Charity: One Roof Two Ages

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As the housing crisis in Brussels deepens, Nuala Morgan met with Mélanie Janssen, Brussels collaborator in the 1Toit2Ages association that matches students with householders for intergenerational housing. 

Brussels is the leading “student city” in Belgium, with around 119,000 students, almost half of whom live in some form of student accommodation. According to the Belgian student housing market report Kotkompas 2022, average rents hover around €450/month, not including extra costs and charges. This can jump to €600 in some neighbourhoods. The shortage of affordable student accommodation is pushing up prices, a trend not likely to be reversed if supply issues are not tackled. This is not a new problem, but one that is exacerbated with the increasing costs of energy, food and other basic necessities. 

Claire and Régis de Kerautem, founders of the charity 1Toit2Ages started tackling this problem in 2009. They saw two issues; on the one hand the lack of affordable student accommodation, and on the other, elderly people becoming isolated in a home that is too big for them following children moving out or the death of a spouse. Their association matches students or young professionals with a householder in what they call intergenerational housing. The basic principle is simple: an older person provides a room to a student at a low cost, but the exchange isn’t only an economic one. 

“The basic principle is simple: an older person provides a room to a student at a low cost”

“There are several advantages for the older person, beyond the additional income”, explains Mélanie Janssen, collaborator at 1Toit2Ages. “Having a daily presence at home, combatting loneliness and allowing the senior to stay as long as possible in their home.” For the student, in addition to the benefit of an affordable rent they can profit from the experience of the elderly person, and provide useful services… 

Marguerite W. is one of more than 300 elderly hosts who lets a room to students as part of the association. “The house was empty. My partner died in March 2020 and even though I have children and grandchildren, there was nobody around. I was used to having students at home, I hosted my grand-daughter for 3 years, and my nephew. When I met Anne-Catherine (through 1Toit2Ages), we hit it off immediately.” 

There are two main options the duo can go for: the ‘classic’ one is based on providing accommodation with no particular commitment from the student or young worker. This option starts at €300 per month in Brussels. The ‘service’ option allows for a reduced contribution (€200 per month) in return for 5 hours of services provided per week to the host. The services are agreed between host and student, and could be shopping, taking out the rubbish, sharing meals, helping with new technologies or going on cultural outings. 

Aurore, a student in Brussels, is convinced by her experience. “Even if I’m still slowly getting my bearings and making myself as discreet as possible, [my host] does everything to put me at ease and pampers me. A real grandmother! The bonds are slowly but surely forming over meals, games of Scrabble or computer lessons to learn how to use the tablet she got for Christmas. The little ‘Bambi’ that I am was quickly adopted and vice versa.” 

There are 556 students lodging with 407 householders across Brussels and Wallonia. While the number of hosts has increased 8% since last year, this has not reached the levels before the Covid-19 pandemic. The average age of a host is 73, and in large majority female. This can be at least partly understood through women’s longer life expectancy. The majority of students looking for rooms is also largely female – 75% of requests – although the percentage of male participants is also rising.  

How does it work in practice? Mélanie explains: “We first meet the householders in their homes. This allows us to get to know them better and to find a student who corresponds to their lifestyle, their personality and their expectations. It allows us to check the quality of the accommodation too. We have an in-depth interview with the future guests to ensure that they are in the spirit of intergenerational housing and to find out their availability”. 

“When we think we have found a good match, we put them in touch with each other. If the meeting is positive, householders and students sign a personalized agreement and pay the membership fee.” 1Toit2Ages ensures the follow-up throughout the year. 

Of course, when it comes to human relations, things don’t always work out as planned. In these cases, which Mélanie assures are very rare, she steps in as a mediator. In the worst case, the contract is ended and another host is found. “It can also happen that a householder dies, in which case we try to find another accommodation for the student as soon as possible, even if the family usually allows the student to stay on while a solution is found, because they have created strong links.” 

This strong focus on social impact has won 1Toit2Ages a host of awards over the last decade. For Mélanie, making a real difference was one of the reasons she joined the association two years ago. “I worked for 15 years in sales and marketing but then I wanted to find a job that was more meaningful. I don’t regret this choice because it is very enriching.” 

“The association has developed other intergenerational projects in recent years”

The association has developed other intergenerational projects in recent years. It runs 5 intergenerational buildings in Brussels, where each student/senior duo has their own apartment but help each other out, share meals and activities in the communal area. And in 2022, they launched a project where students can take up lodgings in nursing homes with free spaces. For a reduced rent, they offer their time to organise activities, play music or tend the bar with the older residents. This brings life back to homes where the nursing staff are severely stretched. An all-round win-win! 

1Toit2Ages is present in Brussels, Liège, Namur, Louvain-La Neuve, Mons, Gembloux, Charleroi, Tournai and Marche-en-Famenne. 

Are you over 50 years old and have a room available in your home?

Would you like to help a student in their search for accommodation, to have company and to supplement your income?

Do not hesitate to contact one of our collaborators for more information: www.1toit2ages.be

Or, phone Mélanie Janssen directly: 0498 73 73 19