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.
Many of the features will be familiar to anyone who has recently toured model homes. The kitchen/dining/living area is open, and you often enter it from a corner, which makes the space feel even bigger. Large windows flood this area with natural light, and some living rooms have gas fireplaces. The ceilings are usually nine feet (standard in almost all new houses today) and the hallway width is four feet (8 to 12 inches wider than you will find in most new houses).
The kitchens have an island or space for a table and chairs. All the units have walk-in closets that are often two or three times larger than the ones the residents had in their old houses; many units have a laundry room. Each household also has a large storage closet, which can be in the unit itself or on the same floor.
The only details that suggest that older people live there are a grab bar in the shower, a raised toilet and three-foot-wide doorways, which are easier to manage with a walker or wheelchair.
The people who choose to live in senior co-ops are generally friendly and sociable, but the particulars of co-op ownership also help to create a strong sense of community. Unlike a condo, in which individuals own a unit and share ownership of the common areas, co-op residents own the entire project jointly. As Link Wilson of Miller Hanson put it, "With a condo you buy a piece of the cake. With a co-op you buy the whole cake."
Each household in a co-op purchases a share, which gives it the right to occupy a unit. All of the owners jointly own the property, and all are responsible for its maintenance, both the common areas and individual units.
In some co-ops the owners hold an individual mortgage, and in others they jointly hold a master mortgage.
Governance in a co-op also differs from a condo. Each co-op shareholder has one vote, regardless of unit size. In most condos, owners with larger units have more voting power than owners of smaller ones.
Co-op residents also have a say in who can become a shareholder. They can't refuse anyone 55 or older on the basis of gender, age, race, religion, national origin or physical disability if the person can live independently. But they can reject individuals known to be "drunkards, womanizers or just plain jerks," said Charles Bassford, a Twin Cities lawyer who represents 35 senior co-ops in that area.
Why hasn't the senior co-op concept caught on in other areas? Terry McKinley, president of the Senior Cooperative Foundation in Minneapolis, said the main reason is that senior co-ops are not structured in the way that most home builders and developers are used to doing business. With most senior co-ops, lenders require the developers to pre-sell as many as 70 percent of the units before construction can begin. This means that the developer must attract and keep 50 to 100 buyers happy and committed during the eight- to 10-month presale period and the 10 to 12 months of construction.
Most home builders work on a piecemeal basis, building only a few houses and working with only a few homeowners at a time. In the current housing market, where every builder can sell whatever he constructs, most are not interested in trying something new. But home builders are always poised to meet the demands of the marketplace. If a significant number of the 75 million baby boomers get interested in senior co-ops, I predict that some home builders will quickly get on the senior co-op bandwagon.
On the Internet, the Senior Cooperative Foundation is at www.seniorcoops.org. The two major developers of senior co-ops in Minnesota are Realife, at www.realifeinc.com, and Nichols Development, at www.summerhillcoop.com and www.gramercycos.com.
Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.
(c) 2005, Katherine Salant
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