The pandemic crushed the senior housing market, cutting occupancy rates and stalling construction. Now, as the market begins an uneven rebound, developers are adapting to the coming wave of aging baby boomers with a new crop of living developments.
Specialized housing for older Americans has been around for decades. But shifting demographics are forcing the industry to diversify more rapidly across rates and services, yielding increasingly lavish residences for upper-income Americans as well as a growing number of affordable housing models.
For example, Trillium, a high-rise under construction near Washington, features restaurants, a wellness spa, and other boutique-hotel-style amenities and finishes. And in the Boston area, Opus Newton, a more modest development, will rely on resident volunteers to help reduce costs.
Developers are also experimenting with nontraditional models. In Loveland, Colo., Kallimos Communities is planning a multigenerational development featuring 100 subsidized rental homes clustered around shared green spaces and offering dining, arts and wellness opportunities.
The aging of more and more baby boomers (an estimated 65 million in total) is creating “a big surge,” said Beth Mace, chief economist for the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, a data service provider for the elder care industry.
Other changes are reshaping housing, from pandemic-fueled safety concerns and labor shortages to trends favoring more personalized and community-based solutions. Housing for older Americans offers three general options: independent living, for active lifestyles; assisted living, which includes some medical care; and memory care. (Nursing homes provide nursing care and typically do not fall under the category of senior housing.)
“Everybody is trying to figure out the secret sauce — what the senior housing consumer wants,” Ms. Mace said. “Bottom line: You’re going to see a lot of options.”
Developers are banking on the fact that if they build enough variety, they will be able to draw the next generation of aging Americans.
“We have to design communities that cater to what boomers want, and that’s a difference between senior housing today and housing developed 10 or 20 years ago,” said Bobby Zeiller, vice chairman and co-chief executive of Silverstone Senior Living, the developer behind the Trillium.
After focusing on suburban-style senior communities, Silverstone is expanding into urban environments, Mr. Zeiller said. The industry, he said, “is evolving very fast.”
The average occupancy rate for the nation’s 31 largest senior housing markets was 81 percent in the first quarter of 2022, up from a low of 78 percent in the first quarter of 2021 but below the prepandemic level of 87 percent in 2020, Ms. Mace said.
The numbers are starting to tick up in select markets, according to data from the National Investment Center. In Miami, for example, construction as a share of inventory amounted to 11 percent in the first quarter of 2022, the second-highest level ever. But at the other end of the spectrum is Sacramento, where construction fell to about 1 percent, down from 17 percent in 2019.
Even before the pandemic, only about 11 percent of Americans over 75 lived in senior housing. Strong preferences for aging in place is one reason for the low rate.
The high cost of housing is another factor, especially for the eight million middle-income Americans who do not qualify for subsidies but cannot afford to pay out of pocket. The national median monthly rate for assisted living was $4,300 in 2021, according to a survey by Genworth, an insurance holding company. And the average monthly cost of memory care is $7,277, according to the National Investment Center.
Developers of luxury projects are betting on larger units, sophisticated design and amenities, and a heightened focus on social engagement and active living.
Coterie Cathedral Hill, a 208-unit development that opened in San Francisco in April, features five restaurants, an outdoor pool, and landscaped courtyards and terraces. Wellness staff receive training through the Mayo Clinic, and an on-site care coordinator helps residents meet a broad range of mental, emotional and physical health goals, including assistance with social and philanthropic objectives.
A joint venture between the real estate developer Related Companies and Atria Senior Living, one of the nation’s largest senior living providers, Coterie focuses on affluent urban dwellers who seek “consistency between the lifestyle they were accustomed to when they were living in a traditional high-rise,” said Joanna Mansfield, general manager of Coterie Hudson Yards, a second development that will open this fall in New York.
At Coterie Cathedral Hill, monthly rental rates range from $7,900 for a studio to $16,660 and up for two-bedroom residences.
A new spate of thrifty business models focus on middle-income Americans. Opus Newton, for example, will require residents to volunteer 10 hours a week, giving them a stronger sense of purpose and community while “meaningfully reducing staff overhead costs,” said Amy Schectman, president and chief executive of 2Life Communities, a nonprofit organization that is developing the project.
Other cost savers include outsourcing care and providing discounted memberships at the nearby Jewish Community Center, eliminating the need for in-house recreational facilities.
Ms. Schectman expressed confidence in the future of congregate senior living, despite lingering pandemic concerns.
“Coronavirus revealed a pandemic of loneliness and isolation,” she said. “Aging in place harms society by presenting the choice to live with others as a failure. We are creatures of community.”
Upfront costs for Opus Newton’s 174 units start at $391,000, a fee that many of the residents will pay by selling their homes.
Repurposing existing buildings is the key to solving the middle-market challenge, said Fee Stubblefield, chief executive of The Springs Living, a developer in Portland, Ore., with 18 properties serving seniors across the income spectrum.
The Springs Living has two luxury high-rises under construction, one on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash. The properties will include firewalls to cordon off floors in the event of a disease outbreak, and they will be certified to meet new health and wellness standards regarding design and operations.
Starting rents in the new buildings range from $3,700 to $10,000 per month.
There are two types of senior housing residents, Mr. Stubblefield said: those who want to live there and those who have to. Those who want senior living are “a big portion of our society,” he said. “The social and wellness component is underbuilt for that population.”
Labor shortages add to the economic challenges facing developers of senior housing. Employment in long-term care declined 6.7 percent from February 2020 to December 2021, according to a recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“Work-force stability is the most important factor in the future of housing and service for older adults,” Mr. Stubblefield said, adding that operators have an “obligation” to create career pathways for the entry-level staff who sustain the industry.
Bill Thomas, a co-founder of Kallimos Communities, offers another solution to the various challenges tied to the future of aging and retirement in the United States. “The very best thing you can have for helping you stay independent is damn good neighbors,” he said.
The first Kallimos community, a partnership with the Loveland Housing Authority, is rooted in the idea that older Americans can be supported in homes designed for elder living in community-oriented mixed-age neighborhoods.
“Young people and elders have been living together and supporting each other for many millennia,” Mr. Thomas said. “The idea that we’ve wandered into a cul-de-sac of history where young people don’t see any merit in being around old people is just wrong.”