The Niche Switch

by Jeff Shaw

New types of affinity communities are emerging even as some traditional properties focused on a single group re-examine their mission.

By Jane Adler

Niche retirement communities aren’t just for ethnic and religious groups anymore. New projects are being built to target seniors who may not share a certain belief system, but have similar interests or needs, or prefer a certain lifestyle. There are places for arts enthusiasts, military retirees, those exploring spirituality or communal living, college alums, and even members of the lesbian and gay communities. 

The idea is to build a seniors housing project around a theme to attract like-mined individuals in an effort to provide a fulfilling life in retirement. The approach also gives the developer and property owner a focused group of prospects.

While new kinds of niche or affinity communities are emerging (see sidebar, page 42), many faith-based communities — once a members-only proposition — are heading in the opposite direction. They’re broadening their outlook and rebranding their projects to encourage a wider range of residents. 

“There will be more niche communities,” predicts Margaret Wylde, president and CEO of ProMatura Group, an Oxford, Miss.-based consulting firm that works with seniors housing companies. The industry is already commoditized, in her opinion, with properties competing on features and price more than on certain niches or lifestyles. “There’s a lot of uniformity,” she says. 

Wylde foresees increasing demand for niche communities that support the lifestyle of strong-minded individuals — places where people can be themselves rather than having to fit into the culture of the community. The housing might be integrated into a master-planned multifamily development or offer a somewhat unstructured independent living arrangement with services added as needed. “Helping people live their own lives is what they want,” says Wylde. “That’s what will increase a developer’s market share.”

Los Angeles-based Meta Housing owns and operates three arts-themed seniors housing properties in southern California. Burbank Senior Arts Colony opened in 2006 with 141 mixed-income and affordable units. Long Beach Senior Arts Colony has 200 affordable units and opened at the end of 2012. NoHo Senior Arts Colony in North Hollywood, which opened in early 2013 with 126 units, offers a combination of mixed-income and affordable units. The monthly rent at NoHo for a one-bedroom, market-rate unit starts at $1,500.

As a well-established seniors housing developer with more than 30 apartment projects for elders, Meta Housing executives sought a way to keep residents engaged in life. “We wanted to provide more than a place to live,” says Kasey Burke, president at Meta Housing. The idea was to develop a building with a lot of common area space that encouraged life-long learning so residents would be drawn out of their apartments. “We wanted people to rediscover their talents and get involved,” says Burke.

Since Los Angeles is a creative center, the decision was made to develop arts-themed communities. The buildings include art studios for painting and sculpting and theaters for performances, such as poetry readings. Programming — budgeted at about $40,000 to $60,000 a year per building — is provided by a non-profit group called Engage. It hires instructors to teach classes and provides supplies for art classes. 

Burke admits the idea didn’t catch on right away. The first building, in Burbank, leased as expected, but it was several years before the other arts buildings were planned. It also took time to find sites for new development. Older apartment buildings couldn’t be retrofitted since the arts-themed projects require a lot of common space for studios and theaters. 

Today, the arts buildings are fully leased and Meta Housing is currently looking for more sites. The company plans to develop one new seniors housing arts community per year, according to Burke. Meta Housing is seeking development partners outside of California to bring the idea to other states. The company also has two sites in southern California for arts-themed multifamily projects that would not be age-restricted. 


Learning curve 

The college-affiliated project is a fast-growing type of niche community. Alums who want to maintain a connection to their school are a ready source of residents. Many are interested in taking classes and participating in college-related activities.

The non-profit Kendal Corp. provides development and operational assistance to 13 non-profit affiliates, all of which have college connections. With roots in the Quaker religion, Kendal’s approach is built on community engagement and learning, rather than a hospitality model. 

In the Finger Lakes region of New York State, Kendal at Ithaca, for example, has partnerships with nearby Ithaca College and Cornell University. Residents of the community attend classes at the schools and lecture series are also held at the community. 

Barclay Friends, Kendal’s affiliate in Chester County, Pa., serves as a training ground for gerontology students at Thomas Jefferson University. Kendal’s Lathrop communities in western Massachusetts have relationships with area colleges, including Amherst, Williams, and Smith. 

Seniors who move to a Kendal community want to be part of an organization that provides more than a place to live and some healthcare, says Sean Kelly, director of development at Kendal based in Kennett Square, Pa., about 38 miles southwest of Philadelphia. “They want to engage with the community.”

