Seniors fill new urban housing developments

September 18, 2012

Urban living isn't just for hipsters anymore. Seniors are moving into the city's core along the Valley Metro light-rail line. And as KJZZ's Peter O'Dowd reports, it may be a sign of the way Baby Boomers redefine retirement.

senior housing Joel Cohen moved into Encore on Farmer five months ago. The senior housing development is in downtown Tempe. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd - KJZZ)

senior housing The Lofts at McKinley will open at the end of September in downtown Phoenix. Sixty housing units will cater to lower- and middle-income seniors. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd - KJZZ)

PETER O'DOWD: At the end of September, another 60 housing units will open in downtown Phoenix. Gorman and Company Developer Brian Swanton stands on the balcony of one of those units … as construction crews below work on the finishing touches.

BRIAN SWANTON: We have an excellent view of 5th Avenue which is a pretty pedestrian friendly street with historic sidewalks and that sort of thing.

O'DOWD: The Lofts at McKinley will cater to low- and middle-income residents, 55 years and older. The complex is a few blocks from a light-rail station, and most importantly, Swanton says it's near jobs in the city's business district. 

SWANTON: Quite frankly, it's all driven economics. 

O'DOWD: Swanton says few seniors can afford to retire early and and even fewer have guaranteed pensions anymore. 

SWANTON: Folks in their 60s today are not in that same situation, so the economics have driven them into a different housing prototype.

O'DOWD: In fact, nearly 300 units for seniors will be available along the light rail from Phoenix to Mesa by the end of 2013. It may not sound like much. Swanton says his company has built projects like this in Miami and for Chicago for years. But in Phoenix,  he says it's a whole new concept.

SWANTON: It's a test. It's a test for how much demand there is out there. 

SHANNON SCUTARI: It's not really for the weak at heart.

O'DOWD: Shannon Scutari has helped many of these developments get off the ground. She leads the Sustainable Communities Collaborative. And she's talking here about money. Scutari's group helps coordinate a $20 million fund to kickstart financing for affordable housing near transit. Without various stacks of private money, Scutari says the banks just aren't interested in taking the risk on their own.

SCUTARI: We have to prove to those traditional lenders that we can be successful.

O'DOWD: But here's why Scutari and people like Arizona State University real estate expert Mark Staap are confident this could work on a larger scale. 

MARK STAPP: The pig in the demographic python is the Baby Boomers, and I don't think we're going to go quietly into the night.

O'DOWD: Nearly 77 million Baby Boomers will be retiring in the next two decades, according to AARP. Experts say this deluge will require a massive and diverse portfolio of senior housing. But Staap says Boomers will not be as easily swayed by the classic image of Arizona and it's age-restricted mega-developments. In other words, he says places like Sun City may have to rethink their approach.

STAAP: I think a very substantial portion of the population is going to chose a different way to live than that. 

O'DOWD: At 56, Staap says Boomers like him want to age in place. To him, that means staying engaged with the people and the community he's grown accustomed to. For Boomers that don't want to feel old, access to theaters, museums and walkable neighborhoods makes a big difference.

STAAP: Social connectivity is a really big deal to us. I do not want to be locked away somewhere. If you think about it, you have nothing to stimulate your brain. 

O'DOWD: And if Mark Staap is Baby Boomer exhibit A, here's exhibit B.

JOEL COHEN: This is our famous elevator.

O'DOWD: Joel Cohen. He just turned 60.

COHEN: It was a horrifying experience.

O'DOWD: Five months ago, he moved into Encore on Farmer. It's another senior housing complex that opened January in downtown Tempe. Cohen pilots a scooter around his second-floor apartment. A vascular condition limits his walking and driving. But the New York native is quick to point out…

COHEN: We're not assisted living; we're not an old-age home; and we like to go out and do things.

O'DOWD: And Cohen does a lot. He rides the light rail. He takes the bus. He revels in the vibrant college atmosphere. Just down the street is ASU, the nation's largest university. 

COHEN: They're living what I went through. And when I'm close to it, it makes me feel young again. Brings back good memories.

O'DOWD: If he tires of the college scene, Cohen doesn't need to go far. His 56-unit complex is completely leased out, all with people his own age.