Meet the Baby Boomers (Again)

Demand from the 55-and-up crowd for age-qualified apartments offers robust opportunity for affordable senior rentals, luxury living and everything in between.

Manny Gonzalez, KTGY Architecture + Planning

Manny Gonzalez, KTGY Architecture + Planning

It’s often said that architects are a leading indicator of where the real estate industry is headed. Starting in 2010, a flurry of apartment work started pulling many residential design out of the Great Recession specialists, thanks largely to demand from the massive Millennial generation. While new design commissions for apartments geared primarily to Echo Boomers are finally waning, my office is now being overwhelmed with work inspired by another generation. Meet the Baby Boomers—again.

From affordable senior rentals to luxury living, the demand for age-qualified apartment homes is higher than ever. And with 10,000 people a day turning 65 through 2030, demand will continue to grow. People in the 55-and-up crowd may not always eat at the same restaurants or pick the same movies as twenty-somethings, but let’s not underestimate the parallels.

Wish Lists

Like their younger counterparts, renters older than 55 rank proximity to grocery stores, dining and entertainment at the top of their wish lists. Sometimes you even see similar tastes in music. My three kids, all in their 20s, have made off with my Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull vinyl (although my wife’s favorite Bread and John Denver records are still safely at home with us).

Baby Boomers and Echo boomers also share some preferences for what they like to see at the rental community itself. They both have pets, so bark parks and “laundra-mutts” are a must. Cool social gathering places are also a necessity. And while health clubs sometimes seem to be overrun with muscle-flexing Millennials, 75 percent of Boomers say they are pursuing an active lifestyle in order to stay healthy—a higher rate than younger generations, reports James Chung of Reach Advisors.

One amenity where the two groups differ on is entertainment. Almost every market-rate community developed in the ‘90s and even later seemed to feature a screening room for watching movies; Millennials, on the other hand, often prefer to stream their selections. Earlier generations, of course, grew up seeing movies in a theater; I even remember going to single-screen cinemas. So the theater room still seems to be a popular spot in age-qualified apartments.

Universal Ideas

Azulón at Mesa Verde, Costa Mesa, Calif. (Chet Frohlich Photography)

Azulón at Mesa Verde, Costa Mesa, Calif. (Chet Frohlich Photography)

Incorporating Universal Design into active adult apartments is critical for attracting new residents and for allowing existing residents to remain in their apartment as their needs change. To quote Mary Jo Peterson, the country’s leading expert in the field, “If Universal Design is done well, you won’t notice it until you benefit from using it.”

One of the best examples is Kohler’s Choreograph Collection, which offers a variety of attractive accessories. Their grab bars are beautifully designed and don’t have the institutional look of an ADA-compliant product, but they can still support up to 300 pounds of pressure.

My other favorite is a hallway outlet that’s paired with a light switch. It’s the perfect height for a night light that hides the plug, but it also allows the resident to avoid bending over every time he or she plugs in the vacuum cleaner. And, in accordance with the Peterson principle, you don’t notice the Kohler grab bar or the plug until you benefit from using them.

Since I started designing age-qualified housing more than 25 years ago, there has always has been an overwhelming demand for affordable senior housing, especially rentals. We recently completed the renovation of Angelus Plaza on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. It’s the nation’s largest affordable, age-qualified community with nearly 1,100 units and it has a waiting list of over 2,000 qualified applicants. I can’t think of a single affordable apartment community that I have worked on over the years that isn’t fully occupied and doesn’t have a long waiting list.

Renters by Choice

During that same 25-year stretch, I’ve worked on only a handful of market-rate senior rentals. Renting by necessity has always been a powerful factor, but today renting by choice is gaining traction. Azulón at Mesa Verde, a luxury active-adult community we designed for C.J. Segerstrom & Sons in Costa Mesa, Calif., is little more than a year old, but it already has more than 100. Azulón leased up all 215 units in less than 10 months. It’s no surprise when you realize that it has a grocery store, CVS/pharmacy, shopping and dining literally right out the back door.

Demographic studies and historical patterns also suggest that the 55-plus cohort is downsizing and choosing a more convenient lifestyle. Some 55-and-up renters, particularly those with grandchildren nearby, are looking for a second home near family. Baby Boomers don’t want to sleep on the couch every time they visit their kids, nor do they want to sell their homes. An apartment offers a home away from home, and should the child move away at some point, it’s a home they don’t have to worry about trying to sell.

This helps explain why master-planned communities are incorporating market-rate rentals; a prime example is Stapleton, developed by Forest City on the site of the old Denver airport. Baby Boomers like being able to rent apartments somewhere that is near the grandchildren and offer amenities that appeal to young families.

The homebuilding industry has always been cyclical. Historically, it’s been the condo developers who outbid the general occupancy apartment builders for land, but today it might just be the market-rate, age-qualified apartment sector that will do it. The enormous number of Baby Boomers could prove to be a field of dreams for developers who, in the words of the classic movie, bet that “if you build it, they will come.”

Manny Gonzalez, FAIA, LEED AP, is the managing principal with the Los Angeles office of KTGY Architecture + Planning. Reach him at (310) 394-2623 or [email protected].

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