babenhausen, inspired by endowments in the US, wants to be “a little bit more creative” with the foundation’s investments. He floats the idea of using the proceeds to revive some of Jakob’s other charitable efforts, including a hospital. An outbreak of the plague first prompted the patriarch — facing harsh criticism from Martin Luther — to devote some of his wealth to social causes. Parallels with the needs thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic are not lost on the family, according to Fugger-Babenhausen.

In its more modern guises, the Fuggerei model could be secularised. “I don’t think Catholicism per se is the answer,” Fugger-Babenhausen says of the project’s admission criteria, which the family has considered revising.

Foundations seeking to emulate the Fuggerei could replace mandatory prayers with a moment of self-reflection, Fugger-Babenhausen suggests.

Yet the code that governs the original site in Augsburg will remain untouched. “We decided that we don’t really want to touch the core of what was written down 500 years ago,” he says.

The throngs of tourists who still pay a small entrance fee to marvel at the Fuggerei illustrate the continued power of Jakob Fugger’s extraordinary — if not easily replicated — experiment, Fugger-Babenhausen says. “There is a lot of value in the story itself,” he adds.

Joe Miller is an FT correspondent in Frankfurt

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