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The cohousing alternative

January 1, 2008
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Interview with Zev Paiss, Cofounder, Elder Cohousing Network

Perhaps the most distinctive among the alternative environments to accommodate aging is the model known as senior cohousing. Unlike the famous “commune” movement of the 1960s, these communities do not share income and are more organized, complex, upscale, and (definitely) older in the age spectrum. The Danish concept of cohousing is emerging slowly but steadily in the United States, with senior (or elder) cohousing most prominently in Davis, California; Abingdon, Virginia; and Boulder, Colorado. Recent economic conditions and developments in the housing market are sparking broader interest among developers and would-be customers in other areas. Recently, one of the leaders of the senior cohousing movement, Zev Paiss, discussed the new possibilities and opportunities for seniors housing and services with Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management Editor-in-Chief Richard L. Peck.

Peck: First, would you describe the basic model of senior cohousing as it has evolved thus far?

Zev Paiss: Cohousing is a nonmedical housing option that started in Denmark, where it accommodates age groups across the board. Cohousing provides a unique balance of privacy and community for the seniors housing market in the United States. Residents get together before the property is developed or any plans are made, usually because they share some commonality of interest—maybe they like the concept of the project and the location, or are dedicated to some form of community service—environmentalism, spirituality, mentoring of young people, for example. The purpose, form, structure, organization, and management of the community are determined by the people who will live there.

Peck: And this idea is catching on?

Paiss: Aside from the three U.S. developments that are in various stages of completion, I recently returned from Florida, where some recent developments in the real estate market appear to be opening up opportunities for this. Senior cohousing can be approached on two fronts—encouraging potential residents to get together and discuss it, and educating developers on the possibilities it offers for them. In Florida, while offering a presentation there that was attended by both groups, I saw growing recognition that this could be economically and politically feasible. Florida real estate has taken a nosedive lately, with people wanting to sell land and development projects being interrupted, and this has sparked interest. For example, it wouldn't take much renovation to make a townhouse development work for senior cohousing, and developers there told me they knew of projects in the pipeline that might be adapted this way.

Peck: What are the real estate prerequisites for this to work?

Paiss: There has to be multifamily zoning to allow the clustering of some 20 to 40 homes, which seems to be the “critical mass.” We're also finding that residents like to be close to the urban action, so they can be conveniently involved with urban amenities and perhaps even enjoy walkable communities.

Peck: How do potential long-term care needs figure into all this?

Paiss: The basic cohousing model is, of course, nonmedical, so there are no licensing or regulatory requirements pertaining to long-term care. However, these communities are designed to support aging in place, with home-based services provided easily without major adaptation—for example, with installation of Internet and wireless services, even tracks for the eventual use of ceiling lifts. There is also the “co-care” concept, with a common facility in the community rented out to a healthcare provider and the cost spread out across the community. Interestingly, too, insurance companies are considering offering special low rates for single seniors who are readily available to support each other, along with at least talk by MetLife of eventually recategorizing all people who live in cohousing arrangements as “married” for this purpose.

Peck: Much of the senior cohousing that's been developed so far appears to be quite upscale. What about meeting the need for affordability?

Paiss: Some developers have been quite savvy in finding “pockets of money” for this but, generally, until there is some form of government assistance available, this form of senior housing will stay at market rate—which is not something I'm particularly happy about. However, these homes don't necessarily have to be large ones. Moreover, there are alternative forms of home financing being talked about, such as lifetime leases without upfront deposits, reverse mortgages, and co-buying, in which several people purchase a home together to reduce costs. Rental cohousing is quite common in Denmark, and in this country the Abingdon, Virginia community is about half rental.

Peck: I thought it was interesting that a recent architectural competition for senior housing/urban revitalization in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, saw all of the proposed urban projects using senior cohousing as a central element. Would you comment on that?