It’s been roughly nine months since Transforming Age and Sustainable Housing for Ageless Generations (SHAG) announced their affiliation plans — and now, the nonprofit is on the cusp of some big changes.
The combined organization, which operates under the Transforming Age banner with 39 communities, is set to announce the formation of a new property management company soon, according to Senior Vice President of Development Jay Woolford. And looking ahead, the national senior housing nonprofit will put an even greater emphasis on serving older adults in intergenerational communities suitable for low- and moderate-income residents.
“For a long time, I’ve been trying to break down the barrier, the idea that senior housing is an island and isolated unto itself,” Woolford said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast, Transform. “So, we are looking at ways that we can be thinking about not only seniors, but also intergenerational families.”
For Woolford, serving income-constrained older adults in creative ways is not a new challenge. Before the affiliation with Transforming Age, he helped connect older adults with housing and services as executive director of SHAG. And now, he is on a mission to develop a similarly creative platform, but with the national scale of Transforming Age.
“With the Transforming Age affiliation … it really expanded our capabilities and our reach, and allowed us to focus on the things that we do really well,” Woolford said.
Highlights of Woolford’s podcast interview are below, edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Transform via Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud. The interview took place in mid-November, and this is Woolford’s second appearance on Transform.
On the ongoing merger between Transforming Age and SHAG:
It’s been a crazy time. During the pandemic, I had worked with my board [at SHAG] to structure and affiliate with Transforming Age. In February, we officially announced that, and it brought our portfolio of affordable housing into the Transforming Age sphere.
Where we’ve been focusing in the last nine months has really been the integration of our portfolio and our organization that was also involved in the community outreach. And there is the networking that we have been doing with another affiliate of Transforming Age called DASH [Downtown Action to Save Housing]. We brought those portfolios together, so we are serving closer to 7,000 residents, both seniors and family in low- and moderate-income settings. And during that time, we have done a number of things.
We’ve actually formed a property management company, and we will be very shortly announcing new branding for this entity. We’re bringing sort of all of the different components of the organizations under one umbrella now and we’re pretty excited about that.
We actually did a little pre-run the other day and joked about the names that we didn’t go with [for the new brand]. One of them was SHAGazon, Häagen-DASH or using the KFC bucket for CLF, which is our Community Life Foundation. But we’re excited about finally bringing us together under one brand, and the best part about it is it’s not going to be an acronym.
I will tell you though that the SHAG brand in the Pacific Northwest will continue. We have a lot of brand equity with that, and it is a portfolio that has been developed with a development partner, equity partner; and so that will continue. But we will be using our sub-brand as the entity that is providing support and services in those communities. We also will be rebranding some communities.
It’s really more about thinking about the future. We’ve been very successful in the Pacific Northwest, primarily in Washington State, west of the Cascade Mountains area. Our desire was to grow beyond our current market area. But more importantly, we have always modeled ourselves as what we refer to as a network nonprofit — the idea that combining with other agencies and organizations is stronger, and provides much more capacity and capability than we can grow on our own or should grow on our own. And so it was really talking about where we had gotten ourselves and how we want to make that next leap, firmly planting our feet in both the affordable senior housing arena as well as in senior support and services, so that we could create a much more integrated program.
Not only did Transforming Age bring its capabilities and capacity and market-rate and life plan communities, but it also brought another organization that did affordable housing, and another one that does community and home-based services. It really expanded our capabilities and our reach, and allowed us to focus on the things that we do really well. And then leverage the things that other parts of the affiliation do really well.
On serving the moderate-income senior housing market:
We have historically really focused on what we call the moderate-income market.
In many places, that is the middle market. In our area, with the median income being close to $120,000 a year, in order to even qualify for affordable under a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit [LIHTC] program, it’s incomes up to $50,000 a year now. So, we have always sort of focused on moderate-income. Today, we use the term ‘attainable’ more than affordable, because everybody’s going to be different.
The other thing that we’re looking at is, once you move into a community, how you can continue to be able to sustain yourself to live there as costs are rising. If you put it in terms of median income, our focus is between 50% of the area median income, which would qualify people under a tax credit program, but we’re looking at serving folks up to 100% to 120% of median income.
That continues to put us within a financing structure, not necessarily using low-income housing tax credits the way we have in the past, but it does put us into financing structures where there are partners out there that are specifically focused on serving that mid- and moderate-income market. In areas where we are — high cost, high barrier to entry — the ability to actually provide moderate income is just becoming harder and harder to do.
On delivering care in a middle-market model:
We’ve started creating networks with the principle that rents are going to rise, the cost of housing continues to rise. On average right now, seniors are spending roughly 47% of their income on housing. We still use the rubric of you’re supposed to spend 30%. So, by default, seniors are rent burdened. And we’ve got folks that are spending upwards of 80% of their income just on housing.
To borrow the term from the London Underground, how do we mind that gap? What are the things that we can do to ensure that people are still able to get access to nutrition, wellness, transportation and just their lifestyle?
What we built was an intentional organization that was focused exclusively on creating those networks to be able to provide that in the community. It was bringing community support from the outside in. And in doing that, we’ve been able to look at it from both a regional standpoint and a neighborhood standpoint, and we’re also able to look at it from the standpoint of the individual community as to what their needs are.
