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Developers try to fill needs in affordable senior housing

BY Sunday, March 15, 2020 05:00pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Local developers are working to increase access to affordable housing for seniors who want to remain in their neighborhoods. 

Nonprofit housing developer LINC Up recently partnered with a local developer on a new affordable housing project called MoTown Square, a 51-unit assisted living facility proposed for 240 Hall St. SE in Grand Rapids. The aim of the project is to allow the senior population to remain in their neighborhood with an affordable housing option.

Ryan VerWys, president and CEO at ICCF COURTESY PHOTO

“(Seniors) tend to be overhoused; they have large, three-bedroom homes with stairs that aren’t ideal for seniors to live in,” said Jeremy DeRoo, executive director at LINC Up. “Yet there’s such an undersupply for alternative housing in the neighborhood, that for people who want to stay in the neighborhood where they’ve always lived, they just can’t find places.” 

The project is for people ages 55 and over who qualify for Medicaid and make between 30 and 60 percent of the area median income. 

The demand for housing for seniors persists around the country, especially in cases where residents are not yet willing or needing to transition into a care facility. According to a 2019 study by NORC at the University of Chicago, a social research organization, the population of middle-income seniors who have limited housing options will double between now and 2029. 

This population might not have the financial resources to pay for private senior housing options, according to the study. In 2019, 11.6 million (81 percent) of middle-income seniors without equity in housing had an annual income and assets of $60,000 or less, which is below the projected annual cost of $62,000 for assisted living rent and out-of-pocket medical spending.

The number of people who do not have income that rely on Medicaid will continue to increase also, said Harold Mast, who worked as the executive director for Genesis Nonprofit Housing Corp. and now does consulting for affordable housing across Michigan. Mast is consulting with LINC Up on the MoTown Square project.

“Those are the people this project will target, to keep them out of a nursing home or to help them transfer from a nursing home if they no longer need that level of care,” Mast said. “Lots of facilities call themselves affordable, but affordable is a hard word to define. You have to make it affordable to people who are living on Social Security, or Social Security plus a small pension. There are lots of seniors in that category.”

The National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, a nonprofit that compiles data on senior housing for investors, reported in 2019 that the number of new units being brought online in the greater Grand Rapids area is the highest since it began tracking data in 2006. In Grand Rapids, the occupancy for senior housing developments stood at 91.6 percent, higher than the national average of 87.8 percent.

Many developers have acknowledged the growing number of seniors by adding new senior housing developments, but are not able to provide housing that would be affordable to lower income seniors. 

“As they age, they have a choice: either living at home as long as they can and using some of their income to buy services, or moving into a nursing home because nursing homes are covered by Medicaid,” Mast said. “A lot of these people don’t need to be in a nursing home. What’s being built, most of it, even though it’s called affordable, is not affordable to this level of income.”

These types of housing developments are particularly difficult to fund, Mast added. While providing housing is standard for developers, there is also the need to build in services for the people living in the developments. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority has an affordable assisted living program aimed specifically at developments for lower income seniors. Mast said it is difficult to get state approval on those projects because MSHDA is “pretty specific” about what it wants.

Developers often turn to the federal low-income housing tax credit program administered by MSHDA. LINC Up expects to apply for the tax credits in the April funding round for MoTown Square. Another nonprofit housing developer, Grand Rapids-based Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF), was awarded the tax credits for a senior housing development near the corner of Division Avenue and Wealthy Street. The project calls for between 50 and 65 apartments for older adults who can still live independently.

Ryan VerWys, president and CEO at ICCF, said the goal is to complete the project within the next three to four years. 

“We believe strongly that everyone should have a place to call home in their community,” he said. “We recognize that there are a variety of different challenges our neighbors face, not only related to income, but also different stages of life.”

ICCF completed a market study for the development, which showed the need for housing that supports older adults is going to increase during the next 10 to 20 years, and that these seniors will be looking for different types of housing than previous generations, specifically housing offered in more urban environments.

Amplify GR, another Grand Rapids-based nonprofit developer, has proposed 59 senior apartments as part of a larger plan in the Boston Square neighborhood. Similar to LINC Up, the aim is to allow seniors already living in the neighborhood the chance to remain in a familiar area.

Providing the opportunity for people to stay in their neighborhoods increases their sense of freedom and quality of life, LINC Up’s DeRoo said. 

“We’re looking at addressing that by providing an affordable assisted living option for people to be able to retain that independence at an affordable rate,” DeRoo said.

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