There’s a new twist to aging in place. It’s aging in an interesting urban place.
It’s the idea that the city you live in or near—with all its buzz and diversity—just might be an ideal place to come of age as a senior citizen with equal amounts of grace and gusto.
Although there is no data that captures the number or growth of alternative senior housing located in the fast-pumping hearts of cities around the globe, there’s evidence of a stir. A smattering of highly specialized, highly provocative ways of living (including in Chicago what will be the Midwest’s first affordable senior housing that openly welcomes people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) have started to pop up in very urban settings, targeted to the engaged senior for whom a retirement village set apart from the rest of the community simply doesn’t work.
As a whole, these citified developments are as diverse as the urban fabric itself and cover a range of living arrangements—from senior apartments to independent living and continuing care retirement communities. All of them, though, share the belief that communal living mixed with the energy of the city is a prescription for the loneliness, isolation, and focus on medical status that other elder communities offer.
In Montreuil, on the east side of Paris, there’s the Babayagas’ House for feminists of a certain age who manage the place as well. In Los Angeles, the Dana Strand Senior Apartments is an urban infill development (where land in a dense area is re-developed for housing) that gives low-income seniors affordable rental apartments and the ability to stay in their neighborhood in a LEED gold sustainable complex, no less. In Chicago, The Clare and The Hallmark are high-class high rises planted in tony neighborhoods that give moneyed seniors deluxe accommodations and easy access to the cultural attractions of the city (kind of like a vertical cruise ship).
But one of the most interesting projects breaking ground right now is also one of the most alternative in every sense of the term and a totem for this whole idea that cities and innovative senior housing go together.
It’s called Town Hall. It’s meant to serve—in an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere—anyone who is over 55 and low income. And not coincidentally, it’s located in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood (a.k.a. Boystown), the heart of the city’s gay community. And it sits adjacent to the Center on Halsted (COH), a vibrant and comprehensive community center for the LGBTQ community that opened in 2007 and sees 1,000 people walk through its doors every day.
When it’s completed in fall 2014, the six-story apartment complex will offer 79 units (49 one bedrooms; 30 studios) and be the next logical step in supporting Chicago and the Midwest’s LGBTQ community. (Triangle Square in Hollywood is the country’s first and, to-date, only completed housing development meant for low-income LGBTQ seniors.)
Both the COH and Heartland Housing, a Midwest developer of affordable housing, identified the need for affordable housing for LGBTQ seniors in Chicago. In 2005, Heartland Alliance did a study that found one in five LGBT seniors in Chicago living in poverty. The COH found that nearly one-quarter of its public programs is directed toward the elderly. And according to Britta Larson, senior services director at the COH, the COH also found that LGBTQ seniors have a particular and often unpleasant affinity. Often they age in isolation, Larson says, because they often have no children to care for them. And often they go back in the closet—for fear of discrimination—to secure themselves a safe place in mainstream senior housing.
The two organizations have now joined forces to produce Town Hall, in a part of the city that is LGBTQ affirming. Both an urban infill and adaptive reuse project, Town Hall is comprised of a community center carved out of a landmarked police station from 1907, which sits on the site, and a new, six-story apartment building. The two buildings will be conjoined on their first and second levels. The name Town Hall is likewise a melding of old and new. This was the site of the Town Hall for Lakeview Township before it was annexed by Chicago. That 1880s building was torn down to make way for the police station. The project team appropriated the name for its sense of community and inclusion.
Heartland Housing is Town Hall’s developer and property manager. The COH is providing programming and services. The city of Chicago provided significant funding and the site (sold to Heartland for $1). Gensler, the global design firm where we work, is doing the architecture and interiors. And last but not least, the very urban backdrop is doing the "vibe."
The Chicago Pride Parade and several other street festivals take place right outside Town Hall’s doors. A second floor outdoor terrace (above what will be a small amount of ground-floor retail) will give Town Hall residents a kind of front yard and perch over the community.
There’s a Whole Foods next door in the COH building—handy, because there is no food service at Town Hall. Each apartment will have its own small kitchen, and a communal kitchen/dining room will be built into the community space so residents can stage larger parties. Other community space includes a fitness room, a multipurpose/flex space for lectures and activities, and a therapy room which is likely to house a nurse practitioner. (There won’t be managed care.)
By 2050, the Census projects that 88.5 million people in this country will be 65 and older, comprising 20% of the total U.S. population at that time. That’s more than double the number of seniors today, who account for roughly 13% of the population.
"It’s commonplace to talk about seniors as this monolithic entity," says David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association based in Washington, D.C. But, "it’s not a homogenous group."
Whereas a lot of senior housing built in the past was in suburban settings, the options today have grown considerably, Schless says. So has the demand for choices. He cites consumer research that the ASHA did with the adult children (ages 55 to 75) of current senior housing residents. These new and soon-to-be seniors spoke clearly about what they want for their senior years—and in housing.
"They want to stay connected to the community. They want to volunteer," says Schless. "And they definitely find urban settings to be appealing."