The Rise of Niche Projects

Developers seize on the opportunity to build communities geared specifically for certain groups of overlooked elders.

By Jane Adler

Long ignored but no longer forgotten, seniors with diverse backgrounds are getting their own niche communities. A number of new projects are underway for LGBTQ seniors and members of growing ethnic and religious groups. 

Of course, niche communities are nothing new. There are retirement campuses for everyone from Hollywood actors to military officers. Many niche properties revolve around special interests such as a love of nature or an interest in the arts. 

Cadence at Poway Gardens, an assisted living and memory care community in Poway, California, features a horticultural-therapy program that grows more than 20,000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables every year. 

Some of the latest projects fall into the affordable category. Nonprofit organizations have been on the forefront of the development of safe, affordable housing for the elderly whose housing needs have been overlooked, and who don’t have the means to afford private-pay seniors housing. 

Private developers are getting into the game in a big way too. They recognize an unmet market need that will likely turn a profit. “Do well by doing good,” sums up their mantra. 

What follows are examples of how developers are approaching the challenge to create housing for overlooked seniors. 

LGBTQ seniors welcomed

The population of LGBTQ elders will reach 7 million in the United States by 2030, according to SAGE, a New York-based organization that advocates for LGBTQ older people. The group says 48 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual couples experience adverse treatment when seeking seniors housing, and transgender elders face such treatment at even higher rates. 

Housing discrimination is complicated by the fact that LGBTQ seniors may not have children or may be estranged from family members who might have otherwise helped with their care. Also, LGBTQ seniors may have faced job discrimination and may not have the financial resources to afford a safe place to live in retirement. 

As a result, SAGE launched a seniors housing initiative in 2015. It is meant to educate consumers about the rights of LGBTQ seniors and to educate developers about the group’s need for housing. 

SAGE has two new senior living projects opening soon in the New York City area. The group also runs the SAGECare program to train senior living providers about how to understand the needs unique to LGBTQ elders. A growing number of senior living communities have earned the SAGECare credential. More than 64,000 staff members at long-term care and other care facilities have received the training. 

A handful of new private-pay senior living communities that welcome LGBTQ seniors are underway.

Los Angeles-based KOAR International announced in September plans for Living Out Palm Springs, a resort condominium development that welcomes LGBTQ seniors. The project will feature amenities found at resort-style communities, including swimming pools, entertainment areas, a concierge service, restaurants and a pet park. Unit prices begin at $699,000.

Living Out Palm Springs will be the flagship property of the developer’s plans to create Living Out communities around the nation, according to a KOAR press release. 

Hacienda at the Canyon in Tucson opened in early October. It welcomes members of the LGBTQ community and is managed by Watermark Retirement Communities. The company operates 62 senior living properties and has an ownership stake in most of the projects. 

All Watermark communities are pursuing the highest SAGECare credential. More than 50 percent of Watermark’s workforce has already received the training. 

Managers undergo a four-hour training program. Other employees attend a one-hour class. Some of the classes are taught by Watermark executives who have completed a four-day SAGECare training course to become certified trainers.

The training covers different terminology, case studies and how to understand what LGBTQ elders have experienced throughout their lives. 

“The training confirms our long-standing commitment to creating inclusive environments where people thrive,” says Shannon Ruedlinger, executive director at Hacienda at the Canyon. 

The community features 163 independent living units, 68 assisted living units and 40 memory care suites. Thirty freestanding homes are also being built on the campus. Residents pay a non-refundable, one-time fee of $50,000. The monthly rent for a one-bedroom independent living apartment averages just under $4,000. 

The SAGECare credential is included in marketing materials and has helped sales, says Ruedlinger. “People are looking for this kind of welcoming environment.” One woman is moving her wife into memory care at the property because it’s what she was looking for, he adds. 

About 94 percent of the independent living units are reserved. 

Ruedlinger notes that the SAGECare credential has also helped to recruit employees who prefer to work in a diverse environment. “It makes a difference,” he says.

Programming and services tailored to the residents are key to success, sources say. This holds true for other types of niche communities.

Town Hall Apartments opened in Chicago’s historic LGBTQ community about six year ago. It contains 79 units for independent seniors. Government subsidies keep rents low. Residents pay 30 percent of their monthly income for rent. About 70 percent of residents self identify as members of the LGBTQ community.

The Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ outreach organization, provides supportive services for residents, including case management, referrals to health care providers and other special services. 

A SAGE Center — an affiliate of the New York organization — provides programming. 

The building features a community kitchen, lounge area, library, fitness room, and computer room. A rooftop deck overlooks the streetscape.

“It’s a very successful development,” says Michael Goldberg, executive director of Heartland Housing, the nonprofit developer of the property. “It’s safe and affordable. Residents feel comfortable here.”

What’s an eruv?

Religious groups have long sponsored retirement communities. But a $100 million project in Denver is putting a new twist on the concept. 

Focus Property Group recently began clearing the site for a 205-unit senior living community in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood. What’s different about the site is that it’s located in the East Denver Eruv, an area encircled by a wire boundary within which Orthodox Jews can engage in activities otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath, such as pushing a baby stroller. 

“It will be the only senior living community in the eruv,” says Josh Fine, president of Focus Property Group, Denver. “Jewish residents will feel at home.”

