High-Quality Senior Housing Plays a Critical Role: Q&A With Pennrose
Even at the height of the pandemic, Pennrose’s leasing activity remained relatively steady.
As a principal & member of the executive leadership team, Tim Henkel knows what it means to have an overall vision of senior housing. Henkel began his career at Pennrose in 1999, and, since then, he has overseen the growth of the company’s development platform to include new construction, adaptive reuse and acquisition/preservation projects.
Pennrose recently received financing and started construction on the conversion of the 1920s Mary D. Stone school building in Auburn, Mass., into a 55-unit partially affordable senior community. Henkel talks about the challenges of transforming a historic building into a senior housing property. Additionally, he discusses plans for expanding the company’s LGBTQ senior housing projects into other markets.
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What is it like to be in the senior housing industry during a health crisis?
Henkel: We take this responsibility seriously and understand it’s even more critical during a pandemic. Not only is there a lack of high-quality affordable housing available for seniors nationwide, but seniors are one of the populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus. This means we need to be hyperaware of every decision we make and how it could ultimately impact the health and wellness of our residents. There is a very real gravity to the situation and keeping residents safe, happy and healthy is the top priority.
What is exciting and innovative to you in senior housing right now?
Henkel: It’s exciting to see the increasing integration of the health and wellness industry into housing, specifically for seniors. Having the ability to connect our senior residents to telehealth services or on-site health-care providers is an amazing resource.
It’s clear that high-quality housing plays a critical role in the health of individuals, neighborhoods and entire communities. We’re continuing to see health-care systems and insurers throughout the country looking for ways to incorporate housing into their operations—whether it’s funding new construction, partnering with local developers or embedding health-care services within residential communities. In fact, we’re partnering with Blanchard Valley Health System in Ohio to develop Eastern Woods Senior, an affordable senior community, on their existing health campus.
How have senior housing trends changed due to the pandemic?
Henkel: One change we’ve noticed is the pace at which seniors are ready to move or consider downsizing. At the height of the pandemic, our leasing activity at our senior properties was relatively steady, but many delayed moving because the uncertainty of safety in a new community during a pandemic was hard to overcome. However, as more seniors feel comfortable getting out, we’ve definitely seen an uptick in leasing activity. Moving into a new, clean and well-maintained home with on-site amenities and without the stress of continued upkeep is an attractive option during this time.
Many seniors are underhoused—cohabitating with family or friends in undersized apartments. Others live in apartments that are not easily accessible due to mobility issues and other obstacles that make it difficult for them to get outside for doctors’ appointments, grocery store trips and everyday errands. Those needs remain, as seen by the resumption of steady leasing in our senior units.
How do you ensure the health and safety of your residents, considering social and cultural activities are very common in senior housing communities?
Henkel: One big reason seniors move into apartment buildings has to do with the community and socialization aspect. Many seniors do not want to feel isolated where they live and crave the camaraderie that residential communities offer.
Our staff has gotten creative—allowing residents to sit in their doorway with proper personal protective equipment to mingle with their neighbors or even hosting hallway bingo to engage residents from a safe distance. It’s also been inspiring to see the internal support systems many of our communities have established during this time to help their neighbors access groceries and other essential items.
Pennrose recently closed on financing for the redevelopment of the historic Mary D. Stone school building in Massachusetts. What are the challenges of transforming a historic building into a senior housing property?
Henkel: The biggest challenge, and one of the most important considerations in historic rehabilitations, is making sure we’re returning a treasured asset to the community. We want to modernize and make additions for units and other amenities, without losing the historic significance of the building. Above all, the building needs to retain its special meaning to the community.
Another challenge is achieving energy efficiency. Older, historic buildings are generally not energy efficient by today’s standards. We need to think creatively and identify innovative solutions to ensure we’re achieving resident comfort and not overusing energy, while also not sacrificing the feasibility of the project.
Earlier this year, Pennrose gained tax credits to help fund two projects in Ohio, including the first designated LGBTQ-friendly senior, affordable development in Cincinnati. Do you plan on expanding this niche?
Henkel: Developing residential communities that are specifically designed to meet the individual needs of the community is integral to the Pennrose mission. Our investment in LGBTQ-friendly housing is largely guided by the local community-based groups and partners who are aware of the unique housing needs that elderly, LGBTQ populations face in that area. We’re proud to be an instrument and play a part in providing the solution.
Unfortunately, only a handful of states currently have designated LGBTQ-friendly housing options. We see a huge opportunity for areas throughout the country—like Delaware or New Jersey—where high-quality, inclusive senior housing could be an impactful addition to the neighborhood framework. This is a niche we’re excited about, especially after seeing the local enthusiasm for our similar projects like the Rogers School redevelopment in Boston or John C. Anderson Apartments in Philadelphia.
What opportunities do you see for Pennrose going forward?
Henkel: Further integrating health care and housing. Especially for seniors, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need for more neighborhood-based care. We’re excited to engage smaller health-care systems as tenants in mixed-use, residential communities, or partner with local health systems to develop housing on their campuses.
We see health care and housing as a truly symbiotic relationship—with residents benefiting from easy access to care and health systems and insurers utilizing high-quality housing as part of loss-mitigation strategies.
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How do you expect things to change in the senior housing industry after the coronavirus?
Henkel: Throughout the country, there has been a heavy focus on the migration from urban environments. We’re seeing young adults and families leaving apartments to have more space and raise their families in the suburbs. However, it will be interesting to see the corresponding response in the senior housing industry. It’s a sellers’ housing market; there are housing units left behind as families move, and we know seniors benefit from being surrounded by services and resources in the city. It will be interesting to see if these factors influence an uptick in older adults moving into urban settings.