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How Covid-19 will end “big box” senior living

Courtesy Our Village of Hope
Minka means “house of the people” in Japanese.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published Last updated

The Village of Hope, a new model for senior living, is scheduled to open in central Pennsylvania by next summer. It will be populated by elegant, minimalist 3D-printed smart homes called Minka houses, created by noted geriatrician Bill Thomas.

Thomas’s Minka houses are not merely architectural solutions: They’re central to a philosophy that integrates seniors within a community rather than segregating them within a facility. Nearly 20 years ago, Thomas conceived of the paradigm-shifting, much-lauded Green House Project—a movement that has driven the creation of smaller, more homelike nursing homes, in which residents of 10 or 12 people share a communal kitchen and living “hearth.” The Minka houses, by contrast, are designed as small standalone houses of 300 to 600 square feet, to accommodate one or two people. But both are rooted in the idea that people of any age and ability thrive in real communities.

Thomas calls his latest idea MAGIC: Multi-ability, multi-generational integrated communities. And he sees it as part of a new set of values forming about how and where older people choose to live.

Today’s assisted living industry may seem entrenched, but the first private pay retirement homes actually opened in the 1980s. A century ago, many older people lived with their families in their later years; “rest homes,” which were publicly funded, were inhabited by older people who didn’t have relatives to take them in, and the poor. In the 1950s, when the federal government chose to regulate rest homes much like hospitals, creating nursing homes as we know them, “entire industries developed around the idea of housing and caring for and supporting older people in America outside of the family home,” says Thomas. “It became almost an aspirational part of that post-war retirement industrial complex.”

This happened at a time when many companies paid fixed pensions and there was more social stability, Thomas points out. But today, those pensions are rare. Most Americans aren’t prepared for the cost of retirement, never mind care. And most older Boomers aren’t exactly keen to move into institutional homes, either. With deaths in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities representing 40% of all US Covid-19 deaths, the traditional models can look even less ideal.

When the Village of Hope opens in Pennsylvania’s Clearfield County, it will share some aspects of the independent living developments that Thomas critiques: The village is being financed by a real estate investment trust, for instance, but only because it didn’t check off enough boxes to win any state or federal grants, says Kathy Gillespie, CEO of the county’s Area Agency on Aging and Thomas’ collaborator on this project. However, it won’t operate like any category of what Thomas has termed “big box” senior living. It’s more like a hamlet, with its own cultural center, “healing gardens,” and community support systems.

Courtesy The Village of Hope

Seniors’ daily needs—help with groceries and house maintenance—will be performed by young neighbors, explains Gillespie. They’ll live at the village at a reduced rent in exchange for agreeing to be good citizens. In this way, the village resembles a concept developed in the Netherlands, which pairs students with seniors to give both parties an opportunity to save money, have company, and assist each other in navigating life.

To rent a Minka house at the Village of Hope will cost an expected $1,100 per month. That’s about a quarter of the price of a typical independent or assisted living unit, because this model strips away the service and labor costs that drive up the price of senior housing.

An added benefit of the model: It may help keep seniors safer during a public health crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, says Gillespie. Even if a senior needs to stay home or sit on their front porch of a Minka, they could still interact with the village life happening around them—something that’s not possible in an institution, with rooms that often look out at a parking lot.

Quartz talked to Thomas about how the Covid-19 may impact the growth of MAGIC communities like the Village of Hope.

Quartz: Why do you believe the coronavirus pandemic will drive interest in Minka houses and MAGIC communities?

Bill Thomas: I believe the new cultural consensus is going to be built around two cross-cutting trends: There’s going to be a lot more wariness around large buildings that concentrate frail older people and a lot more people looking for alternatives to that style of support. But the other part of that’s probably even the bigger part of the story is the rise of small enclaves dedicated to creating, nurturing, and growing social capital.

Even before the pandemic, if you just looked at the aging of American society and you converted everyone’s needs into paid professional services, the numbers don’t work. It can’t be done. Some people have enough financial capital of their own to supplement earned benefits and have a place at the senior living community. But a lot of people were just left off the dance card. What we’re going to see going forward is what I call a middle-market revolution, where people of more modest financial means are going to combine their earned benefits with the ancient power of having good neighbors and being a good neighbor.

People of more modest financial means are going to combine their earned benefits with the ancient power of having good neighbors and being a good neighbor.  

