Seeing the Bigger Picture in Senior Living Real Estate Planning

By Sara Wildberger T

rends transforming senior living are running parallel to those disrupting commercial real estate. A report

issued this fall from the Massachusetts Insti- tute of Technology (MIT) Center for Real Estate opened some eyes and sparked a lot of discussion in the senior living industry. “Real Trends: The Future of Real Estate in the United States” looked at the demographic, technological, and economic changes that will alter the landscape and ways of thinking for developers, investors, and governments alike. Naturally, senior living is critical to this picture. Co-author Albert Saiz, director of the MIT Center for Real Estate, shares some thoughts beyond the report and further ideas specific to aging—as well as a call to action for senior living executives.

Today vs. 20 years from now: “Right now, it’s a family problem. It’s going to become a societal problem,” Saiz says. “The report focuses on 15 years into the future, but this is going to be a gradual process. The real gravity of the situation will accentuate in the next 20 to 30 years. We’re already seeing trends enter the marketplace, such as the greater need for affordability.”

Think big: “Cities and suburbs are planning for senior housing, but not thinking comprehensively about the lifestyles of seniors,” Saiz says. We may have forgotten the art of the master plan: “You see them often in the large cities, but there’s a lack of suburban master planning.” Classical planning models are done by

the numbers: counting units, homes, or numbers of workers. “This is not getting us to think harder about the environment. We haven’t thought of planning interventions to make people’s lives better.”

50 SENIOR LIVING EXECUTIVE / ISSUE 6 2017 “The issue is one of missed opportuni-

ties in how governments think about public facilities,” Saiz says. Instead of dotting the landscape with a school here, a library there, cluster facilities to create a sense of street life. A senior living residence next to a library and some retail gives people a place to go and to stay involved.

The “sharing economy” effect: Aging housing stock, demographic change, and an increased acceptance of co-living arrangements by millennials could converge in wider use of sharing spaces we already have. Where zoning allows or can be adjusted, older people could share residences with younger ones. In new construction or in recreating cur-

rent residences, the shift could be to inte- grating more opportunities for intergenera- tional exchange—situating a residence near a school or child-care center, for instance, or a university.

Dream bigger: “Part of the problem is we’re not dreaming big enough,” Saiz says. “It’s already hard enough to push through a regulatory project approval process,” much less do something new and different, so many lean back into familiar solutions. Such typical zoning and planning pro-

cesses may be due for disruption. But that can’t happen, Saiz says, without first gen- erating excitement around possible new solutions. Visioning, brainstorming, and blue-sky sessions can be that energy source. This motivates diverse groups such as com- munities, economic development groups, and investors to want to make changes.

Find new partnerships—and different ones: In day-to-day business challenges, even the most strategic leaders can lose sight

Thought Leader Profile

Albert Saiz Daniel Rose

Associate Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Director of the MIT Center for Real Estate

of the big picture. Outsourcing the visionary capacity to a good partner can maximize your potential for innovation. Saiz laughs that “it may be self-serving” to

recommend a university partner for such ex- ploration. “But that’s where the ideas are, and we have the time to think about these things.” Senior living leaders could, for instance,

gather not just planning schools, but design, architecture, technology, economics, and health departments for an MIT-style hack- athon on senior living to get the ideas flowing.

“There are so many talking about square footage, and so few about people.” The zoning and planning process is now usually narrowly focused on quantitative concerns, Saiz says. That may be appropriate, but it’s left a void in leadership—one senior living leaders can fill. “Dream a new suburban downtown.

Do the master plan, even if you think it’s not going to happen. I understand—we all understand—the costs and economics of building. But we need more aspirational projects to galvanize the public, and show what can be a better future together.”

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