Why Innovations in Co-Housing Create Threats, Opportunities for Senior Living Providers

Co-living is not a new concept as an option for older adults — the classic series The Golden Girls brought a co-living arrangement to life on people’s television sets in the 1980s and 1990s.

But innovations in co-living are dovetailing with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has aging baby boomers looking for alternatives to traditional, communal senior housing. As a result, co-living — also known as co-housing — could gain popularity in the coming years, presenting a threat but also potential opportunities for established senior housing providers.

Consider UpsideHōM, a co-living startup that launched earlier this year. The company was started by the team behind Papa, the popular app-based service that sends “Papa Pals” into older adults’ homes to provide assistance and companionship.

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The UpsideHōM team was concerned about the implications of Covid-19 for their fledgling business, but they are serving a market that is now more interested than ever in their model, according to Founder and CEO Jake Rothstein.

“I can’t give you the exact numbers, but we’ve seen a tremendous increase in both inquiries and reservations,” he told Senior Housing News.

Interest in co-living was on the rise even before the pandemic, but architect and co-living advocate Bryan Bowen believes that Covid-19 only shines an even brighter light on its benefits. A founding partner of Boulder, Colorado-based architecture firm Caddis, Bowen has been involved in designing numerous co-living communities, including the age-restricted Silver Sage community in Boulder. Bowen himself lives in the adjacent Wild Sage co-housing community.

While a lot of the current action in co-housing is grassroots, involving groups of people coming together to create communities, Bowen believes that there are opportunities for larger organizations to tap into the growing demand for the co-housing lifestyle; active and independent older adults are now seeing more reason than ever for forging intentional ties given that their churches, senior centers, coffee shops, gyms and other avenues for social interaction and support have been compromised by Covid-19.

“They’ve had so much of their community stripped away from them,” Bowen told SHN. “It’s really reinforced how having a proximal community that’s based on place and shared physical resources is super valuable.”

Turnkey co-housing

Loneliness is an epidemic among older adults in the United States. Nearly 25% of adults age 65 and older are socially isolated, which significantly increases their risk of premature death, dementia, depression and other health conditions, according to recently released research findings from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).

This does not come as news to Rothstein, who co-founded Papa in part to help alleviate older adults’ social isolation. But as Papa expanded, the problem of isolation and loneliness was “starkly observed at scale,” causing him to think about other ways to tackle this issue. Co-housing emerged as a promising solution, and Rothstein and Co-Founder Peter Badgley created UpsideHōM.

The UpsideHōM business model involves partnering with existing apartment complexes to lease individual units or blocks of units. The UpsideHōM team vets the units to ensure that they are safe and appropriate for older adults. For instance, UpsideHōM target units that are easy to access — no walk-ups that demand climbing stairs just to reach the front door — and look for design elements such as walk-in showers. 

Professional interior designers work with UpsideHōM to furnish and outfit the common areas of the units, which are then rented to older adults. In some cases, couples or groups of friends will rent a unit, but in other instances UpsideHōM pairs up roommates, using software programs as well as a “human element” in the matching process, Rothstein explained.

Once renters move into the unit, they have access to a “layer of services” provided by UpsideHōM on an ongoing basis. The package includes housekeeping, visits from Papa Pals, and other services — such as meals, rides and health care — on tap through apps.

“We wouldn’t have been able to exist 5 to 10 years ago, but with the gig economy, we can deliver services in an on-demand way,” Rothstein said.

All renters have a dedicated home manager, who is a point of contact for accessing and coordinating these services.

Renters receive a single bill at the end of the month, covering their rent, utilities and the service package, to create what Rothstein calls a “turnkey” co-housing experience. Rates start at around $1,500 a month and currently run to about $3,000 per bedroom on the high end. Rothstein sees the potential for that upper-end to go even higher, given that the co-housing lifestyle holds appeal for people at all income levels, and more luxurious units and robust service packages can be created. But, `offering an option for older adults who cannot afford typical senior living rates is an important piece of the UpsideHōM value proposition.

Currently, the company is operating in three South Florida counties, with more than 100 units available. Expansion is in the cards. UpsideHōM has raised capital, although Rothstein declined to say how much. The company also was selected as part of the inaugural class for the Techstars Future of Longevity Accelerator, a partnership with Melinda Gates-founded Pivotal Ventures. Through this program, the UpsideHōM team will receive mentorship to further refine, fund and grow their platform.

UpsideHōM makes no bones about positioning itself as an alternative to traditional senior living communities. One of its webpages includes the tagline, “Intergenerational Independent Living Without the Facility.”

