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Don’t mind the gap in intergenerational housing

  • >> Karrie Jacobs, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-09-05 11:03:22 BdST

My husband and I used to visit my mother-in-law, Helen, at a massive continuing-care retirement community on Long Island, intended to take its residents (minimum age, 62) all the way from “independent living” to hospice care.

“Hey, we should live here,” my husband would joke. “We’re old enough.”

“Over my dead body,” I’d reply, not joking at all.

I found the complex, in a remote corner of Port Washington, New York, depressing. Not that there was anything wrong with the accommodations. It is an exceptionally comfortable place, with plush apartments, a heated pool, a billiard room, Pilates classes and a resort-grade Sunday brunch omelette station.

But everyone there was, in a word, old. And all the residents appeared to be living in exile, far removed from whatever their lives had once been.

By contrast, intergenerational housing — development that goes out of its way to mix older and younger people — is increasingly regarded as healthier, physically and psychologically. While we’ve heard a lot lately about huge, leisure-oriented communities, like The Villages in Florida, inhabited exclusively by those 55 and older, the largest proportion of US seniors lives in the most intergenerational places: cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Why is housing designed to help older people stay in the mix becoming a priority? Two words: baby boomers. Currently, there are 73 million of us, all born between 1946 and 1964. According to the Census Bureau, about 10,000 members of this group turn 65 every day, “and by 2030, all boomers will be at least age 65.”

As with every other aspect of society, boomers seem destined to transform the business of aging. At least, I hope we are. And we’ll soon get help from Gen X, since the leading edge of that cohort is now turning 55.

“You are not the only one,” AJ Viola, an entrepreneur working on a new housing approach for seniors, assured me when I told him about my memories of visiting my mother-in-law. “Every single person we talked to ... I feel like the verbiage is ‘I would rather die.’ How many times have folks said that to us?”

A couple of years ago, Viola, 37, who previously ran D-Rev, a Silicon Valley company that made affordable medical devices, partnered with Zachary Hollander, 38, formerly of Google, to devise a different model of senior living. This was to be informed by technology’s spirit of endless reinvention and the observation that their parents were not anything like their grandparents or great-grandparents.

“I think my parents are kind of living my best life,” Hollander said. “You know, they’re doing all the same things I want to be doing.”

In 2019, Viola and Hollander went on a research trip to Austin, Texas, which they figured was a promising market, and met Chris Krager, a local architect and developer. Krager, who built SOL (Solutions Oriented Living), a green subdivision in East Austin, owns a company that manufactures modular homes. He had once tried to work on an updated approach to retirement living with a Dallas-based developer of more conventional communities, but that foray went nowhere. He, too, understood that people his age — 53 — were not likely to be interested in what the industry was selling.

“Retirement is not something that they’re even considering,” Krager said. “They’re going to stay active and engaged.”

A provided image shows Wayne and Pencie Culiver, long-time residents of Tempe, Az., who now live at the Mirabella at ASU, a 239-unit tower on the Arizona State University campus. The New York Times

A provided image shows Wayne and Pencie Culiver, long-time residents of Tempe, Az., who now live at the Mirabella at ASU, a 239-unit tower on the Arizona State University campus. The New York Times

The three joined forces as a company called Cantina Communities and recently secured backing from the Mansueto Office, a Chicago-based investment firm, to begin building residential enclaves that reject what Hollander regards as a “cruise ship, one-lane lifestyle.” Instead, they plan to encourage residents to create their own culture, using familiar technology — “basic tools that everybody, including my parents, knows how to use,” he said — like shared calendars. The partners are preparing to break ground on their first community, adjacent to the main street of Buda, Texas, 15 miles southwest of Austin.

Current plans show tight clusters of small rental homes, ranging from a 520-square-foot junior one-bedroom to a 1,130-square-foot two-bedroom. All are distinctly modern, with covered porches, some subtle Craftsman-style touches and walls that are mostly windows. There will also be a “great house” and “common studios” that can be used for the events and programs that the community itself will generate.

But the main advantage, at least with this first development, is that it will be part of a small town that has lately become a destination for people who can no longer afford Austin.

“We couldn’t have been more fortunate with this site,” Krager told me, “because we really are across from City Hall and a public library, and walking distance to the downtown main street, which is really cute.” Future sites, he said, are likely to be in “exurban destination-type places,” like the Hudson Valley, around Lake Tahoe or near Joshua Tree National Park.

One problem not easily solved is the very idea of “senior.” Much as the design profession has embraced the term “universal design” to describe adaptations for disabled people that have made places and things work better for everyone, the Cantina partners are trying to come up with something that works for older people but is sexier and broader than the “S” word.

The trick might be to create communities that are not just for older residents.

“Technically, we are allowed to have up to 20% of the units be anybody else who isn’t 55,” said Viola, explaining the agreement he and his partners made with the town of Buda. “I think it’s a really fun way to both learn more about our target customer but also start to understand what does intergenerational living look like.”

Donna Butts should know the answer. The executive director of an organization called Generations United has been promoting the value of interaction between young and old for decades. Her explanation for doing that work is straightforward: “I want to help create the world that I want to grow old in. I knew I didn’t want to live just with a bunch of old people. I wanted to make sure that there were options.”

But there aren’t nearly as many as there could be. Butts told me about what might be the country’s most sophisticated approach to intergenerational housing, the “university-based retirement community.” These are upscale senior apartments, often with medical care in-house, that are on, or adjacent to, a college campus.

