Independent living senior housing is a common practice around the world. Senior citizens decide to join hands, hire or buy a house together, and appreciate each other’s company. For them, it’s also a way to economize. When required they together hire care or other services.
Examples of such practices are the Village-to-Village-Network in the USA and Trabensol near Madrid in Spain. The Seniorengenossenschaften in Germany are also an excellent example of intense collaboration between senior citizens.
It is good to take a closer look at the discussion to better understand the complexities of independent living senior housing initiatives. From a recent example in Belgium, I explain the discussion. This example shows how important it is to timely start such an initiative and pay close attention to the rules.
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Table of contents
A political nightmare
Politically, Belgium is a nightmare. There are three separate language regions. The 2 most important are Flanders and Wallonia. Extreme-right-wing politicians dominate the Flemish government. The government of Wallonia is dominated by social democrats.
To make matters more interesting, the capital city of Belgium, Brussels, is semi-autonomous with its own regional government. In Brussels, which is also the capital city of Europe, both Flemish and Walloon meet head-on. Politics are further complicated by the fact that members of the House of Representatives can be mayors of cities at the same time.
Moreover, these mayors have some difficulty separating their governmental responsibilities from their political creed. The complicated Belgian politics is well illustrated by the fact that it took the Belgian national political parties more than 500 days to form their most recent government. It was installed in late November 2020.
A bureaucrat’s dream
Any political nightmare is a bureaucrats dream. Those of you who have seen the BBC series Yes Minister, understand what I mean. A sad example of overzealous bureaucracy is the way in which the Flemish government handles citizen care initiatives.
In a small and insignificant village in the countryside of Flanders, there is a villa where seven senior citizens live. The problem with the villa is that it started as an investment initiative. Someone bought the house, turned it into a senior citizen home and rented rooms to senior citizens. Without the proper bureaucratic consent from the Agency for Care and Health.
This agency is run by the Flemish government. The agency qualified this specific senior citizen home initiative as a residential care centre. Because the home lacked the proper license, the agency ordered the house to be closed and the senior citizens to be relocated to a government facility.
The consequences of the agency’s action were rather predictable. The seniors who lived in the house were very upset. Regional and national journalists picked up the news and a public and political outcry followed.
The agency did not budge: “A residential care centre requires recognition and recognitions will not be issued until at least 2030.” In itself, the agency was right. In its disregard of the concerns of the seniors who lived in the house, its decision and attitude were of course totally wrong. The agency did not even contact the occupants.
Of course, government approval for residential care centres is not exceptional. In most countries, these centres require a governmental license. This license entitles these centres to government funding. Apparently, the Flemish regional government has reached its budgetary limits.
From senior home to co-housing
With the help of a lawyer, the senior citizens who lived in the house came up with a solution to their problem. They started an Independent living senior housing initiative. They call it co-housing.
One of the senior citizens started a foundation, the foundation hired the house from the owner and rehired it to the occupants. The residents pay for everything themselves. The foundation hires household assistance. When care is needed the senior citizens hire and pay external help themselves.
The senior citizens understood that any attempt to adapt the rules to their convenience would come in vain. Even so, their legal actions are no guarantee that the future of the villa as a senior home is certain. Residents continue to fear eviction. The agency still wants to lock up the seniors in one of their government homes.
Shortly after the agency’s eviction attempt the coronavirus clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of large-scale residential care centres. In Flanders, thousands of residents of these centres died prematurely and under dreadful conditions, either in the centre or in hospitals.
Like most governmental agencies the Flemish Agency for Health and Care was totally inadequate in its response to the pandemic. However, bureaucracies are never punished for inadequate behaviour. This is why they never change. To fight them is totally senseless.
The occupants of the villa, of whom none suffered from the virus, were right in designing their own future. That they had to use lawyers to do this was sad but inevitable. The more rules and agencies governments administer, the more expert knowledge is required to fight them.
Commercial residential care centres
The market for residential care centres is a highly institutionalized bureaucratic, and as such a closed, circuit. Independent living senior housing initiatives are disruptive. Too many existing concerns are at stake. Most important are the large-scale residential care centres, which can easily be controlled by the government.
From the end of the last century, a new player has entered the residential care market: commercial enterprises. As a consequence huge sums of tax money flow as profits into the pockets of the shareholders of these commercial residential care centres.
An example of such a commercial residential care enterprise is Orpea. The founder of the group, Jean-Claude Marian, sold more than half of his share in stocks in 2013, pocketing 320 million euros. On January 22, 2020, he sold his remaining 6.3% of total shares for another 456 million euros.
Knowing that Orpea also has retirement homes in China, it’s no surprise Marian sold his last shares before the wind turned, he knew exactly what he was doing. A couple of weeks after January 22, when the impact of the virus became apparent, the value of Orpea’s stocks dropped from 112 euros to 95.
Independent living senior housing initiatives: rules of thumb
In a previous article, I already suggested some legal points of attention to design your own co-housing project. As a consequence of the Belgian case it’s good to add some new insights as rules of thumb:
- Start your initiative when you’re still relatively young and, up to a certain point, with like minded people;
- Line out as clearly as possible what you and your co-housing partners want;
- Next, write down how you want to achieve this goal;
- Find a type of project that comes closest to what you want to achieve and talk with the most experienced participants in the project. Do not only talk with the board or management (when present), talk with the other participants as well. Ask them as much as possible;
- Closely analyze government rules. If need be, hire legal counsel;
- When the local, regional and national government are sympathetic to co-housing projects, contact them, but start with the local government. Be aware that the person you talk to might not be authorized to grant you any guarantees;
- Before applying for any government approval, if necessary, check the legal points in my previous article and from there start your project.
Please share your thoughts about residential care with us in the comment box.