Providing a Home, Away from Home
By Deborah Valentine
Long before the term ‘peer-to-peer’ became the catch phrase it is becoming, ACCESS was a peer-to-peer (expats for expats) solution, born from the community, for the community. It should therefore be of little surprise that we applaud, encourage and support organisations and initiatives that share this DNA. In this column, we explain and share a recent trend – and invite you, members of the international community, to consider being a part of the solution.
A Summer of Revelations
Those of us who have been living in the Netherlands for a while, have noted with sadness the number of international students starting their studies, without yet having a place to live. Each year – as summer draws to a close (or the spring term is on the verge of starting) – the lack of available accommodation for these students becomes painfully apparent. We were therefore delighted with the evolution of not one, but at least three, grassroots, peer-to-peer initiatives which arose simultaneously in three different parts of the country to address this need. Students, international and Dutch, coming together with recent graduates, academic institutions and others, to find ways of ensuring that students have a place to rest their head – and have a smoother start to their academic year.
In all cases, the solution revolved around what is a common practice, and commonly understood within the Netherlands as hospita or hospiteren. In short, a homestay solution, asking people with an extra room in their home to make it available – for a shorter or longer term – to these students. It is not, of course, a uniquely Dutch practice – nor though, is it a universally understood concept. In the purely Dutch context, it is simply a room; rented. With an international twist. Especially the initiative started in Utrecht; ‘Hospi Housing’, extols the benefits to Dutch families of opening and sharing their homes to international students.
‘Students are coming together with graduates, academic institutions and others, to find international students a place to rest their head – and have a smoother start to their academic year’
It was the experience of Dutch Daan Donders, during his internship in Colombia, where he had a room in a local’s home, which made him enthusiastic for the idea. Not only did he have an insider’s view of his host country, but his hostess also learnt much from him, and the experience. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement which Daan and his co-founders are keen to impress upon their compatriots. Not only will they, as hosts, be part of a solution, but they can benefit from it beyond the financial gain.
In Eindhoven, a group of students, international and Dutch, worked closely with the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU Eindhoven) to find short-term solutions for students also having difficulty in finding a place. ‘A Place for Now’ started as a “couch-surfing platform where students, alumni and staff (could) temporarily offer an empty couch/mattress/guest room” to a student in need. Since its launch, it has expanded – and now rooms, in homes, are also made available.
For Dutch Jedidja van Keulen, it was her time on the Board of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) which exposed her to the horror stories of international students unable to find a place to live. Realising the luxury position she was in when she started her own studies – free of the anxiety of knowing where she would live – she was motivated to try and help beyond what ESN was doing. With ‘The Student Realtor’, in The Hague, she also honed in on the hospita model, and extended it by inviting internationals to be a part of the project: introducing the concept, and inviting them to offer rooms in their homes.
Tilburg has a similar solution – though with a longer and different history. Today, Willem van Oordt, himself a student, works with his mother in the family business ‘Bed & Bureau Tilburg’ where they have been matching hosts and students successfully for many years. It has been ‘a mother’s’ heart which has driven the effort to find temporary housing solutions for (international) students – and it is their needs which has ensured that positive experiences have been felt by those involved. A summary of the testimonials of past clients is proof that heart and soul are involved.
MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL ARRANGEMENT
‘Not only did he have an insider’s view of his host country, but his hostess also learnt much from him’
How Can YOU Be a Part of the Solution?
Consider becoming a host family (gastgezin) by making a room in your place available to an international student. Unsurprisingly (this is, after all, the Netherlands, where virtually everything is regulated), there are guidelines regulating this form of rental – from how it can be done, to tax-related thresholds for the income earned and things to consider when contemplating the rent. It is, however, in essence fairly straightforward. Rules may vary per municipality, with regards to your property being eligible/able to be rented in this form, so it is worth double-checking with them beforehand. According to the tax authorities (belastingdienst), you can earn up to €5,400 tax-free per year from this income – and there are guidelines on the tax authority’s website about the amount you are allowed to charge, though guidance is also offered by the organisations mentioned above. You must allow the student to register at your address (taking into account the extra local taxes you will subsequently have to pay into consideration in the rent you charge) and it is of course highly recommended that a formal contract be entered into, samples of which are also available, in which rights and responsibilities are clearly set out, and understood.
Even for a short term of a few months, this solution can make all the difference to a student, providing them with a good start in their academic careers. We would encourage those who can, to lend a helping hand, and allow themselves to also be enriched by the experience.
Deborah Valentine is the Executive Director of ACCESS, a not-for-profit volunteer-based organisation which has been helping internationals arrive and settle in the Netherlands since 1986.