We have 39 communities now and each one has different needs. But we’ve created this cadre of resources that we can pull from. It could be that we’ve gotten involved with telehealth, we have nursing programs supporting us. We also have social work programs from universities, they’re supporting us. We’re able to bring in nutritional support, we’ve got wellness programs. So, we’ve created all these programs that we can then deploy to different communities to be able to support residents.
On how the staffing crunch affects middle-market models:
We are independent-light, so our staffing models are not as high as you might find in full-service independent or assisted living.
The other thing is that we have historically drawn from our own population. We have active seniors that are still looking to be able to gainfully employed or utilize their experiences. And so, we’ve been able to have community managers, maintenance folks, housekeeping folks, transportation folks directly from our communities. And by doing that, we’re also able to do job sharing, too.
Through our relationships with colleges and universities, we’ve done a lot of work with volunteer programs like AmeriCorps, and we’ve worked with community colleges in terms of promoting classes around resident service coordination, CNAs, things like that. We’re now involved with universities in the nursing programs and social work programs and medical programs with the intent of not only bringing those resources to our communities, but also in providing access and introduction to students about working in the senior housing field. I think the more that we can do that, and the more that we can promote that, the bigger the opportunity to be able to attract new people into the profession will be.
On middle-market margins and amenities:
Margin is important. We need that to be able to attract investment into the communities and we need to be able to continue to reinvest in our communities. And, we need it obviously to continue to operate.
Margins between 20% and 40% — generally speaking we’ve been operating easily within those margins. And historically, we’ve been fortunate that our occupancy tends to stay fairly high. We have a need-based population, but oftentimes it’s economic need. So, as long as we’re able to continue to keep our rents in an appropriate spectrum than we generally are, we are keeping our communities well over 90% occupied.
I think a lot of it has to do with the way that we’ve organized ourselves to bring in resources to help support what we’re doing versus having to carry the overhead to do that. A lot of these things, in the mid-market, they’re added amenities that a lot of residents just can’t afford.
All of our communities are amenitized the way that a current multifamily community is, in many ways. We all have community rooms. We don’t have commercial kitchens, but we do have community rooms with kitchens in order to be able to do events. And in those spaces, we have breakout spaces for people, we have arts and crafts rooms, we have exercise rooms. We started to separate our exercise equipment from floor exercise areas. We have multimedia theaters in our communities. On our urban properties, they all have rooftop gardens and amenities.
The biggest issue is obviously, how do you support that? As part of our operating model, for example, we don’t have activity directors, so we’re not staffing to do those things. It’s a matter of how we use our folks as resources in order to help residents organize the type of activities that they want to have.
We have been developing ways that we can co-locate with other organizations, so we’re able to bring other community amenities into our community in order for the residents to have opportunities to engage in intergenerational activities. That may be sponsored by organizations like community centers, senior centers, the YMCA, community clinics, public libraries. In one of the communities, we now have a food court, for example, where immigrant women are using that as a way to train and build a business model to go out and open up their own restaurants.
On the future growth of Transforming Age:
Those plans are still getting formulated and formalized.
We used part of the pandemic to get into some planning — in particular looking at constructability programs — so that we can begin to build more of a prototype as we move out into new markets.
One of the things that I’ve talked about before is that consistency in the mid-market is just so critical. You can’t reinvent the wheel in every market that you go into, or every piece of property you’re looking at. So it’s where we have been focusing on: What are our basic building blocks to be able to take the model, and make sure that we can construct it affordably? And then the other is looking at markets where we can build those types of relationships that have been so critical to the success of our model.
The opportunities are a mix of [affiliations, acquisitions and development].
I’m particularly focused right now on creating a new pipeline, so that instead of thinking about how we would acquire properties and then trying to modify them to meet our operating models, ideally, it’s looking at what is purpose-built to meet what our needs are, and then being able to expand that. The fact of the matter is we can’t build our way out of the middle-market demand. But we need to. We need to provide more housing, it’s as simple as that.
We believe firmly in the idea about aging and community, and it’s creating those safe environments for people to be able to continue to stay in their neighborhoods or in their towns or in their communities, recognizing that a lot of the housing stock in America today is not appropriate for aging. So, how do we create attractive communities that people don’t want to delay moving into, recognizing that they’re still a vital and integrated part of their neighborhood or the communities that they’re living in?
We’ve got projects in the pipeline that are going to be moving forward in 2022. We’re in the process of creating some exciting connections, relationships with other organizations; along the lines of the idea of co-locating. We’ve got a great opportunity to redevelop a significant parcel in a high-barrier area where normally there would be no entry for mid-market. But because we control the property, we’ve got a great opportunity to do something there that will become our flagship as we move forward.
We’re focusing more on intergenerational. For a long time, I’ve been trying to break down the barrier, the idea that senior housing is an island and isolated unto itself. So, we are looking at ways that we can be thinking about not only seniors, but also intergenerational families — and workforce, recognizing we’ve got employees that because of where communities are located and the affordability of housing, they have to travel hours to get to the job.