In the post war, service-oriented leisure lifestyle consensus, you’re supposed to go to your [retirement community] and buy in, and people were supposed to pay money and people were supposed to do things for you. What’s coming is a much, much more realistic vision of a shared life with a smaller number of people in smaller houses, clustered close together with people of different generations and different abilities, living in fellowship with each other, with the intention of creating a sense of community. 

If this style of living is what people want, why hasn’t it happened?

I have a lot of people writing to me going, “I want that now. Where do I get it?” The point is, it’s actually extremely hard to do in the current environment. In the current environment, if you said, “Hey, you know what I’d like to do, I’d like to build a little pocket neighborhood of little houses with some of my friends and people of different ages,” and you go to [real estate website] Zillow, you’ll find there’s no such place. You can’t buy it. If you try to build it, you very quickly discover that the single-family home rules residential real estate and dominates public policy. That thing you want to do—having this really great little place to live where the kids are running around and older people are kind of sitting on the porch and watching over everybody—that social capital-rich environment is really hard to accomplish in today’s environment, with the financial instruments that are currently available to us.

It has been really hard to pull off, pre-Covid. What’s coming after the virus is people’s desire to have this way of living made available to them is going to overcome the inherent inertia of the residential housing industry.

 What has happened when people try to do this?

In most of America, there were laws on the books that said more than three unrelated people could not live in the same house. That, of course, was designed to keep undesirable people out. But guess what? Desirable people started having complicated families.

There were court cases that started saying “Municipalities, you can’t tell people what a family is.” And those court cases, I believe, laid the foundation for people starting to say, “I want a community and the state and the governing authority cannot simply prevent you from creating the kind of community that you want.” I think that’s coming next.

Are people calling you to buy individual Minkas for themselves, to put in their backyards?

There is growing interest in coach houses or, the worst term for them, the granny pod. The second most objectionable term is the mother-in-law cottage—these are horrible, ageist gendered names that I hate.

The name that people in the housing game use is accessory dwelling unit: you have a main residence and then you have the ability to put an accessory unit on the property. That’s a very, very old concept and there are big areas in big cities in Canada and the US where a lot of these coach houses or ADUs got built. But gradually restrictions began banning them.

Now, there’s a pretty incredible push in the United States to start relaxing the rules and regulations on accessory dwelling units, but here’s the thing: You know how big a lift it is to build a new house, right? You have to get perfect designs. You’ve got to go to the planning board. The problem is you have to do all of that same work—get the utilities connected, get the planning board to approve—for a little 300-square-foot dwelling. So communities still haven’t seen many ADUs built.

Real authentic community cannot survive convenience.

Now there’s even some pushback on the push for accessory dwelling units, because people have been able to build them and then they use them for Airbnb when the idea was this is for your family. It’s a very thorny, complicated arena and no one that I am aware of has made real progress into the accessory dwelling market.

So you imagine developers turning to entire pocket neighborhoods instead?

Yes, and not only because the idea of taking a large number of older people and concentrating them is going to seem less prudent, post-Covid. People are also rediscovering the extraordinary value of social capital and sometimes in very painful ways, sometimes in very beautiful ways. But, man, everybody is getting a master’s class in what social capital can do to make your life better.

Pre-Covid, we were living inside a giant global economy that was optimized for convenience. People were constantly telling you, “Well no, you can just get our app and just call a car and they’ll come and pick you up, and you can get your groceries, and get to do everything.” The thing that’s true, but we never reckoned with, is that convenience kills community. Real authentic community cannot survive convenience.

In fact, people build social capital and invest in authentic human communities when life becomes very inconvenient. A quick example of that is post-hurricane, anywhere in the world: Human communities come to life like grass after a forest fire. The shoots go up, because nothing is easy and you need to rely on other people to get stuff done.

Our pre Covid-19 economy, the drumbeat, relentless, constant message was, “You don’t need to rely on other people. Use our app. Use our computer. Use our device or whatever it was. You don’t need other people. Now there’s basically 7 billion people going, “Holy crap. We do need other people.”

You’ve been working on this for a few years. Do you think it will take off now? Many people fear that we’re going to snap back to the status quo once we have a vaccine.

Betting against the status quo, that’s really not smart. Post-Covid, I think there’s going to be a more community based, smaller-scale option that’s based more on social capital and that does embrace age integration [like the Village of Hope.] But instead of saying, Oh, “there’s going to be this big revolution and everything is going to change,” I think it’s going to be an “and” revolution.

I think there’s going to continue to be thousands and thousands and thousands of what we think of as conventional senior living properties. They’re going to go on their merry way, but they’re going to be joined by some really pretty exciting new ways of people coming together, living together, and working together.

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