SHAG Succeeds With Middle-Market Senior Living, Unconventional Branding

This year has been one of redefinition for Sustainable Housing for Ageless Generations (SHAG). The Washington-state based senior housing provider — the largest in the Puget Sound area — celebrated its 30th anniversary with a new vision, and came close to changing its name altogether. SHAG’s acronym used to stand for “Senior Housing Assistance Group.”

“We were actually thinking about changing the acronym away from SHAG,” Executive Director Jay Woolford told Senior Housing News. “But when we did market research, we realized there was too much brand equity. People knew SHAG, but they either didn’t know what it stood for or had a misperception that we were a quasi-government agency.”

The acronym’s new meaning embraces the group’s updated mission of helping its tenants age gracefully and continue to be vital contributors in their communities, and a commitment to diversity within their communities. SHAG has also embraced the diversity of its 28 communities through irreverent, quirky marketing. One example of its unconventional approach: When a visitor to SHAG’s website clicks on Woolford’s headshot, it transforms into a photo of him playing guitar.

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Courtesy of SHAG
SHAG Executive Director Jay Woolford

SHAG has also embraced the inevitable “Austin Powers” references to its name.

“When I started, the number of people who laughed because they thought of Austin Powers was astounding,” Woolford said. “We decided to embrace our inner SHAG.”

Senior Housing News interviewed Woolford about SHAG’s new mission, its operational model and its future plans, including working more closely with Medicare Advantage insurers and other managed care organizations.

Senior Housing News: You joined SHAG in 2010. How has the organization changed in that time?

Jay Woolford: The focus was on new development. As I visited each community and talked to managers and residents, I came away realizing we were doing a great job of providing housing. But we needed to prepare ourselves to support the residents living in our communities, to allow them to age within our communities.

We recognized we needed to redefine the mission. We want to preserve and sustain affordability, and highlight what we’re doing to support and sustain people to age in community.

Affordability has always been the foundation of SHAG’s mission statement. What do you do to ensure affordability?

From the beginning, our model has always focused on providing affordable housing for middle-market seniors who earn too much to qualify for subsidized housing, yet don’t make enough to enter independent living communities. We target folks who are either living on a fixed income, people who aren’t retired and fall within the broader spectrum of income levels.

We take advantage of the state’s 4% low income housing tax credits and volume cap bonds almost exclusively to develop our properties. We’ve found, from experience, the 4% credits are not as competitive as the 9% credits, and it’s a bracket where we’re able to develop properties in a manner to comfortably offer rents that conform to 60% of a renter’s annual median income (AMI).

Is this an operational model that can be duplicated elsewhere? Or does SHAG have the right confluence of policies, pricing, scale and market conditions in your operating area?

I believe our model is replicable, but definitely needs to adapt to market conditions. Median income, property prices and market rents definitely are a factor. As I mentioned, the economics are generally favorable for projects with a 50% and 60% AMI income qualification. There is a growing need though to serve folks in the 40%-50% AMI income bracket.

In recent years, housing costs have risen while incomes have remained static. What else has SHAG undertaken to help residents maintain affordability?

Over the last couple years, we’ve developed supportive services teams which help connect our residents available services in an area. That can include anything from nutrition support to transportation support to access to health care and economic support. We’ve also developed partnerships with local groups and nonprofits, which allow residents to connect with the neighborhoods where they live while also granting them access to local services.

How does SHAG evaluate those partnerships?

It begins in our annual planning sessions, looking at what areas we want to focus on. We try to be intentional in fostering these partnerships, but we also need to know when to be opportunistic when we’re approached by other organizations that are interested in working with us.

We’ve been reporting on how Medicare Advantage plans are starting to cover non-skilled in-home services, which could potentially make MA a payer in senior living. Is SHAG in any discussions with MA plans or eyeing opportunities to work with different managed care organizations/payers?

SHAG has very much been involved in discussions about opportunities to best support healthy living in affordable housing. We believe that this must be accomplished through partnerships with ACOs, HMOs, CMS and other provider networks and insurance carriers, to begin to look at effective models of delivery, preventive measures and cost containment. Everyone needs to recognize that housing is an essential part of health care. As new programs move into our market, we are actively pursuing discussions. We also continue to advocate for ways to create payer models that will support aging in community.

Can you talk a bit about SHAG’s scale?

We’re focused on the Interstate 5 Corridor, from the Canadian border down to Olympia and Puget Sound. Currently, we operate in excess of 5,400 affordable units. We have several new communities under construction. Our communities tend to be larger — the sweet spot is in the 200-unit range. We have density by design, and it gives us another advantage: a diverse population we serve. Unlike a lot of communities that are predominantly homogenous, our communities reflect the population in the area. With that comes diversity.

What does your pipeline look like?

We recently opened a new senior living facility in Tukwila, in conjunction with the city. We took several parcels and built the housing, along with a standalone community center, a coffee shop and an outdoor plaza where we’re able to do farm stands in the summer. The plaza is next to a library and brings in a lot of intergenerational traffic.

We’re building two to three new buildings a year and will now be redeveloping several of our older communities. We closed bond financing last week on a property we developed 15 years ago. This will allow us to bring the community up to a new standard.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Written by Chuck Sudo

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