6 Things to Consider When Rehabbing an Affordable Senior Housing Property

Robyn's Read | June 05, 2015

Dr. Robyn Stone learned a lot -- and felt a good measure of hope for the future -- after evaluating entries in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 2015 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition. Taken together, the proposals offer an incredibly useful recipe for building the next generation of affordable senior housing properties.

What do you do with a 45-year-old high-rise building that houses 300 low-income older adults but is falling apart at the seams?

If you are the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), you ask creative young people to come up with innovative plans to revitalize the building and improve the lives of the people living there.

And, in the process, you actually learn a thing or two about what the future of affordable senior housing could look like.

I learned a lot -- and felt a good measure of hope for the future -- after evaluating entries in HUD’s 2015 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition. The competition challenged teams of graduate students to redesign the 11-story Bayou Towers in Houma, LA, a city of 35,000 located 75 miles southwest of New Orleans.

The HUD competition began in February, but it wasn’t until late April that the 4 finalists -- interdisciplinary teams from New York University (NYU), University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Kansas, and University of Minnesota -- came to Washington, DC, to present their final proposals to our 5-member team of jurors.

6 Essential Ingredients of Affordable Senior Housing

Each team put a different spin on the revitalization of Bayou Towers. But what struck me most were the common themes running through all the team proposals.

Take together, those proposals offer us an incredibly useful recipe for building the next generation of affordable senior housing properties. Those properties should have 6 important ingredients:

  1. A reflection of local culture: Teams worked hard to incorporate the Cajon culture’s deep connection to the outdoors into their designs. Their plans added balconies to all units, created walking paths dotted with native plants, offered pedestrian access to a nearby park and waterfront, and installed a rooftop vegetable garden.

  2. A connection between residents and the local community: Student designs attempted to break down the walls between housing property and neighborhood by establishing an onsite child care center and creating ground-floor retail space that would attract customers from Bayou Towers and the wider community. Designs also featured outdoor spaces for hosting farmers’ markets, parking spaces for food-truck concessions, and a car-share program that would increase resident mobility without the hassle of car ownership.

  3. A connection among residents: Every design included attractive and flexible community space where residents could socialize, exercise, share meals, use computers and attend educational programs. 

  4. Support for aging in place: Student proposals gave residents easy access to onsite health care providers and service coordinators, and to programs that would promote wellness or deliver needed community-based services. Many plans incorporated universal design features that would help ensure the accessibility of apartments and the safety of residents.

  5. Energy conservation: The steamy climate of southern Louisiana had a big influence on the design of the heating and cooling systems at Bayou Towers. Extended overhangs kept the sun’s heat from penetrating apartment windows, while solar panels kept the building supplied with inexpensive hot water. Storm water retention systems collected gray water that could be used to flush toilets and irrigate landscaping. Air flow panels reduced the humidity that plagues Huoma from March through October. The students showed evidence that these and other strategies could translate into substantial energy savings that could be reinvested in the property and its programs.

  6. Innovative financing: Students proposed a number of promising financing strategies to pay for the renovations they proposed. These strategies were designed to maximize the availability of tax credits and engage partners in offering financial support. One plan offered retailers financial incentives to rent the building’s ground-floor space, and used those rents to pay for support services. Most of the financing strategies need some work, but I was impressed by the outside-the-box thinking behind them. 

And the Winners Are…

The NYU team took the competition’s grand prize while UCLA was runner-up. And all of the participating teams should be commended for their enthusiasm and creative ideas.

But there were 3 additional winners of this competition, in my view.

The field of applied research got a big boost from this competition. Students didn’t just whip up their designs overnight. They based those designs on rigorous investigation that took months to complete. For example, finalists: 

  • Traveled to Houma to meet with Bayou Towers residents and staff, as well as staff at the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority. 
  • Reviewed Houma’s demographics, economy, political environment and culture. 
  • Learned about senior housing financing, and about Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. 
  • Studied the unique economic, social and health challenges of low-income older adults. 
  • Called upon the knowledge base of their own academic disciplines, which included architecture, planning, community development, finance and real estate. 

Housing providers could come out big winners if they spend time reviewing the video of the competition’s final presentations. Plenty of great ideas surfaced during the session. Most of the ideas will require a little more thought before they can be implemented. But those ideas could easily add a spark to any renovation project.

Finally, the entire affordable housing field will surely become a winner when the students who participated in this competition earn their graduate degrees and start looking for work.

These students were incredibly interested in, excited about and engaged in the process of creating affordable senior housing.

How cool would it be if we could find ways to sustain their excitement, convince them to join our development teams, and translate their creativity into better housing for low-income older adults?