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From the Suburbs to the City: Trends in Senior Housing

August 7th, 2014 by

You’ve heard this before: there are tens of thousands of Americans reaching retirement age every month. As the “silent generation” and “baby boomers” age over the next few decades, there will be an unprecedented and sweeping change to our current housing composition. Not only will the boomers be looking to downsize, but we will begin to see a greater need for higher levels of supportive senior housing for older adults. The demographics are undeniable.

Today, the majority of these seniors currently reside in the suburbs of our cities, enticed many years ago by the promise of the “American Dream” of owning your single family home on your own piece of paradise — and fueled further by mid-twentieth century federal policy and the desire to move away from the perceived ills of the city. Many of the suburban seniors own their own home and have either a pension or money saved for their retirement. They have obvious options: move to a warmer climate, downsize to a smaller home or apartment unit (where everything is taken care of), move to a retirement community, or live with their children.

From “aging in place” to “aging in community”
Some, though, may opt to “age-in-place” in their current homes. According to The American Association of Retired Persons, about 80 percent of seniors would prefer to stay put, but few will be able to afford both the upkeep and maintenance of their large homes and the in-home assistance needed as they age. The desire to “age-in-place” is so great, in fact, that several HUD programs encourage adapting existing homes to make them universally accessible and easier for seniors to live in longer.

In the past decades, most of the new housing targeted at seniors has been built in the suburbs, often in isolated, stand-alone buildings on their own piece of fenced land, to which I must wonder: is this paradise continued? By designing and building isolated new senior housing in the green fields of the outer suburbs, are we not perpetuating our sprawl development pattern of the past 50 years? Most would agree that this approach is not economically and environmentally sustainable in the long-term.

Yet it does make a certain amount of sense. Seniors, if and when they have to move, wish to remain within or near their current homes in the suburbs. And, of course, the larger senior housing developers who recognize the demand and relative affluence of this population will provide it. It’s a fairly easy model to finance, just like the sprawling single-family developments of the past 50 years. The problem is that seniors, if able, still have to drive to get to anything, from their doctor appointments and grocery stores to their cultural events and shopping. Some larger senior communities have these provisions on site or provide transportation, but the community is still a monoculture, just like the suburbs have always been.  For many seniors, this is an attractive option, which explains why it will continue for years to come.

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Other opportunities will unfold in the near future, and one involves a sense of “aging in community,” instead of aging in place. Just as we have already begun to see a dramatic shift in housing preferences for the much younger “millennial” generation, we will begin to see a similar change in housing preferences for seniors. In Reshaping Metropolitan America, Arthur Nelson suggests that between the years 2010 and 2030, “boomers will actually account for 60 percent of the change in demand for housing.” They will shift the housing market toward senior oriented options and, according to many surveys, seek safe, affordable locations with convenient urban or near-urban lifestyles.

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The core motivation of this group of boomers is pragmatic, as they seek to live in communities accessible to (and within walking distance of) important destinations. Many, studies find, desire the same attributes of community that millennials value, such as walkable neighborhoods with access to parks, public transportation, education, restaurant options, fitness centers, places to hang out, and, most importantly, a sense of connection and meaningful engagement in their community.

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This trend will force architects, planners, developers, and investors to rethink the current senior housing model from segregated large developments toward a more low-medium density integrated community model of service-enriched housing. This newer model will work in both the urban areas (where existing housing is outdated and seniors are terribly underserved) and in town centers of the suburbs, especially along inner commercial corridors. Infill and redevelopment sites within our existing urban and suburban centers will be our only viable option for this housing.

In some cities, we are already seeing evidence of this shift. Recent innovative, successful developments include intergenerational communities that integrate senior housing in areas with a younger generation —near a university (a concept known as university-based retirement communities), in co-housing developments with foster children, or close to a pre-school education center, for instance. Other areas of new mixed-use commercial or repositioned suburban shopping centers and malls have also begun to weave a component of senior housing in their developments.

As the boomers grow older, one thing is certain: the design of senior living will change significantly in the next 10 years, and the opportunities to develop meaningful places for an aging population will be numerous.

Are you considering a senior housing project? Marks Thomas can help. Contact us to start the conversation.