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Cooperative Senior Housing: An Alternative to Meet the Needs of Today’s Senior Citizens

Cooperative Senior Housing: An Alternative to Meet the Needs of Today’s Senior Citizens

A tsunami of baby boomers (some 75 million strong) are joining the ranks of America’s senior citizens.  The boomers’ different life expectancy, ethnic diversity, lifestyle preferences, and attitudes are changing the complexion of our aging population.  The needs of retirees who preceded the boomers continue to change as they age.  Addressing these needs will require some creative thinking on the part of policy makers and planners.  Innovative alternatives such as senior co-operative housing may better address the needs of today’s seniors than traditional senior housing models.

Changing Demographics – Changing Needs

A quick look at census projections shows why these changes are so significant.  Nationally, nearly 20% of the population will be 65 and older by 2030. This population is expected to nearly double between 2012 and 2050, while the 85 and older group will triple in population in that time.  In Washington, the 65 and older group will reach 1,860,400, representing 21% of the population by 2040. The 85-and-over population is expected to reach 339,700 by 2040, up from 125,500 (OFM projections).

Aside from sheer numbers, other factors are shaping new housing needs.  Greater longevity (an average of 90 years for the boomers), continuing reduction in state and federal housing resources, the depleted savings of older retirees, and shockingly insufficient retirement savings among prospective retirees create a perfect storm. A significant number of seniors will struggle with affording the spiraling costs of traditional nursing homes and assisted living.

Many boomers (myself included) recoil at the thought of living out our senior years in institutional settings like some that we encountered when trying to situate our aging parents.  Boomers are notoriously independent, and all seniors hope to maintain a modicum of control over their lives.

I have been particularly struck by projections of the increasing number of people who will live alone as they age.  A growing share of middle-aged and older adults have never married (32%).  And boomers are much more likely to be divorced.  Differences in longevity contribute to the fact that nearly half of women over the age of 65 live alone.  Another report notes that by age 80, three out of five households will consist of a single person. The share of married couples who never had children is also rising.  So many boomers and older adults are more likely to live alone, lacking the vital support of family members as they age.

Bottom line: there will be an increasing need for senior housing alternatives that are more affordable, that feel more home-like rather than institutional, that allow a modicum of control over residents’ living situations, and that facilitate social connection, particularly for those who lack family support.

Cooperative Senior-Owned Housing: One Alternative with Potential to Meet Today’s Needs

My own parents were fortunate to find a housing situation that provided these when they moved into a senior-owned housing cooperative.  Cooperatives are non-profit corporations that provide housing, and often other services, for members.  Unlike the condominium structure, members own shares in the cooperative which entitles them to occupy a dwelling unit.  The share price is like a down payment, and the buyers build equity with monthly payments, which is returned at the time of sale.  The residents jointly own, operate, and set policy direction for the cooperative through a board of directors elected by and from residents.

Affordabilty. Although some of the early senior-owned cooperatives were targeted to middle-income residents, they typically used a limited-equity structure that capped appreciation of a share’s value, usually to 1 to 3 percent a year. This keeps the price of a share more affordable for future buyers.

Today,  a number of local governments have partnered to develop senior-owned cooperatives targeted for low and moderate-income residents.  For instance, Palm Springs, CA sold land at a subsidized rate to facilitate a HUD–financed coop for very low income seniors.  The City of Roseville, MN purchased surplus school property and selected a developer to build an affordable senior housing co-op.  The city recognized that housing being vacated by seniors moving into the co-op represented an opportunity to address a parallel need for affordable housing for young families.  The city bought the vacated homes at market rate and resold them at a subsidized rate to the young first time buyers.

Social Connection and Self-Determination. The vast majority of seniors want to stay in their own homes as they age.  This can work for those who remain healthy and live in communities with supportive services, or who enjoy significant family support.  But for many who live alone, the physical and financial demands of maintaining a home are overwhelming.  Those who live alone can feel isolated, particularly if they are no longer able to drive, or if nearby transit is lacking.

Senior co-op housing typically offers social activities and facilities such as community rooms, common dining rooms, game rooms, and other facilities that provide a setting for social interaction. Such facilities and activities can be found in the better traditional senior housing projects.  But in a co-op, residents have joint responsibility for keeping the co-operative running, and for determining how their needs are best met.  Interdependence, cooperation, and by extension, social interaction are a part of the ethos of such places.  My parents lived at 7500 York, the pioneer of senior-owned cooperative housing, in Minnesota. 7500 York had 11 standing committees and multiple subcommittees that provided members an opportunity to meet regularly, plan activities/improvements, and to nurture the sense that they are contributing toward community well-being.

Potential for Graduated Care. Although housing cooperatives are generally designed for independent living, many have added services as residents age.  Many newer coops incorporate universal design features such as grab bars, and doorways designed for wheelchair accessibility. Some offer options for graduated care for residents that need it.  For instance, at 7500 York, residents never wanted to move out. So the board added services, such as an in-house nurse and options for in-home health care, as members aged.   Even so, some members needed more assistance than the community could support. Ultimately, the board approved an assisted living facility that includes a section of memory care units on the same property, allowing residents to maintain their social connections with former neighbors.


Cooperative housing, with its volunteer committees and expectations for participation, is not for everyone.  But it is one intriguing option for senior housing that can allow residents considerable self-determination and opportunity for interaction and positive contribution, in an attractive living situation, at a more affordable price.  In my view, it is a form of multiple-unit housing that should be permitted by local land use regulations, and is worthy of inclusion in Washington local government housing programs.

Photo courtesy Delano, MN - Proposed Delano Crossing Senior Cooperative

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Photo of Sue Enger

About Sue Enger

Sue served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants for many years and wrote about a variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.