Senior living operators are under more pressure than ever before, American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) President David Schless believes.
“This is probably as challenging a time as there has ever been — certainly if your buildings are older and haven’t been refreshed,” he told Senior Housing News after the recent 2019 Senior Housing News Summit in Washington, D.C. “I think anybody who says it’s not challenging is probably not telling the truth.”
Oversupply has hit certain markets hard over the past few years, leading to historically low nationwide occupancy rates and spelling trouble for some older buildings that compare poorly to new construction. At the same time, labor markets are tight, with unemployment low and wages high. And with consumer expectations steadily rising, senior living operators can ill-afford to cut back on new technology and other investments, even as margins are squeezed.
Despite these multiple headwinds, Schless remains “incredibly optimistic” about the future, for a few reasons.
For one, capital is more plentiful than ever, as senior housing has steadily become a more accepted and desirable investment. Schless also thinks that the talent pool in the industry has gotten a lot deeper over the past 25 years.
Perhaps most profoundly, there are major opportunities for senior living providers to seize, he said.
One such opportunity is the middle market, which represents a huge untapped demographic. Coming up with a viable middle-market product will not be easy, but already there are companies making strides. Schless name-checked Hickory, North Carolina-based Affinity Living Group as one example. As part of the SHN Summit’s C-suite panel, Affinity CEO Charlie Trefzger had just spoken of the company’s plans.
North Carolina is a somewhat unique environment given its favorable Medicaid policies, Schless noted, but he said Affinity’s work still is a sign of progress on the middle-market opportunity.
Medicare Advantage — another topic under discussion at the Summit — could also be a game-changer for providers that figure out how to effectively tap into this insurance program as a payment source and, for those providers that launch their own plans, an additional business line.
Washington, D.C.-based ASHA is working to support providers’ efforts to both seize these types of opportunities and weather the current headwinds. Fundamentally, ASHA remains a “boutique association” that is focused primarily on shaping public policy and advocating on Capitol Hill, Schless said. But he outlined several other initiatives underway:
— The Where You Live Matters website was overhauled and re-launched earlier this month. It is now more mobile-friendly and easier to use; it provides access to educational resources about senior housing options. Since the spring of 2018, users have also been able to access the websites of local senior living communities via the Where You Live Matters site. Schless now wants to make a bigger push to have people within the industry use the website as part of their sales and marketing efforts.
— ASHA teamed up with Kansas City, Missouri-based marketing firm GlynnDevins to shoot a high-quality video that challenges misperceptions of senior living. The goal is to distribute that nationwide via various channels, primarily digital, next year.
— Similar to the Where You Live Matters campaign, a Where You Work Matters effort is in the formative stages. The concept is to highlight jobs and careers in senior living, to attract more people to the industry and provide senior living operators with tools and resources to drive recruitment and improve retention, particularly in the first 90 days after a hire.
While hopeful that workforce issues and other challenges can be addressed and eased, Schless emphasized that senior living by nature is not an easy or simple business.
“As our current chairman, Michael Grust of Senior Resource Group, always says: ‘It’s a business where you have to have a reverence for the complexity,’” Schless said. “I think that’s absolutely right. There are a lot of moving pieces here.”