The new project — with the working name of Hilltop Senior Living — is the first project for seniors by the Focus Group. Ascent Living Communities, based in Centennial, Colorado, is co-developer and will operate the property.

The project recently received funding from Blue Moon Senior Housing II, a private equity fund based in Boston. “It’s a terrific example of placemaking,” says Susan Barlow at Blue Moon. “Focus and Ascent are truly creating a community for their community.”

About a square mile in size, Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood is the center of the Jewish community. It is an affluent neighborhood with about 12,000 residents. Fine says that the area contains 12 synagogues, a Jewish community center, kosher restaurant and two Jewish day schools. 

Most are within walking distance of the new senior living project, which is being built on a vacant 4.3-acre parcel that a dairy distribution center previously occupied. The neighborhood includes access to public transit, shopping, supermarkets and restaurants.

Fine, the developer, lives in the neighborhood. He says that the new property will appeal to members of the Jewish community because of the location and the fact that Fine and Ascent’s co-owner, Susie Reimer, are well known and active in the Jewish community. Reimer has 20 years of professional experience in the seniors housing industry and previously worked at Brookdale Senior Living.

The Hilltop senior living project offers an alternative for observant families who want to be together on the Sabbath, explains Fine. While they can’t drive on the Sabbath, they can walk to visit their elderly relatives who live at the property. “It is very meaningful to observant Jews to have this kind of senior living community in the neighborhood,” he adds. 

The new community — about a 15-minute drive from downtown Denver — will consist of three levels plus an underground parking garage. Units will include independent living and assisted living apartments, as well as memory care suites. The exact unit mix hasn’t been finalized. The apartments will feature fireplaces, balconies and glass walls overlooking mountain views. 

The development will charge market-rate rents, which haven’t been set yet. 

Amenities will include a full aquatic center with a lap pool, therapy pool, spa and reverse-
current resistance walking pool. There will be several dining venues, including a bistro café and a more formal dining room. 

The community will be designed in a figure-8 and feature two large, landscaped courtyards. One of the courtyards will be terraced, providing access from two levels. A water feature will connect the levels, which will also include walking paths. 

The programming will include celebrations around the Jewish holidays and also those of other faith groups. The community is open to everyone. Fine adds that the programming will involve multiple generations. “We want to encourage bringing people together, not isolating residents,” says Fine. 

Asian opportunity

The U.S. Asian population grew 72 percent between 2000 and 2015 (from 11.9 million to 20.4 million), the fastest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. While the Asian population consists of a number of subgroups, two of the fastest growing cohorts are Indians and Chinese.

Many existing communities targeting Asian groups are affordable projects, typically set near the natural enclaves where Asian seniors live. But new market-rate projects are also under development. 

L.A.-based Urban Commons plans an assisted living and memory care building on the edge of Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood. Los Angeles has the nation’s largest Korean population and Koreans make up the biggest ethnic group in the neighborhood. 

Irwin Partners Architects based in Costa Mesa, California, is designing the project, which is still in the entitlement phase. Greg Irwin, partner at the firm, says the seven-story building will feature a modern Asian design with a curved roof and large round windows. The design is meant to appeal to seniors in the neighborhood. 

Plans call for 109 assisted living apartments and 23 memory care units. The first floor will include a public restaurant and other retail space.

In the Midwest, an Indian-inspired, $43 million active adult retirement community is under development in Hanover Park, Illinois, outside of Chicago. The Verandah Retirement Community is a project of Aman Living, a developer based in Frankfort, Illinois. The principal and managing partner is Dr. Anuja Gupta, who was previously a practicing cardiologist. 

She notes that many older people from South Asia feel out of place in mainstream communities. “By combining Eastern references with the Western lifestyle, we felt they would feel at home.”

The community welcomes people of all backgrounds. Community celebrations will include traditional American holidays such as Thanksgiving, but also South Asian holidays such as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

Verandah is an age-restricted community (55 and older) and will provide a continuum of care. It will include 55 for-sale townhomes and 72 condominiums, as well as a long-term care facility with 68 assisted living units and 12 memory care studio apartments. The campus will also include a doctor’s office, home health services and a clubhouse. 

Gupta says Verandah is the area’s first multi-cultural retirement community offering a continuum of care. “People have been waiting for this product in the Midwest,” she notes, explaining that demand for such a community is driven by the growing population of South Asians in the area. “Seniors want to be close to their children and grandchildren.”

The first 14 townhomes are nearing completion, and new residents began to move in last fall. Townhomes are priced from $290,000 to $450,000.

A temporary clubhouse also opened this fall. It offers daily meals with multicultural cuisine, a fitness room, computer room, patio and community spaces. The clubhouse features a guest suite for short stays by potential residents who want to try out the community.

Gupta expects the condominium building to open in 2021, and the long-term care facility to be completed by 2022.

Programming niche communities for particular ethnic groups requires sensitivity to their needs. 

In high-rent San Francisco, the Chinatown Community Development Center owns and operates five seniors-only affordable buildings in or near the city’s Chinatown district. 

“The need is huge,” says Whitney Jones, director of housing development at the center. 

The developer received 4,000 applications from prospective tenants for a new 96-unit, seniors-only affordable building that is slated to open this December in the Mission District.

Each building employs a resident services coordinator who provides referrals to local social support agencies, including a healthcare network. Translators for residents who don’t speak English fill an important need, says Jones. “We have a special expertise in the Chinese community.”