Kendal is currently in the process of developing new communities with two colleges in the Northeast, which Kelly declined to name. The communities would be built on campus and share amenities with the college, thereby integrating the students and seniors more seamlessly. Cross-generational programs would also blend the two populations. 

While a number of colleges have encouraged the development of affiliated retirement communities as a way to trade on the school’s brand name, Kelly says, “We are more intentional about building programs from the start.” 


Strong bonds

Niche communities with a deep pool of prospects are expanding. Designed for retired military officers, Vinson Hall Retirement Community recently opened a new 75-unit independent living apartment building on its campus in McLean, Va. Vinson Hall is a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) and entrance fees for units in the new building average about $500,000. Monthly fees are about $2,000.

The units were sold out two years in advance.

Customer demand for units has been strong because of the number of retired officers living in the Washington, D.C., area. Demand also received a boost from the fact that several years ago the community broadened its potential customer base by opening its doors to those who had served at an officer’s level at the U.S. Defense and State departments, the CIA, and other government agencies.

“Our strategy was to grow the community to look more like the wider McLean-Arlington population,” says Admiral Kathleen Martin, who retired from the Navy in 2005 and now serves as CEO of Vinson Hall. But the residents all come from similar backgrounds creating a natural affinity group, says Martin. “New residents feel at home quickly and make friends faster because they have a lot in common.” 

In addition to the new independent living building, Vinson Hall also opened a new community building in December. The ground floor includes a therapy unit with a gym and a short-term-stay rehabilitation section with private rooms. As in many niche communities, short-term rehabilitation and nursing care are open to anyone, not just residents or military retirees. 

The ground floor of the new community building also includes a lounge with a fireplace and a reading room. The second floor features a bistro restaurant and beauty salon, and the third floor includes a ballroom and auditorium. 

Programming at Vinson Hall centers on special military programs, such as visits to nearby Fort Myer and Henderson Hall, historic military posts. Guest speakers and the Marine Corps Band make regular appearances at the community. “We try to keep our residents in contact with what is going on with the military,” says Martin.


Rebranding makes a difference

While niche communities hone their approach, traditional religious projects are widening their appeal. Most communities admit residents of other faiths. And, in the last few years, a number have even changed their names to redefine their missions. 

For example, Rowntree Gardens changed its name from Quaker Gardens Senior Living last September. The name change was part of a rebranding and renovation program at the community located in Stanton, Calif. 

The project opened in 1965 as a place for retiring Quaker missionaries. But over the years, the community shifted its focus to serve a wider group of residents from the surrounding area. “We look at serving the community at large,” says Randy Brown, CEO at Rowntree Gardens. The project is a CCRC that offers both entrance-fee contracts, averaging about $200,000, and rentals for about $3,000 a month.

In the wake of the recession, interest in the community plateaued, says Brown. Seniors were staying in their homes because of the weak real estate market. Fortunately, the property didn’t carry much debt, so it was able to slide through the economic downturn. But it still wasn’t attracting a sufficient number of new prospects.

Rebranding the community was important, notes Brown. While the community has maintained its faith-based values, many potential residents saw the old name as a stumbling block. “The name of ‘Quaker Gardens’ was preventing people from taking a look at us,” says Brown. “The name was a true barrier.”

Research and focus groups showed that the Quaker name brought up images of Quaker Oats cereal, or old-fashioned people stuck in the past. The name was a turn-off, leaving those surveyed unwilling to hear anymore about the community. 

The decision was made to keep the word “gardens” in the new name since the eight-acre campus surrounds a park. The name, “Rowntree,” comes from Joseph Rowntree, an English Quaker and confectioner whose company developed Kit-Kat and Rolo candies. He was also a philanthropist who built garden communities for seniors. “We kept our Quaker roots, but for those who are not Quaker, the name ‘Rowntree’ does not present a barrier,” says Brown. 

Meta Housing faced a similar branding problem early on with its arts communities. The projects were originally named “Artist Colonies.” But the name led to some confusion with potential residents thinking they had to be an artist to live there. So the name was switched to “Arts Colony,” a more apt description that included any type of artistic endeavor.

At Rowntree Gardens, the rebranding has included $3 million in renovations. Common areas have been remodeled. Kitchenettes are being added to units as they turn over. A new outdoor barbeque area is now under construction and other updates are planned, including the addition of more programs for grandchildren. 

While it’s still early in the rebranding process, a new website launched last fall has resulted in a 30 to 40 percent increase in inquires. The property’s census has already risen by 5 percent.

“We’ve seen some good results,” says Brown. “Times here are exciting.”

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