NAPLES — Southwest Florida is rapidly graying and growing frailer.
But in both Collier and Lee counties, magnets for empty-nesters and retirees, the need for senior housing far exceeds the supply, experts say.
That means waiting lists that can stretch into years and heavy competition for units, even in gold-standard developments where entrance fees top $2 million and monthly fees are in the thousands.
Richard Scanlon, managing director of St. Petersburg-based Ziegler Capital Markets Group, which invests in senior housing, said the need here is critical — particularly for the vulnerable and fast-growing over-75 group.
“Given the pace of growth, we’re only generating about half of what we need in terms of supply,” he said.
It’s not just a local concern. Nationally, occupancy rates for senior housing are at 89.7 percent, according to Annapolis, Md.-based National Investment Center, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing senior housing.
While builders have started to expand existing centers and ramp-up production on new developments — some with jazzy amenities like wine bars, massage rooms and multiple dining venues — it’s not enough to keep up with the growing demand.
Aging adults are streaming into Southwest Florida from all over the country, adding to a population that is already older than average. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. median age is 37, but in Collier County it is 47, and in Lee, 46.
In Collier, 84,951 people are 65 or older, making up 26 percent of the population. In Lee, 76,238 people are older than 65, or 25 percent of the populace. That makes Southwest Florida one of the grayest parts of an already gray state — in Florida overall, 18 percent of permanent residents have passed their 65th birthday.
But Southwest Floridians also tend to be richer than average Americans, attracting more upscale operators to the region and giving residents higher-quality choices.
Among them are two Naples developments that recently won gold awards for senior housing at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas: Moorings Park, which opened in 1977, and Discovery Village at Naples, which broke ground in December.
Both offer similar pampering services to residents, ranging from an on-site medical director, fitness center with special equipment that is easier on arthritic joints, beauty salon, transportation, bistros and multiple dining options serving far fancier meals than senior centers even a few years ago.
For instance, at Moorings Park residents can choose from five dining venues, including one with a wine bar, chef’s table, private dining room and outdoor seating near a rippling waterfall. Menus include vegan and gluten-free items, and exotic fare like basmati stuffed peppers, tricolor quinoa salad and pumpkin ravioli.
“Our residents are used to fine dining options that you can find on Fifth Avenue, the Watermark and the Mercato,” Moorings Park vice president Stevan Brinkert said. “We use them as our benchmark.”
Gaining entrance to these high-end senior enclaves — or even more modest venues — can be difficult, because the elderly have trouble pulling up roots and delay applying until their health has deteriorated and their options have narrowed, said Bruce Rosenblatt, a Bonita Springs senior housing consultant.
A former sales trainer at several local senior housing centers, Rosenblatt now helps the elderly find appropriate housing and runs trolley tours of senior communities. While some of these projects are designed just for those who can live independently, others include a variety of options depending on the health of occupants, including assisted living, memory-care units, and health-care centers or nursing homes.
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Finding the right place among all these choices can be daunting, even for highly educated buyers like economist Henry Manne, 85, who decided to hire Rosenblatt when the health of his wife, Bobbie, 75, started to deteriorate.
Realizing he didn’t know much about senior housing in the area, he decided to get help to “rid myself of risk and anxiety” — and eventually wound up securing a two-bedroom and den apartment at Vi at Bentley Village, an upscale senior development with a six-figure entrance fee and monthly fees for two topping $5,000.
Rosenblatt acknowledges that for those without the means to pay hefty entrance fees and monthly fees, choices may be limited.
“This is a nice but expensive area,” he said. “It’s very difficult if you’re living on Social Security.”
If family members can’t afford to subsidize a senior’s costs, sometimes the only alternative is to move their loved one to another, less-expensive part of Florida like Punta Gorda or Jacksonville — or perhaps a low-cost complex out-of-state, he said.
Even when a senior has some savings, it can take months to get into an appropriate living center.
“It’s not about when you’re ready, it’s about when the apartment’s available,” said New Yorker Paula Rolleston, 59, who waited eight months to get her 84-year-old mother into Aston Gardens, a popular community in Naples — and when an apartment finally opened up around Christmas, “grabbed it.”
Marco Island resident Ricki Levine, 65, had a similar experience. She started the process of moving her 90-year-old mother from a Florida condo in Pembroke Pines into a local rental complex a year ago, after her mother had difficulty driving.
Their first choice had a nine-month waiting list. So after waiting four months, they finally took a smaller apartment at their second-choice community. Although her mother is settling in, Levine still rues “it’s not the apartment she wanted.”
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If residents are frustrated by the lack of supply, so are senior housing developers.
They say the complicated nature of getting approvals for and building communities with health-care components, coupled with a recession that made obtaining financing difficult, has led to the current shortage of senior housing.
In Lee County, for instance, there are 41 existing senior living properties open — but only one new project is under construction, according to the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care Industry.
While that project, American House, eventually will have 22 independent living apartments, 68 assisted living units and 35 memory-care units, builder Bob Gillette said that’s hardly enough to meet the need.
“What we are building is not keeping up with demographics,” said Gillette, who founded American House Senior Living Communities 35 years ago in Michigan. The company has 36 communities in the Midwest.
The 73-year-old planned to retire in Southwest Florida, but when he saw the need here, he decided to build another American House in Bonita Springs, which will run the gamut from independent living to hospice care.
While units will be relatively small, ranging from 508 to 1,000 square feet, the all-inclusive rents will be modest, too — from $2,190 to $3,190 a month.
Gillette said they’re keeping rent low because not everyone has the resources or wants to invest their savings in an expensive equity community.
Public response so far has proved the gaping need for affordable rental housing in the area: He said he’s already received more than 150 inquiries, even though the 25-acre site is just being cleared for utilities, hasn’t been heavily marketed and won’t be open until spring 2015.
Tom Harrison, founder and chief executive officer of Discovery Senior Living in Bonita Springs, which builds moderately priced rental communities, has had a similarly strong response. The company’s Aston Gardens project in Naples has a waiting list of up to two years, while its Discovery Village at the Forum in Fort Myers, which opened last October, is more than 60 percent occupied. He expects his latest project, Discovery Village at Naples in East Naples, set to open in early 2015, to fill up fast, too.
“There are hundreds of people on the interest list,” he said.
Demand is also strong at the luxury end of the market.
Last summer, Moorings Park at Grey Oaks began work on what may be the priciest and most luxurious senior housing in Southwest Florida.
The 32 coach homes of the first phase are 3,007 to 5,880 square feet. Entrance fees run from $1.2 million to $2.4 million, with 90 percent refundable, and golf-course-view premiums go as high as $60,000. On top of that, monthly fees run from $6,160 to $8,799 a month. If a second person occupies the home, there’s an additional $20,000 entrance fee, and $1,445 monthly fee.
Pre-sales began in August, said Brinkert, the vice president of Moorings Park.
They’re now sold out.
Southwest Florida senior housing
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