Bob Dylan famously sang, “The times, they are a-changin’,” and they sure have with Pew Research finding that for the next 17 years, 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day. This staggering statistic, which includes the 71-year-old iconic troubadour, spells good news for retirement communities. However, this same demographic, the Woodstock generation, is redefining retirement while adjusting to a new social order.
While some New Yorkers still opt to head south to escape winter blasts and enjoy Florida’s year-round golf season, most seniors make housing decisions based on the opportunity to stay connected, says Robert Weisenfeld, a New York City-based educator and real estate expert. “People want to go where they’re connected, where their friends and their children are,” he says. “Some might move to stay connected with their golf buddies … at the end of the day, they most of all want to be with their friends and family.”
That desire to “stay connected” has led to a growing interest in staying put—creating naturally-occurring retirement communities, or NORCs. A NORC is generally described as a community, building, or development that was not originally built for seniors but now has a sizable elderly population. The first NORC services program in the country officially opened on November 14, 1986 at the Penn South Co-op complex in Chelsea. The 10 building, 2,800 unit complex located between Eighth and Ninth Avenues and East 23rd and 29th streets, was built in 1962 by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and underwritten by the United Housing Federation (UHF). Designed as a social experiment to provide affordable housing for moderate-income workers, many of the original residents were union members, who once walked to work in the nearby garment center and chose to stay in New York after retirement. By the early 80s, around 70 percent of the shareholders in the complex were over 60.
“People came into their homes in their 20s, and have stayed into their 70s,” Weisenfeld says. In some cases, that transition requires renovations to kitchens, bathrooms and other features to make their condos and co-ops more user-friendly, he acknowledges. But those “universal design” features that were so cutting-edge a few decades ago are now almost expected components of homes. “Everybody today understands about ADA, accessibility, adaptability,” he says. “If you go into a modern development, you’ll see all of these things without them being stamped as ‘senior housing.’”
And in an interesting move, programs growing out of the federal government’s recognition of NORCs are moving into the general housing sector. “Co-ops and condos in the city of New York are not in the business of getting involved with the government,” Weisenfeld says, “but what’s happened in these private development co-ops and condos, they’re finding they have to reach out to government, because services—things like blood pressure tests, exercise and wellness programs—have to be brought on site. So something that had its intended purposes in terms of government housing is now turning to the private sector.”