The economy may be stuttering and the housing market may be weak, but there's at least one sector that's still finding work -- senior housing developers.
"Demographics are driving the demand for senior housing," said Patti Cullen, president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, which is based in Bloomington. In 2010-11, 1,119 new senior housing units were planned for the Twin Cities, according to research by the accounting firm LarsonAllen in Minneapolis. That compares to 881 new units in 2008-09 and 521 new units in 2006-07. The majority of the units during the current two-year period are for assisted living (876), followed by independent living (812), assisted living / independent combined (464) and memory care (445).
In the past, independent living would have been the market leader, but many seniors who would have been interested in those kind of units are opting to stay in their homes due to the recession, said Tom Melchior, director of market research at LarsonAllen.
People seeking assisted living "have to leave" their homes for more round-the-clock care, he said, while those who may have sought independent living want the market value of their homes to rise before they move.
Senior housing development will begin to level off in the coming decade, but it's predicted to pick up substantially from 2020 onwards as the "leading edge of the baby boom" generation begins turning 75, said Melchior.
Cullen points out that while senior housing construction has been rising, many seniors plan to stay in their homes as long as possible. The average age of a senior entering assisted living is 85 -- a 20-year difference from the age many people retire.
What happens in those two decades? For people ages 55 to 65 considering a move, almost as many plan to upsize as downsize, Cullen said, and nearly all seek a single-level house. The reason they are looking for a larger home is so that they have enough room for visiting adult children and grandkids, she said.
There's another reason, too. "We're seeing a lot more 65- and 75-year-olds taking care of aging parents in their 80s and 90s," Cullen said.
Baby boomers are lot more picky than their parents ever were in selecting a new home, forcing builders to tailor developments to meet a wider range of lifestyle needs and income levels, said Gayle Kvenvold, president and CEO of Aging Services of Minnesota in St. Paul. "If you've seen one housing setting or one community you've [only] seen one ... there is so much diversity across the state and even within communities. In the field we talk about community and customer-tailored housing and in fact that is what you have -- everything from very small to very large, to independent senior housing to very service-intensive senior housing."
Kvenvold sees the emergence of campuses of the sort found at Carondelet Village in St. Paul as a sign of the future. By the time the project is complete, it will have more than 200 apartments for seniors who want independent or assisted living, or "memory care" for dementia sufferers, and it already has a waiting list of more than 1,000. The advantages of a campus setting with different environments is that seniors can graduate to more intensive care in assisted living or and memory care units.
However, many memory care communities tend to be small and fit into established neighborhoods. One example, English Rose Suites, sits in a residential area of Edina that barely has a sign, says Kvenvold, who believes more small developments will be in the offing.
The discussion -- and the developments -- have largely focused on middle-class baby boomers, but the real challenge is serving seniors with limited incomes.
"There remains a gap for affordable senior housing," said Kvenvold. "It's very difficult from a development standpoint to put together the subsidy streams that fund the services with the subsidies that lower the cost of capital that produces a really affordable setting."
Frank Jossi is a freelance writer based in St. Paul.