Co-ops Could be Housing Answer for Aging Baby Boomers, Elderly

This 1,332-square-foot, one-bedroom, two-bathroom unit is currently selling for $241,000 with a down payment share price of $90,576 and is typical of the newer
This 1,332-square-foot, one-bedroom, two-bathroom unit is currently selling for $241,000 with a down payment share price of $90,576 and is typical of the newer "senior co-ops" in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. (Miller Hanson Partners)

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, September 10, 2005

In the United States, trends generally start on the East or West Coast and move inward. But once in a while, the reverse happens -- the innovation begins in the Midwest and ripples out. Senior cooperatives are one such example.

This modestly sized, low-rise, multifamily housing that began in Minneapolis about 30 years ago is still largely a Minnesota phenomenon, but imitators are slowly spreading to other midwestern states as well as to Texas, Arkansas and even Alaska.

Senior co-operative residents rave about them. To me, senior co-ops seem tailor-made for aging baby boomers who famously want to do things their way, be in control, flout tradition, confound expectation and never grow old.

This was my conclusion after touring a number of projects in the Minneapolis area at the invitation of Miller Hanson Partners, a Minneapolis architectural firm that has designed more senior co-ops than any other firm in the country.

Yes, it is hard to imagine aging boomers flocking from their houses to apartments reserved for people older than 55. But the sentiments expressed by co-op residents who recently moved in should resonate with the oldest boomers because, age-wise and culturally, they are not so far apart. The oldest boomers are nearly 60. The average age of the residents at move-in is about 72, but many are in their 60s.

The residents all said they had given up on owning single-family homes because it had become, in boomer parlance, a huge drag. They were more than ready to say goodbye to shoveling snow, mowing grass and doing all the other chores that come with owning a house, and embrace a more carefree lifestyle. Their downsizing wasn't disheartening or disrupting, it was liberating.

Better yet, the move did not disrupt the rest of their lives. Senior co-op developers in the Twin Cities carefully target their market for each project. Most buyers live within a few miles of their building site, making it easy to maintain contact with the old neighborhood and even attend the same church. One couple moved only three blocks, and the husband still goes walking with his old neighbors every morning. Though most residents are retired, about a quarter of the residents in the newer projects are still working.

Most co-ops have many weekly events and the occasional community-wide meal, but regular meals and health care services are not offered. Residents who need these can bring them in, but if outside care is not available or residents need more care than they can import, they will have to move to an assisted-living or continuing-care facility or to a nursing home.

What do the senior co-ops look like? Knowing that current buyers and the burgeoning boomer market will avoid anything that hints of being institutional, the Miller Hanson firm has gone to great lengths to design multiunit housing with a homey touch.

The three- and four-story buildings range in size from about 40 to 100 units. The entry lobby is inviting, and the community's great room, always located near the entrance, is designed to feel comfortable when it's only a third or half full, as well as when all the residents turn out for a holiday occasion.

In the private areas, the buildings are typically configured to create the illusion that the corridors are short. They turn and fork so that in any stretch of hallway you see only three or four units at a time. The corridor width is generous, but not so generous that it begins to feel like a hospital or nursing home.

The units are smaller than the houses the residents vacated, but not as small as you might expect. In the Twin Cities area, the average size of a new unit is about 1,200 square feet (half the size of the average new house), but units as large as 1,500 square feet are not unusual. Some are more than 2,000 square feet.

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