Tricia Esser – Senior Housing Can’t Keep Up

The Orange County Register

January 18, 2015

When you talk to people in real estate circles about senior living communities, their reaction is often a groan.

Housing an aging American is sometimes viewed within the business as a social necessity rather than a hot market niche, even though it’s got big-time demographics on its side. Nobody thinks of the Del Webbs and Leisure Worlds as must-see real estate.

Tricia Esser, CEO at KTGY architects in Irvine, thinks too many people – developers, city planners, architects and home shoppers – are misguided when it comes to the potential of senior housing communities.

“Look, people make Leisure World jokes,” Esser says. “It’s largely a marketing problem. The need is clearly there.”

Long-run opportunity? The number of Americans age 65 or older will practically double by 2050, the U.S. census projects. The short run sees demand leaping ahead of supply.

“Retirees are unlocking equity once trapped in their homes due to the soft housing market and deploying those funds toward seniors housing options,” analysts at the Marcus & Millichap brokerage wrote last year. Occupancy rates in key senior-care rental options have risen to roughly sold-out conditions in many major U.S. markets.

The first challenge for increasing senior housing options, Esser says, is to understand that this residential sector is really two distinct age markets: the 55-plus market – often viewed as the entire senior market – and the 75-plus market.

“What we considered 55-plus 30 years ago and today are very different groups of people,” Esser says.

Many people in the younger slice of the older homeowner market no longer want to live in an age-specific complex behind a gate. They prefer senior-designed housing within a neighborhood consisting of all age groups. That’s how 55-plus living is situated in the new Rancho Mission Viejo community, for example.

“The mind-set is toward living in an inter-generational community and breaking the old norms of conventional senior living,” said Dan Kelly, senior vice president for developer Rancho Mission Viejo.

Meanwhile, for people older than 75 – typically with growing medical requirements – the housing needs to change. Projects must include a heavy dose of medical and daily-life assistance. But this real estate – from larger, dense complexes to small, niche buildings – can no longer simply have the feeling of a hospital ward.

One hurdle is making senior-specific housing needs – many safety and access related – look fashionable. Enter what architects call “universal design” – housing that works for both seniors and younger residents.

Universal design, “enhances both the function and the beauty of spaces and features,” says Esser’s KTGY co-worker, Chris Texter. “When universal design is done well, you don’t know it is there.”

So creating wheelchair-friendly housing means wider doors and hallways, and switches and drawers at more accessible heights. Smart design can make this look modern, not clunky.

In a bathroom, for example, safety grab bars can be eliminated with more stylish weight-bearing ledges. Showers can have a lip-free entry – eliminating a trip hazard for old and young alike.

In addition, more major senior complexes will be built with a full range of late-life features – from apartments or condos for the active seniors to assisted living for those needing help to nursing care and hospice for the seriously ailing residents.

A household can have all its housing needs for the golden years at one site – making transportation and visiting relatives simpler.

The next generation of senior complexes won’t focus only on housing, Esser predicts. They’ll be heavy with entertainment venues; fitness facilities; fine-dining options; and other luxury touches. Esser suggests life may be like living on a cruise ship.

“There will be more amenities; making life easier for the residents,” she says.

While the demographics favor senior housing, there’s some resistance to developing it. Construction is often left to niche builders. Cities can be reluctant, too, as high-density complexes can be a tough sell no matter who the targeted audience may be.

Finally, Esser thinks an unspoken hurdle is that discussing anything tied to end-of-life strategies tugs awkwardly at the heart. Such unease sucks some energy out of what otherwise should be hot property.

“How can we make something that seniors get excited about? That’s what we should be looking for,” Esser says. “It should not be depressing to make your last move. It should be exciting.”