Amid density boom, are we building the right type of housing to ‘age in place’?

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March 11, 2014
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

This is the year I leave TV’s coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic, and after 30 years of advertiser pursuit, I’ll spend the rest of my life as an afterthought in the Great Brand Battle.

I’m near the end of the Baby Boom, that pig-through-the-python now in its AARP years. Lately, as Minneapolitans debate our housing boom’s intensity and location, I’ve pondered a different question: are we building the *right* type of housing for the Senior Boom?

For example: those Uptown apartments. Today, Millennials flock there, and perhaps they always will. But what if tastes change? Dudebros come and go, but dads in their dotage are a pretty sure bet.

There’s some precedent to worry. In my parents’ generation, blocky, multi-unit complexes sprung up on major roads and highway frontages for the single workers and childless couples of yesterday. Today, especially in inner-ring suburbs, many are naturally occurring slums; cramped apartments too small for larger families of poor renters crammed in there.

Newer developments, especially downtown, do mix downsizers and on-the-way-uppers. And there’s at least awareness that life-cycle flexibility is good planning. City officials talk bravely of “universal design,” where high countertops for the Dirty Martini set can be lowered when mobility becomes an issue. But practically speaking, very few of these “life-cycle” units exist, says housing researcher Mary Bujold. Developers chase profits today; generational shifts are some future owner’s problem.

As politicians lust after a Minneapolis with 500,000 people, Bujold estimates the city loses 30 percent to 40 percent of its seniors to the suburbs, partly because of a shortage of single-level, stair-free homes, and partly due to fewer assisted living facilities. That may not be a huge problem for marketers who want their 500,000 young, but, “people who built the city should be able to stay in the city,” says Wes Butler, a city housing official.

Minneapolis recently added specific goals to its housing policy. Among them: create one senior housing project in each of the 13 wards over the next 12 years. The city will also allocate 30 percent of its affordable housing trust fund and 25 percent of its housing revenue bonds to senior projects.

The latter part is especially important because — as is the case at any age — affordable housing is the biggest problem. Bujold estimates a mere 1.7 percent vacancy rate metro-wide for affordable senior-only housing — tighter than already-tight overall market.

Getting senior housing right offers a truce, or at least a pause, in the war over densifying Minneapolis neighborhoods. The four-story, 90-unit Waters at 50th and Chowen, which opens May 1, was about as non-controversial as these things get. Bujold notes that senior housing is especially localized — people want to age in their own neighborhoods. This will be a problem in poorer neighborhoods that market-rate developers eschew. But for Minneapolis’s overheated wards, residents’ may see their next move, not just a sun-blocking colossus, from their backyards.

Odds are that move will come later than you think, especially with the trend toward home-based services. Ecumen, the Shoreview-based national senior-housing and service provider, says the average age of its customers is now the mid-80s. So for a guy like me, the move I fear — the one of necessity, not choice — hopefully remains a generation away.

Ecumen is part of Mill City Quarter, a downtown project that will hopefully break ground in 2015, says company vice president Julie Murray. The mixed-use project will include memory care and assisted living, allowing the Mill District’s growing population of active seniors the next level of care. Ludicrously, the parcel — south of the hulking RiverWest condos — is limited to six stories, boosting per-unit development costs. Really, isn’t this one place density fans and skeptics can agree height is fine?

Like any developer, Murray says the city is penalized by high land costs and other encumbrances not found in suburban greenfields. But the very thing that makes Minneapolis attractive to Millennials — walkability, transit and amenities — applies to seniors. City long-range planners have begun mapping out an “aging in place” strategy that knits together “active senior” nodes in Northeast, Downtown, Uptown and Hiawatha with services nodes spreading out around area hospitals. If “new urbanism” fully embraces its senior component, it will not only be more durable, it will be more popular.

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids.