Monday, 4 January 2016

Lessons in Social Housing Starting With Die Fuggerei

Jakob Fugger “The Rich” (1459-1525)  was the most famous member of a prominent merchants dynasty, in Augsburg, Germany. The Fuggers, were so rich they regularly made loans to kings and popes. Married yet childless Fugger invested part of his fortune in building almshouses or “social housing units” in a walled-up neighborhood that came to be called after him, “die Fuggerei”. 

67 buildings, housing 142 apartments, are gathered around 8 small streets and continue to home 150 indigent Catholic families for a yearly rent of less than 1 euro. The lease conditions are the exact same as 500 years ago: one must be a resident of Augsburg, a Catholic, and poor. The houses are 2 stories high, with separate entrances to each 152-213m2 (500-700ft2) apartment. Ground floor units include a small garden while the top units take advantage of an attic. Dating back before the installation of street lights, door bells each have their own unique shape, designed to be recognized in the dark by feeling. 

Heavily damaged in February 1944 during WWII, the Fuggerei and monuments to honour its founders were restored to their ancient splendor but now with modern facilities. One ground-floor apartment serves as a museum where tourists can get an impression of what living in this unique part of the city and the world may be like now and throughout the centuries.  Interestingly, die Fuggerei is rated No. 1 of the top ten things to do in Augsburg by TripAdvisor!

For the most part, social housing began to expand during the 19th century, due to industrialization, when workers from the surrounding countryside flocked to cities looking for work.  Housing was provided primarily for profit and more often than not, poorly planned.  Poor living conditions grew as populations increased and overcrowding in high density, unorganized neighbourhoods was commonplace.  

Public health concerns and fear among the middle class of the spread of infectious diseases  brought pressure on governments, which were slowly persuaded to intervene.  At the same time, there was also a movement by independent not for profit organizations for improved housing.

There are two basic trains of thought when it comes to social housing.  The first is, everybody needs a home but more people can't afford one.  If everyone pools their resources, everyone can have a home.  This model of collective provision is based on the premise that housing is a public service, provided by the community for the use of all, to be paid for by all.  Like many ideas behind a welfare state, this model has been constantly under attack. The alternative model is one which believes that everyone should provide for themselves, with social housing existing only to prevent serious hardship.  

As populations grow and cities become more crowded than ever, public housing has become an increasingly important issue for governments around the world. However, social housing is no longer limited to characterless blocks of concrete. These days, the aim is often to provide low-cost housing to individuals and families who need it – while still affording them the dignity of well-designed and distinctive homes.

Since homelessness emerged as a significant problem in Canada, in the 1990s, with the withdrawal of the federal government’s investment in affordable housing, communities have struggled to respond. Declining wages, reduced benefita and a shrinking supply of affordable housing have placed more and more Canadians at risk of homelessness. For a small, but significant group of Canadians facing physical and mental health challenges, the lack of housing and supports is driving increases in homelessness. The result has been an explosion in homelessness as a visible and seemingly ever present problem.
Over the past 10 years we have learned much about what to do to end homelessness. The success of the At Home/Chez Soi project demonstrates that with housing and the right supports, chronically homeless people can become and remain housed. The one missing piece of the puzzle is affordable housing. The decline in availability of low cost housing (and in particular, rental housing) affects many Canadians, with the most vulnerable being young people setting out on their own, single parents, people working for low wages and the elderly. 

I urge you to check out this interactive website: 

2007 Statistics:  Imagine what the Costs are Now
In Canada, we are moving from a model that requires society to 'ready' the homeless for housing, often by attempting to address addiction or mental health issues before they can be housed, to centering around the principle that all people deserve housing. There are five core principles of Housing First:

  1. immediate unconditional access to safe, secure, and permanent housing;
  2. provision of housing options, based on local availability and affordability;
  3. supporting recovery and reducing the risks association with substance abuse and other addiction behaviors;
  4. offers a range of treatment and support services based on individual need;
  5. socially supportive engagement and meaningful integration into the community. 

In 2009, Alberta became the first province in Canada to commit to preventing and reducing homelessness.  Since that time over 10,500 homeless Albertans have been provided with housing; 3,592 have completed Housing First programs, approximately 70% remaining housed over the following year.  The cities of Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat , Red Deer and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo have all adopted 10 year plans. 7 Cities on Housing and Homelessness was also formed to lead organizations in Alberta coordinating local plans and initiatives towards ending homelessness.  It provides a forum for dialogue with higher levels of government, and uses a systems planning approach to implementing Housing First.

There is still work to do. We need to better understand the homeless population, make contact with hard to reach homeless and raise public awareness. Only then will we be able to find solutions.  

Housing for all is a right, rather than a privilege, don't you think?