The cohousing alternative
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?
Paiss: This was an exciting exercise this past year, with eight architectural firms responding to the challenge of designing innovative senior redevelopment plans for various Milwaukee neighborhoods. There are several reasons why the cohousing model would make an excellent infill option in an urban revitalization program. As I mentioned, people do want to remain close to the action, with various venues—shopping, entertainment, education—readily available to them. These programs would also tend not to have the issue of people complaining about density, such as you might find in more suburban areas, because density is expected in these locations and local banking and other services are attuned to this. Finally, someone once told me of a beautiful 20-acre property he owned out in the woods that he thought would be excellent for a cohousing project, but my question to him was what would it take to motivate people to move there? Do they really want to be that far away from city services? But it doesn’t necessarily have to be cities—some smaller, near-city suburbs, or those new “small towns” being developed out in the countryside, might be highly suitable, too. With today’s teleservices and with still relatively convenient access to large cities, these locations might prove to be very attractive alternatives for seniors.
Peck: Compared to Denmark or Sweden, what will it take in this country to successfully market the concept of cohousing for active adults?
Paiss: Denmark and Sweden are highly homogeneous countries; there is not a great deal of diversity to complicate things, at least not to the extent there is in the United States. Here it will take a lot more active marketing effort to find the right market niche and develop significant interest. I also return to the fact that affordability remains an issue in this country, and we’re going to have to take a hard look at how public policy figures in.
Peck: Any final observations?
Paiss: I thought it might be worth mentioning that Bill Thomas (founder of the Eden Alternative and the Green House concept) and I have been mulling over what we think could be the CCRC of the 21st century. Essentially it would consist of a cohousing project involving, say, 40 homes, located next to several Green Houses for people needing advanced care and services for dementia or end of life. I’ve had several CCRC administrators tell me they’re wondering what’s next in their market, and how to reinvent their offerings to appeal to the huge group of boomers coming along. Perhaps this idea will be of interest.
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a new department for Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management, soon to be known as Long-Term Living, devoted to exploring the burgeoning new market of senior services and new environments for aging. Every month this department, along with “Try This…” and any relevant features, will address new projects and plans for meeting the full lifetime needs of Americans 65 and older, and the opportunities this may present to today’s long-term care providers.
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