Ecumen Bets on New Co-op Brand to Attract Younger Seniors

One non-profit senior living provider is building a line of co-op housing, hoping to attract younger residents and expand its portfolio while escaping labor market pressures.

Shoreview, Minnesota-based Ecumen is steadily rolling out a plan to build three senior co-ops annually under its new “Zvago” brand, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal first reported. The provider’s first such offering, a roughly $20 million, 54-unit community called Zvago Glen Lake, opened in Minnetonka, Minnesota, last April—with two others in St. Anthony Park and Apple Valley, Minnesota, already or soon-to-be under construction.

Senior co-ops, or cooperatives, are a kind of age-restricted housing where residents collectively own the properties in which they live. There are thought to be more than 100 senior living co-ops spread throughout a handful of U.S. states, with the majority in Minnesota.


Each new Zvago community will be designed for active adults 62 and older, cost between $15 million and $20 million to develop and have amenities such as outdoor common spaces, fitness and yoga studios, and spacious community kitchens and craft rooms, Julie Murray, senior vice president of sales and marketing and chief business development officer, told Senior Housing News.

Clearing a hurdle

Ecumen’s push into senior cooperatives is meant to attract older adults before they need the services offered at one of its other senior living communities. Currently, Ecumen owns and operates 27 communities and is a third-party manager for 15 additional communities across Minnesota, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee, Michigan and Wisconsin.


“Anyone who works in this industry will say the biggest hurdle to overcome for seniors is the ‘I’m not ready yet’ phenomenon,” Murray told SHN. “They don’t need three meals a day yet, they don’t need the health care services yet…this appealed to Ecumen because we can begin that relationship at an earlier age.”

Many of Ecumen’s co-op residents are on the younger side of the senior living spectrum, and all are still relatively active, she added. And, as they age and possibly need more services, the hope is they’ll consider moving into an Ecumen community or pay for one of its other services, such as home care.

Residents who buy into the community can pay anywhere from 20% to 95% of their 40-year mortgage upfront. There are also monthly fees to cover building maintenance and basic operations. The payment plans are designed to be flexible for seniors with more equity or higher personal income, Murray said.

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At Zvago Glen Lake, buy-in payments can range from more than $31,000 to nearly $500,000. Monthly fees can range from more than $500 to almost $3,300.

Each Zvago community would only have two employees—a building manager and a maintenance person—meaning the operational costs are much lower for Ecumen when compared with running independent or assisted living communities.

“One of our biggest challenges in senior living is staffing…the nice thing is, there are really only two staff members,” Murray said. “We can build these in areas without being really hyper-sensitive to the employment market.”

Healthy demand

Another big reason Ecumen is building senior cooperatives relates to the asset class’s appeal among older adults in some markets.

“This is what we are hearing from the market, that they really want owner-occupied [senior housing],” Murray said. “They like to really make their own choices and have the freedom to do that.”

Ecumen isn’t the only company betting on the future success of senior cooperatives. Another firm, Real Estate Equities Development, started developing senior living co-ops about 14 years ago. The Twin-Cities, Minnesota-based company currently has 32 senior cooperatives under the brand name “Village Cooperatives” open, under construction, or scheduled for construction across seven Midwestern states.

“At the end of the day, a co-op offers a tremendous value to a buyer,” Shane Wright, a vice president with Real Estate Equities, told Senior Housing News. “I don’t know if it’s a growing trend, but I know there are a handful of developers that know how to put one of these together, and that they know what the consumers are looking for.”

As for whether other senior living providers could soon catch the co-op craze, Murray was unsure. But, it’s a niche product that many older adults are interested in, and it’s one that Ecumen is keen to explore.

“I know there’s a lot of interest in it,” she said.

Written by Tim Regan

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