But, Rothstein emphasized that UpsideHōM “plays nicely” with existing senior living communities, and believes that his venture is not necessarily in direct competition with them. Certainly, there are no plans to provide robust on-site care within UpsideHōM units.

Still, providers may be well-advised to note that the market is evolving, and perhaps more quickly than before Covid-19. South Florida is a hotbed of change; another Sunshine State startup, Cohana, aims to connect consumers with small-house assisted living, and also has seen interest and activity spike since the pandemic began. 

“People are really considering and looking into alternatives to traditional, facility-based environments,” Rothstein said.

Doubling down on the cause

While UpsideHōM is creating co-living for older adults within the context of existing apartment complexes, there is also a growing market for larger, purpose-built co-housing communities of the type that Bryan Bowen has long designed and championed.

Bowen’s interest in co-housing dates back to his education at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he studied the model and saw how it reflected values that were important to him as a young architect, including its potential to foster greater social cohesion and equity. He maintained an interest in co-housing throughout his early career, and after joining an architecture firm in Boulder, he began working on a co-housing project there.

This was “a total dream” for Bowen at that stage of his career, in the early 2000s. The process of creating a co-housing community typically involves a great deal of collaboration on the front-end, as the nature of these projects demand that future residents are involved to create a shared vision for how they intend to live together, which informs the design.

In going through that process as the architect, Bowen realized that he had forged strong relationships with the community members, and he moved in with his wife when the project — Wild Sage — opened in 2004.

Bowen would then go on to help create Silver Sage Village on a parcel of land across the street from Wild Sage, becoming a pioneer of age-restricted co-housing in the United States in the process. Although senior co-housing is commonplace in other countries, notably Denmark, Silvers Sage was one of the first two or three such U.S. projects, Bowen said.

And Silver Sage has proved a successful model, with the design winning several awards; Bowen himself was named 2015 Architect of the Year by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), in part for his work on co-housing. 

Silver Sage consists of 16 townhome units arranged around a “compact, well-designed and well-used” central courtyard. Front porches and “permeable boundaries” help foster social interaction. And there is a 5,000-square-foot Common House with an industrial kitchen, dining room, media room, and spaces for exercise, crafting, meditation, and for use by local artists.

Part of the success of Silver Sage is in its location, proximal to restaurants, health care, public transportation, galleries, and other cultural amenities. In this regard, Silver Sage reflects part of the larger trend in senior housing, of projects that are being situated in urban locations to meet baby boomers’ desires for walkability and intergenerational interaction — although, they want this type of interaction on their own terms, Bowen stressed.

One of the lessons learned from essentially co-locating Wild Sage and Silver Sage is that older adults prize living in a largely “kid-free zone,” he said.

Silver Sage, like many co-housing developments, is an ownership model, but similar types of communities can be created on a rental model. Bowen himself is involved in such as project — a three-story, elevator building — in Moab, Utah.

Creating a co-housing community is not simple, as typically future residents must be involved early in the process, meaning that a certain proportion of presales are a necessity. Zoning and land availability can also be concerns, as sites like the one Silver Sage occupies have largely been designated for high-density projects over the last 30 years.

However, opportunities do exist to create co-housing communities; Bowen recommends looking for oddly-shaped parcels of land as one route toward securing a site.

“A normal developer will say, that’s tricky, how will I get something to work on that?” he said. These sites can be prime real estate for co-housing, however — he pointed to a project next to a YMCA in Flagstaff, Arizona.

As senior living providers consider their expansion plans in light of Covid-19, they are beginning to think creatively about how to meet the market. Small-home models have garnered strong interest, as one way to bring older adults together while allowing them to retain more autonomy — balancing their increased desire for social connection with their increased wariness over living in close quarters with many other people.

The co-housing model could offer similar advantages, Bowen said. At Wild Sage and Silver Sage, residents have rallied around each other during the pandemic through regular group Zoom chats, physically distanced happy hours, and spreadsheets tracking what people need help with and what support people can offer.

Some existing senior living providers — such as Garden Spot Village in Pennsylvania — have already brought cooperative co-housing to their campuses. Finding locations to develop co-housing within the community at large could be another option moving forward. And whether they begin to offer co-housing or not, senior living providers should know that they might soon see more co-living options available to older adults in the markets they serve. Caddis is certainly seeing increased commitment to the model from the groups that the firm works with, and Bowen believes that aging baby boomers are motivated not only by the pandemic but by the desire for a different lifestyle than the one that their grandparents or parents experienced.

“They are all doubling down on the cause and the idea,” he said.

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