The degree of interaction between the retirees and the rest of the campus varies. Lasell Village, at Lasell University in Auburndale, Massachusetts, near Boston, requires its residents to commit to 450 hours of learning annually. Residents of the recently opened Mirabella at ASU complex, a 20-story apartment tower on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe, have student ID cards that allow them to audit classes and use the university library.

But from a design perspective, the most enticing example Butts cited is in Singapore, where some 80% of the population lives in public housing. Designed by WOHA architects, the Kampung Admiralty is an amenity-filled superblock developed by the country’s Housing and Development Board, with apartments available for purchase by those 55 and older. Adjacent to the two residential towers are multilevel gardens and plazas that offer shopping — including a centre full of street food vendors — and various services. The idea is not simply to provide necessities to the residents, but also to make the complex a draw for the entire neighbourhood, an intergenerational hub.

In the United States, it’s hard to find intergenerational projects with the kind of intensity that is second nature in Singapore. One possible contender is Agrihood, which was just given the green light in Santa Clara, California. It will include 160 mixed-income apartments, 165 homes for low-income seniors and veterans, and 36 town houses, surrounding a 1.5-acre farm. The minifarm will feature “a community room, produce stand and learning shed,” according to a report in San José Spotlight.

Renderings by architectural firm Steinberg Hart show low-rise apartments with pitched standing-seam metal roofs adjacent to the cultivated acre, which has its own miniature silo. Lara Hermanson of Farmscape, a company that will design and operate the agricultural portion of the project, told Spotlight, “We’re going to be having, essentially, an intergenerational hangout on this farm.”

In New York City, new housing for seniors tends to be in dedicated buildings, often in out-of-the-way locations overlooked by the real estate industry. An exception is One Flushing, completed in 2019 and designed by Bernheimer Architecture, a firm that focuses on affordable housing. Off bustling Main Street in Flushing, Queens, the building is 400 feet long and narrow, squeezed into a site alongside the Long Island Railroad. About a quarter of its 230 affordable units are for seniors. While the building isn’t designed specifically for its oldest tenants, there are some subtle accommodations.

“The senior units are all banked into the centre of the building,” said architect Andrew Bernheimer. This means those homes are closest to the elevators, so the residents don’t have far to walk when leaving their apartments.

According to Bernheimer, the laundry room, community room and gym are all on the top floor of the building, next to a roof terrace with planter boxes. These small gestures are intended to bring together “residents of all ages, to create some sort of community across generations within the building,” he said.

One group that seems to be well ahead of the curve in intergenerational living is people who identify as LGBTQ.

SAGE, an organization dedicated to supporting LGBT “elders” — no one seems to like the word “senior” much — recently partnered in the development of two affordable apartment buildings in New York City. The first, Stonewall House, is a modern 17-story brick tower with large windows, designed by Marvel. Completed in 2019, it is on the property of the Ingersoll Houses, a public housing complex in Brooklyn.

The other, the newly opened Crotona Senior Residences, is a fairly typical seven-story brick building by Magnusson Architecture and Planning, notable for its generous windows and its location across from Crotona Park in the Bronx.

David Vincent, chief program officer for SAGE, said the ground-floor community centres in both buildings draw residents and nonresidents of all ages with services and activities that include health and wellness discussions and reading groups.

In the Bronx, the SAGE centre just opened, but its director, José Collazo, said there would be monthly Rainbow Socials, dance parties open to the community and not just building residents.

“Intergenerational programming has been one of the basic tenets of SAGE for the last 40 years,” Vincent said. “And it’s had amazing benefits,” both for young people who find mentors and build relationships and for older people relieved of feelings of isolation and depression.

In fact, the Los Angeles LGBT Centre owns and operates one of the most striking examples of intergenerational living in the United States. Its Anita May Rosenstein Campus, off Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, is billed as the “first intergenerational facility serving LGBT seniors and youth.” The cluster of buildings — white concrete boxes and expanses of glass, punctuated by a series of courtyards and plazas — was designed by Leong Leong (a bicoastal firm) and Los Angeles-based KFA Architects & Planning.

Separate from the seniors’ apartments are 25 new supportive housing units for young people. The center’s CEO, Lorri L. Jean, said they were a priority for the organization because 40% of Los Angeles’ homeless youth identify as LGBT, and that LGBT seniors were a priority because many who had ended up in more mainstream housing “experienced enormous homophobia from the other residents.”

While the need was clear, less obvious was the idea that younger and older residents, housed in separate buildings, would benefit by spending time together. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, the LGBT Centre in Los Angeles has been running a culinary arts training program that prepares both populations for restaurant jobs. Other intergenerational activities, put on hold by the pandemic, include yoga, photography workshops in which young and old participants work together on assignments, and sessions in which participants share their stories of coming out.

Jean explained the logic of the centre’s intergenerational strategy: “LGBT seniors are four times more likely than their straight counterparts to live alone. And they have no family to support them. And a lot of these youth have lost their families. And so we have this thought of creating families of choice that can help each other.”

Of course it’s not only LGBTQ people who depend on families of choice. To some extent, we all do. And families, by definition, are intergenerational. So the familiar observation that boomers are in denial about aging shouldn’t necessarily be written off as yet another example of archetypal self-absorption. It could be read as a signal that a systemic redesign is long overdue.

As Viola framed it: “We did dozens and dozens of interviews with folks 60 and over, and everybody was approaching this next life stage with such excitement and optimism. And it felt like, why isn’t someone trying to bottle that energy and create something that celebrates this part of life?”


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