SHAG Keeps Rates in Check with ‘Independent Living Light’ Model

If the senior housing industry wants to better address the ongoing affordability conundrum, it might consider borrowing some ideas from SHAG.

That’s the acronym for Sustainable Housing for Ageless Generations, a senior housing nonprofit based in Tukwila, Washington, which helps older adults access support and services in settings they can afford.

For SHAG Executive Director Jay Woolford, housing is a platform for health care. The organization uses an operational model that’s light on staffing but heavy on innovative partnerships that help support residents as they age in place. And because staffing is such a large part of what makes senior living services more expensive, SHAG’s methodologies could be looked at as a case study for what might work in the larger industry.

Woolford outlined some of what makes SHAG’s operational model work during the newest episode of Transform, a Senior Housing News podcast sponsored by PointClickCare that focuses on the people and ideas shaping the future of senior living.

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Here’s some of what Woolford had to say, edited for length and clarity:

We all know that affordability is one of the most pressing issues in the senior housing landscape today. I was curious, in your view as someone who works in the senior housing sector, how big of a problem are we facing?

I think it’s quite substantial. We’ve got three kind of converging things going on. One is the availability of affordable housing, regardless of whether it’s market-rate or whether it’s subsidized. Two, the growing size of an aging population based on health and longevity. And then the third factor is, unfortunately, the savings that many people have today is far below what they’re going to need in order to maintain a lifestyle into the future.

So, between those three factors, I think dealing with the affordability issue is critical.

In the past we have discussed how you are doing some of these projects in mixed-used settings, including SHAG is developing one in a regional mall in Bellevue, Washington. Tell me more about that project.

We’re pretty excited about that opportunity. We’ve been working with a developer who has really been spearheading this. Bellevue, which is a suburb — well, I don’t know if they would consider themselves a suburb — of Seattle. But the east side is an area where there is a great need for affordable housing, and the opportunity presented itself to be able to develop on what would have been a pad site in a regional mall.

So, we’re developing 185 units. In this case, it is a mixed-income project where 20% of the units are tax credits set aside for 50% of the median income. And then the other units are more market-rate. Generally, our model is to keep the communities so that the income limits are such that 50% of the units are for folks that are 80% of median income or lower.

In this case, the location is really amazing because we’re adjacent to a municipal park and an executive golf course. We’re right next to a movie theater. The mall itself was one that actually had this sort of creative concept. It was really the original precursor of the idea of the third [place], where they created a community center at the core of the shopping mall with a food court, a bookstore, and then we also have urgent care available there. There’s actually a mini city hall there. We have craft stores, grocery stores, we’re on three different bus lines.

So, it’s a phenomenal opportunity to look at an ex-urban environment and provide housing within the context of that.

I know that SHAG’s philosophy is, in a nutshell, achieving affordability by tapping into tax credits and also using an operational model that’s heavy on resident-led activities and bringing in community partners, correct?

One of the areas that we’ve really kind of focused on is the need to fill the gap for residents around their financial security. Again, the cost of housing and just supporting housing continues to go up. We try to manage that and keep it at a reasonable pace, but unfortunately with our market it’s often outstripping what they’re seeing in their cost of living adjustments.

So, we developed a couple of years ago two focus areas in order to help with that. One is a resident service coordination program. A lot of folks that are doing affordable housing are doing this type of thing, where we’ve got a cadre of people that are working in our communities with individuals to help find them resources they need in order to be able to maintain their independence and their housing stability.

The other area that we’ve focused on is the idea of partnerships and program development. With that, we’ve got a core group of people who focus on developing relationships with other organizations, other nonprofits, to help in areas with food insecurity, transportation needs, financial resources if required.

And then they’re also working with colleges, universities, health care programs, to be able to bring in to the communities wellness clinics, nursing students, pharmacy, a variety of different resources that would be available to residents in the community.

They also work on toolkits that communities are able to utilize where residents are then able to take these toolkits and work with them in order to expand activities in their communities, and also help with resources. We’ve got folks that are dedicated strictly to working with residents in the communities to develop more of that volunteer relationship.

So, from an operational model, what we have looked at is being able to develop the core competencies, to be able to manage these type of programs, and then really use the model of network nonprofits to be able to bring these resources into the communities and really leverage the population that we have with other organizations that are looking to be able to deploy into this sector.

Do you generally find that it’s easier when you have a community that’s 250 or 300 units, to bring more people in, simply because there’s more people in one place that these organizations can serve?

Absolutely. We have some that are small that are 50 to 100 units. But I think our sweet spot has been in the 250-unit range. Our largest community is 450 units.

The other thing is, not only do our communities have a certain scale, but we also have developed in clusters so that if you look at places like north Seattle, we have four or five communities that are close together in that area. Or, if you go north of Seattle up to Snohomish County, we’ve got four communities. Or you go south of the city down to Federal Way, we’ve got four communities in that market area.

So, not only is it the individual scale of the community but then the concentration of some of the communities that really provide that opportunity to leverage that population, the organizations that want to be able to serve a density. We find that has worked very effectively.

I remember that you have called this model independent living light. How did you land on that name and how does independent living light differ from something like active adult?

I don’t know that we coined the phase, but it certainly is reflective of our approach. When we started 30 years ago, I think the focus was really on providing housing, providing a roof over somebody’s head, at a reasonable price. The focus was on really the provision of housing. And as we have evolved over the years, we’ve begun to realize that more resources need to be provided in order to help people sustain their independence.

So, we don’t provide services, what we do is we coordinate those services for people. So, if people need home care or health care support in their unit, if they need nutrition support, if there is wellness that can be brought in, then we work to be able to find the providers that are able to bring them into the communities. But our primary focus is providing the housing and then providing the network to be able to support people to live independently. So, that’s where we think about it being independent living light.

We don’t have activity directors in our communities, we certainly are not in a position to be providing assisted living support or services. But by working with our plans and partnership team, working with residents in the communities, we are able to coordinate getting those things into our different communities.

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