News & Press

back to news

APRIL 2011

National Association of Home Builders 50+ Housing Magazine

Affordable Multifamily Development Strategies for Excellence

by Amy Martino, AIA, CAASH, LEED AP

In today’s world of economic challenges for all builders and developers, with value engineering a commonplace reality, and every detail, decision, and dollar explored and scrutinized, anyone looking at affordable developments has to ask, “How do they do it?”

Even more impressive are companies that can “take it to the next level” and provide not only housing for older adults, but also a vibrant and active community with seamless design, construction, clubhouse, amenities and social and wellness programs.

“Affordable senior 55+ independent living communities” is not an oxymoron, thank goodness — they exist! And the three examples in this article each reach that standard of excellence, and accomplish the seemingly unachievable.

All three of these companies — Congregate Management Services (CMS) in Akron, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Churchill Residential in Irving, Texas and Highridge Costa Housing Partners, Gardena, Calif. — provide impeccable design, construction, features, finishes and lifestyle within a strict budget, and in spite of design and construction challenges. They all prove that providing affordable alternative senior housing can be accomplished within any constraint or parameter if the focus and commitment exists.

South Hills Retirement Residence

South Hills Retirement Residence, a 106-unit affordable 62+ age-restricted independent living community in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Mount Washington, is one of 18 properties and 1,139 units managed by Congregate Management Services (CMS). The company’s founder, Anthony M. Rodriguez, worked at the Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the late 1960’s, and later built elderly housing projects with HUD financing, an experience that showed him the elements that are important for a successful senior housing development.

In the 35 years since CMS has been in business, South Hills Retirement Residence is CMS’s “greatest achievement to date” according to Victor Rodriguez, the senior vice president of operations and administration.

The community, completed last October, is an adaptive re-use of South Hills High School, a structure nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.

The building sat vacant for 25 years, a patch of blight in a neighborhood of single-family homes. The Mount Washington Community Development Corporation for years sought developers to rehabilitate the property for housing and commercial use, with the goal of stabilizing home prices and reducing crime.

The South Hills development brought significant benefits to Mount Washington by adapting the historic structure, and by providing quality affordable senior housing, market rate apartments, and commercial uses in a green building.

Victor Rodriguez explains that CMS is committed to developing “beautiful, sustainable, affordable and market rate rental housing to achieve income diversity in the communities where we develop.” CMS also made a commitment to make South Hills a “green” community; it is expected to earn LEED gold level certification. That is “important to the company as a sense of pride,” said Rodriguez. “Employees see CMS as a progressive company. Plus, the designation shows our customers we care about the environment that their parents and grandparents are living in.”

The community took greenness to the next level by tapping a Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority program to enable the company to incorporate photovoltaic panels and co-generation for heating and domestic hot water. Rents in CMS’s senior properties include utilities, so energy efficiency is a priority. Rodriguez said that CMS’s long-time relationship with the community’s contractor, Sota Construction Services, was key, as Sota is dedicated to sustainable construction and energy efficiency.

Independent living for the residents is another priority. Aging-in-place features such as grab bars in all bathrooms and showers, emergency pull-cords in the apartments that call 911, zero-step entrances, wide corridors, and kitchens and baths that can be adapted for mobility-impaired residents are part of the design. The program mix for South Hills is 79% one-bedroom units averaging 700 sq.ft., and 21% two-bedrooms averaging 985 sq.ft.

Churchill Residential’s Evergreen Communities

Churchill Residential, founded in 2002, focuses on Texas — Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston markets. Two of its recent affordable 55+ age-restricted independent living communities are Evergreen at Plano, a 250-unit in Plano, Texas, and Evergreen at Vista Ridge, 120-unit community in Lewisville, Texas.

In addition to its family developments, Churchill is now the largest owner of senior units, with more than 2,000 Evergreen units in its market area. Tony Sisk, a partner at the firm, has benefited from his experience in serving the needs of seniors. With the company’s growth and economies of scale, he said, Churchill can be “in better locations…due to our reputation [and] knowledge.”

Company president, Bradley Forslund explained that the company not only saw a need for [affordable housing], but he “also had a personal calling for it.” The company has set quality goals for product design, location, management, and development and supportive services. “The goal of our supportive services,” said Forslund, “is to allow for successful aging in place and to lengthen our residents’ independent stage in life.”

The firm uses the framework of the 6 Dimensions of Wellness© developed by Dr. Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Wellness Institute: physical, spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional and occupational wellness.

The Evergreen unit mix includes 50% one-bedroom units averaging 700 sq.ft. and 50% two-bedrooms at 935 sq.ft. Good design made resident life easier and safer by including short corridors for walking, and good interior and exterior lighting.

Churchill emphasized lifestyle, boasting “When we say fun, we mean fun.” Residents’ social programs include: water aerobics, brain fitness programs, happy hours, social events, movie nights, gardening, daily games,art classes, cooking demonstrations, yoga, tai chi, travel clubs, Wii tournaments, guest lectures, seminars, and trips to local restaurants, shopping, and cultural events.

Seasons at San Juan Capistrano

Seasons at San Juan Capistrano is a two-phase community in South Orange Co., Calif., near the famous Mission San Juan Capistrano, as well as the San Diego freeway and Ortega Highway. Its developer, Highridge Costa Housing Partners, was formed in 1994 and is among the nation’s leading multifamily developers, having built more than 26,000 affordable units in 94 communities throughout the U.S, plus three in Puerto Rico. More than 9,000 of those units are in affordable senior independent living communities. According to company president and CEO Michael Costa, the company aims to build “living communities that meet both individual and city planning needs.”

