How SHAG Scaled Middle-Market Senior Living, And Where It’s Going Next

Sustainable Housing for Ageless Generations (SHAG) has earned a reputation in the Pacific Northwest for its quirky brand and successful model of senior housing at an accessible price point.

The Tukwila, Washington-based affordable senior housing nonprofit has refined its model over the past three decades through a mix of innovative partnerships, leaner staffing models, and mixed-use developments that fully embed its communities within the overall neighborhoods in which they are located. Today, the SHAG portfolio comprises 26 communities totaling nearly 6,000 units in Washington state’s Puget Sound region.

It is a model that can be scalable and successful outside of Puget Sound, SHAG Executive Director Jay Woolford said during Senior Housing News’ recent BUILD conference, which was held virtually. But the foundation for this success lies in the consistency of the operator’s partnerships.


Since SHAG launched in 1988, it has worked with the same developer, designers, consultants and construction teams. This consistency established a form of vertical integration regarding site selection, entitlements and providing housing and services at an economical price point.

Residents benefit in terms of lower price points and a better quality of life. This year,Covid-19 has highlighted areas of focus for SHAG moving forward, such as better integrating technology into its communities.

“It is something that we’ve focused intentionally on,” Woolford said. “It is based on the idea of networking with as many different organizations and agencies that we can.”


Success with a niche market

SHAG’s target demographic has always been what is now considered middle-market seniors – people of moderate means who cannot afford market-rate senior housing, yet do not qualify for low-income subsidies.

A typical SHAG building is low-rise – five- to six-story podium buildings with a sweet spot between 180 and 200 units, although there are a few outliers. One community has 450 units and another under development will have 400 when it is ready for first move-ins. The resident profile consists mostly of seniors 62-and-over, still active and looking to stay that way – a model Woolford describes as “independent living light.” But the age range runs the gamut, from residents in their early 50s with disabilities, to centenarians.

“What we’ve tried to do is find a niche that serves a population where there is an economic need in terms of the desire to move to a SHAG community,” Woolford said. “What we’re really trying to create is also a lifestyle offering.”

SHAG’s communities are built on sites that encourage intergenerational living. The sites are in densely populated areas around the greater Seattle and Tacoma area, have some form of outdoor landscaping or recreation to attract people outside the community, and a couple projects under development have a mixed-use component.

One, Tukwila Village in Tukwila, is co-located with a King County Library branch (a type of co-location that is supporting innovative senior housing elsewhere in the country as well). Eventually, Tukwila Village will include a community center which will house a local health organization serving as a resource for residents and the greater population.

SHAG has also activated a food court at Tukwila Village as an incubator for immigrants to gain experience in building a culinary business model.

“We’ve got to look at ways where we can actually go beyond our four walls,” he said.

Creative partnerships

The leaner staffing model, meanwhile, requires each community’s resident service coordinator to find solutions for providing the care and services residents will need as they age. Some of the solutions involve bringing in state agencies to work in SHAG’s buildings, as well as forming partnerships with nursing schools and colleges to provide on-hand nurse training;provide nutrition, wellness and fitness courses; and create intergenerational relationships.

Because SHAG does not employ activity directors, the organization relies on residents to take the lead in activities and community engagement. Most of its communities have resident councils and engagement teams to determine activity and wellness programming, which the operator supports. One community may like art programs, and leadership will work with residents on setting up museum visits. Communities with a preference for exercise will receive chair exercise programs and yoga classes. This approach gives residents agency in how they live within a community’s walls, and leads to better health outcomes.

SHAG recently worked with one organization and received a $500,000 grant to explore an evidence-based fitness program, which is being adapted to address restrictions in interaction among trainers and residents stemming from Covid-19 lockdowns.

Another Covid-19 innovation SHAG implemented is the creation of food pantries in all of its communities to provide food for residents. These pantries are funded by investment and property partners, grants and donations, and SHAG has raised $250,000 so far.

“We work with residents to support and tailor what they’re looking to be able to accomplish,” Woolford said.

One area of SHAG’s operations that has been exposed by Covid-19, and where the operator hopes to improve, is technology. Communities are mostly reliant on Wi-Fi in common areas, including computer cafes. With restrictions on movements still in place, the operator is looking at ways to bring telehealth and telemedicine services into its buildings, as well as to improve the connectivity of its communities.

“It’s one thing to say you have telemedicine. It’s another thing to make sure you have that connection,” he said. “We see that as an area of huge potential growth.”

Solving the middle-market puzzle has become a quest for many owners, operators and other senior living industry stakeholders. The coming wave of aging baby boomers is set to create a major demand surge for communities at this price point, but striking the right balance of operational intensiveness, investor returns and consumer appeal is difficult. Woolford believes that the SHAG model can be duplicated and scaled elsewhere. But it requires discipline and effort to find the right partners and develop lasting working relationships.

“It does take a focused effort,” he said.

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