Tips to Maximize Bang for the Buck in Affordable Senior Housing Design

Affordable senior housing may not carry a reputation as the flashiest property type, but it plays a vital role in serving low-income seniors.

And while developing or designing the property type can require a different mentality than traditional senior housing—as evidenced when The Shelter Group bowed out of the affordable-housing sector to focus on its Brightview Senior Living portfolio last year—there are actually many parallels between the two property types.

To learn more about designing and developing affordable senior housing, we reached out to three previous Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Award winners in the “Best Affordable Housing” category.

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Here’s some of the advice they had to offer:

How do you make an affordable senior housing property look stylish without breaking the bank?

The Renaissance Kilpatrick in Chicago

“The first thing to know is that affordable housing doesn’t have to look like affordable housing. It takes a little more elbow grease, time and thought to figure out how to bring an aesthetically pleasing property to market [while] spending a reasonable amount of money.

There are a lot of building products available that bring the look of high cost without the pinch to the wallet. Color goes a long way, and judicious use of higher-cost materials can accent and complement the lower-cost materials. Use cast stone rather than real stone, use cultured stone rather than real.

Know that whatever you pay to put in up front, it had better be reasonable to operate for 10-15-20 years. Sometimes you have to spend a bit more up front to get reasonable operating costs. Many architects, engineers and [general contractors] do not always think of this until reminded.” —Jeanmarie Kapp, COO of The Renaissance Companies, winner in 2015

“We spend a lot of time figuring out ways to get the most ‘bang for our buck’ on design. For example, in apartments, we will use very standard fixtures throughout most of the unit and put in one or two outstanding light fixtures that really catch peoples’ attention. We included glass tile backsplash in the kitchens, which was a relatively inexpensive addition but that adds a nice look and feel.

We put a lot of effort into the common area furnishings and finishes. Again, one or two light fixtures that stand out. Multiple colors of paint. Bright colors for furniture. We include as much natural daylight as possible.” —Brendalee Connors, director of development at Metro West Housing Solutions, winner in 2016.

“Style comes and goes. Simplicity and ease of use never wear out. Having said that, it would be almost impossible for a person driving by to identify one of our properties as affordable because they are often more attractive than comparable market rate communities. This is true for our new construction, rehabilitated properties, and adaptive reuse developments.” —Andrew Cohen, senior vice president of development at Woda Cooper Companies, winner in 2017.

What are some basic tips a firm might need to know when developing or designing an affordable senior housing property?

“The market study obviously tells us what rents are achievable in a given area. We have to work backward from there, to confirm the debt the revenue can support. So it’s absolutely key that a developer sit down with the architect and the general contractor in the very beginning.

It doesn’t pay to design something you can’t afford to build. The programming needs of the building are often driven by the state and city requirements, which can be exorbitantly expensive to achieve (green energy systems [solar, geothermal, green roof], washer/dryer in unit, fitness centers, community gardens, outdoor space, the list goes on and on). We have to be practical at what the revenue can support, yet deliver a property that is desirable and marketable. Seniors want to live in secured buildings that offer quality of life, with activities and social programing that keep life interesting. They also like to drive their own programming, which is important yet must be moderated by what the property can afford to support.” —Jeanmarie Kapp

Cityscape at Belmar near Denver

“We hired a senior housing consultant for our first two senior developments. She helped us learn design ideas that help with safety and enjoyability for the residents. I would recommend that.

We conduct focus groups with our current senior residents when we’re designing our next building and ask them what they like and what they don’t like, what they would recommend or would like to see in a new development.

We include balconies/patios for our senior apartments. The folks really use them as an extension of their living space and it allows them to get a little fresh air when they might not be able to get out and about. We include a lot of common areas and have them available to residents 24/7. They use them for all sorts of things, [such as] crafting, meditation, games, socializing. We strongly encourage people to come out of their apartments and use the common areas.” —Brendalee Connors

“It is important to spend time in the local community and get to know the demographics to understand the age spread of the senior population and details such as the percentage of home owners that may convert to renters.” —Andrew Cohen

What are the biggest challenges to developing or designing an affordable senior housing property? How do you overcome those challenges?

“Usually the competitive nature of funding sources [such as] LIHTC, HAP. In addition, the out-of-control demands by state and local funding agencies have increased the cost to build far past market-rate housing costs.” —Jeanmarie Kapp

“Funding is the biggest challenge. Construction costs have been going up 10% per year, which has made developments more difficult if not impossible in some cases. In addition, the pricing that we are able to get in equity for the low income housing tax credits has dropped by 20%-25%, adding to the challenge of making deals work.

We are actually still trying to figure out how to be able to build another property like CityScape and were not able to make it work this year to apply for tax credits. I believe the answer is going to be that we’ll build smaller developments and continue to find ways to streamline construction.” —Brendalee Connors

“With a typical 12-month construction period, we must work hard to hold onto prospective residents that express interest at construction commencement so they are still ready to move in when the property is complete. Early on, we set up email and phone communication systems so we can establish a dialogue with those prospects. At first, we provide basic project description and qualification information, and then provide updates as the project proceeds.” —Andrew Cohen

For more affordable senior housing trends, be sure to follow the Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards website. The submission period for this year’s awards opened on Tuesday, June 11. 

Written by Tim Regan

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