The partners believe that “attractive, smart, high-density, multi-dwelling living communities are an affordable choice for working Americans.“ Costa emphatically adds that affordable senior independent communities are the group’s “favorite product to develop.”

After the success of Seasons’ first phase, the city approached Highridge Costa to develop an adjacent parcel which the city had acquired for 38 more units of affordable housing to add to the 112 two-story garden walk-up apartments in phase one.

Both phases are connected through an elevator-serviced corridor building for accessibility. Phase two also took Seasons to the “next level” by earning a LEED for Homes Gold certification.

Highridge defines its customers through demographic studies and by knowing its residents: 85 percent are female, mostly widowed, with an average age of 72.

The firm looks at the demographics of any location being considered, identifying its prospective clients within a five to six mile radius. Costa summarized, “Crossing the results with income and how many live within the community already, you can tell if you have a success.” With an average of 1.2 persons per unit, Seasons’ mix is 80% one-bedroom units at 450-500 sq.ft., and 20% two-bedroom units at 680-750 sq.ft.

Amenities compliment the program, and the community center extends residents’ living space. Providing a “warm and welcoming clubhouse” with a vibrant social program is paramount. Ensuring that the community looks more like market-rate senior housing also is important, so the quality of the design and materials are never compromised. Costa committed to “spend the money to design it right. Cutting corners to save money works only in the short term, and doesn’t work when the market gets tough.”

The greatest reward, said Costa, is knowing that Seasons’ residents pay about $150 per month less than they’d paid before, in a safer community with opportunities for a vibrant and active social life.

Costa finds it most rewarding when, after a community-wide gathering, “at least one senior resident walks up to say, ‘Mr. Costa, I can’t thank you enough.’” Some had been living in a garage, others sharing a room or in deplorable situations. “The greatest sense of accomplishment is the genuine ‘thank you,’” said Costa. “It is what motivates you.”

Design Priorities: Different for East and West Coasts?

Vital to all three communities are: Encouraging opportunities for socialization, providing safe and secure access to and within the community as well as connections to the broader community. A clubhouse and an active social program are key.

  • CMS encourages interaction in their design, by clustering common areas, providing windows in corridors to see activity, minimizing closed rooms, and using natural daylight. Its social service coordinator supports its design efforts.
  • Churchill contracts with a third-party health and wellness service to bring community services to its residents. Easy access for the residents to, from, and within the community is important, as is interconnection through covered breezeways and connected parking.
  • Highridge Costa also pays special attention to circulation, safety and security by making sure all parking is at the perimeter so residents do not have to cross drive lanes. Circulation within the community is in a park-like setting with meandering walkways, benches and barbeque areas leading to the clubhouse, with its exterior patio, pool and jacuzzi.

Building Design

Each company prioritizes common areas and design as paramount, and incorporates green building practices. Each provides common laundry rooms. Individual design goals include the following:

  • CMS prioritizes sustainability for both the building and residents. Energy efficiency, and low maintenance help ensure long-term affordability.
  • Churchill provides multipurpose rooms for a wide range of community use.
  • Highridge Costa quells local objections to a senior affordable community by assuring “market rate” quality of materials and design. The communities “should not be institutional, or look any different from market rate communities,” said Costa.

Unit and Home design

All three communities agree that open, spacious living areas are important, along with aging-in-place design features.

  • CMS also incorporates plenty of storage and aging-in-place design including adaptability of the kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Churchill concentrates on the use of the space with open kitchens and 9-foot ceilings to make the “design bigger.”
  • Highridge Costa does not include efficiency units, and provides a separate bedroom and walk-in closet for every unit. The company also provides all appliances, including a microwave, and adds universal design features to facilitate aging in place, such as lowered cabinets and switches, raised electrical plugs, easy-to-use door and cabinet hardware, and zero-threshold showers.

How do Developers Make it Happen?

Financially, these companies use every opportunity and program available, with tax credit equity predominant.

  • CMS uses Low Income Housing Tax Credits and HOME funds to finance its developments. For South Hills, it partnered with the Pittsburgh Board of Education to provide demolition and abatement, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency for tax credits and PennHOMES soft funds and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh for predevelopment, construction and permanent financing. To reduce energy costs CMS also used state programs from the Pennsylvania. Energy Development Authority.
  • Churchill uses Federal Home Loan Bank Board grants and tax-exempt bonds, and partners with non-profit entities for tax incentives.
  • Highridge Costa financed Seasons primarily through tax credit equity and a series of conventional loans, including a city redevelopment loan, a state loan program, and even using the developer fee as a loan. The firm also incorporated energy company programs and rebates.

Creative Financing isn’t Enough: It Takes Commitment

Although the details vary for each company, each has a commitment to provide affordable and healthy communities for the 50+ housing market – not just affordable homes, but an active and social lifestyle that promotes independence and helps increase resident longevity and quality of life, as well as removing the worries of affordability, safety and security. At its core, this is sustainability for the individual. It is much more than buildings and design. It encompasses programs, dedication, attention to detail, and unrelenting effort to provide the best communities and most fulfilling lifestyles for senior residents.


Amy Martino, AIA, CAASH, LEED AP, Principal and owner of Building Site Synergy, LLC has focused her 20-+- year career on the master planning and design of high-density multi-family communities and buildings. Her substantial portfolio focuses on complex urban and suburban infill, redevelopment and waterfront communities and 50+ Lifestyle communities. Ms. Martino has designed and documented a range of housing types, from cluster housing at five dwelling units/acre (DU/Ac) through mid and high-rise products exceeding 100 DU/Ac. Ms. Martino excels at defining opportunities and constraints, creative solutions for challenging sites, building consensus and maximizing the potential for complex mixed use, 50+ and market rate communities.

download NAHB2011-04-19.pdf