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Independent senior living coming to Heights

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Posted: Sunday, June 12, 2011 12:00 pm

By Rebecca Rose

Killeen Daily Herald

HARKER HEIGHTS - Seniors in Harker Heights and Killeen may soon have another option when it comes to housing.

Versa Development plans to build a 96-unit senior housing community, located at Old Nolanville and Nola Ruth roads in Harker Heights. The 7-acre complex would also feature a café, arts and crafts center, barbershop, library and more.

The units would be one- or two-bedroom rentals, averaging approximately 822 square feet, at an estimated cost of $1.20 per square foot.

What makes the units unique is that Versa plans to market the property as an independent living community, open only to seniors 55 and older who do not require in-home assistance or nursing care.

Gary Dillard is a development manager for Versa. He spoke at a Harker Heights City Council workshop to explain what the company envisioned for the new project.

Versa acquired the property three years ago and planned to build an integrated commercial and residential area on the nearly 10-acres of land.

"In 2008, things changed on our side," Dillard said. The collapse of the housing market dramatically shifted the overall vision and scope of the project as financiers backed off.

"To make the property viable, we looked at other scenarios that fit," he said.

Due to neighborhood concerns about traffic, Versa ruled out leasing the space to a large commercial retailer.

Versa had success with similar senior housing projects in Houston and Fort Worth. Realizing there were no similar independent living facilities in the Killeen area, Versa changed its vision from single-family homes to senior housing.

Needs change

As baby boomers age, demand for suitable housing increases, Dillard said.

"Overall, there's been a huge change in just how many seniors there are," he said. "A lot more (are) living longer; a lot more are healthy. There's not a lot out there specifically for seniors that are healthy and don't need full-time care."

Debbie Edwards is manager of the Lions Club Park Senior Center in Killeen. She said she also sees a void in the kind of housing seniors need.

"I feel there's a shortage of senior housing in the community," Edwards said. "There's a big need."

Many people in the military are bringing their aging parents or grandparents with them to the area to help them manage while spouses are away on deployments, Edwards said.

"But they don't want to live with their children, they want their independence," she said. "They want a secure place close to their family, and close to amenities."

More and more seniors are entering the rental market, but many of them do not want to be in a traditional rental complex, Dillard said.

"It's a totally different lifestyle. There's lots of things about apartments that don't appeal to seniors," he said. "When you're a senior, you don't want to live next to a 24-year-old, who's playing music until 2 a.m."

"Seniors like a peaceful, secure, affordable place to live," Edwards said. "At this stage, they've raised their families. They want to relax when they come home."

Prefer to rent

While the demand for suitable housing has increased among aging baby boomers, the desire to buy new homes has not.

The National Association of Home Builders' 55+ Housing Market Index measures and analyzes construction and sales activity in the senior housing market. According to their latest estimates in May, "expected demand for 55 (and older) multifamily rental units rose 10 points, to 44, from a year earlier, while … family units and condos declined 2 and 3 points, down to 17 and 8, respectively."

The demand in the senior market seems to have shifted toward rentals. According to the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care Industry, construction starts for rental units restricted to seniors climbed more than 50 percent last year, including an uptick in new construction for independent living communities.

"There are a lot fewer people today that want to own than there was three or four years ago," Dillard said.

That means when it comes to financing new construction projects, single-family homes are not the "slam dunk" they used to be, Dillard added.

But because the housing is planned for seniors, a market they see more demand in, financiers are more open to proposals, he said.

Steve Yndo, owner of Yndo Commercial Estate, is a partner with Versa on the project.

"A lot of people don't want to own," he said. "They want to travel; they don't want hassles. They want something less expensive. They don't want to tie up capital in a house when they're getting ready to retire."

David Hegerty is president and chief operating officer of Senior Housing Properties Trust, a real estate investment firm that owns independent living communities throughout the U.S.

More demand

The demand for senior living housing is constantly growing, Hegerty said. "If you have the resources, now is a good time to be building."

Senior housing isn't recession proof, but it is more recession resistant, he said.

"The fundamentals are pretty good for people," Hegerty said. "There's always a demand. People will somehow come up with resources to be able to afford this housing."

Edwards said if she was looking for housing in the area, an independent living facility would appeal to her.

"I definitely would look into it," she said.

"When you're young, you want a big house," she said. "As you get older, you realize you don't need a lot of things. You want less to maintain, so you start to downsize. One bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, a place to socialize. That's perfect."

Versa will next have to go before the Planning and Zoning Committee to review final specifications of the proposal before making a final presentation to the council. Dillard said that was likely to happen in July.

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