Housing that truly accommodates the needs of multiple generations living under one roof and that promotes interaction among them is a niche far from being filled, W. Aaron Conley, president and managing principal of Third Act Solutions, said during a ULI Terwilliger Center on Housing webinar in June.

“The target consumer really doesn’t like our product,” said Conley, whose South Carolina firm focuses on seniors’ and long-term-care development. He noted that the seniors’ housing industry only penetrates about 7 percent of income- and age-eligible adults, with the rate predicted to slip to 5 percent in the near future. This may be a reflection of more adults 65 and older wanting to remain in their own homes, Conley said, but he questioned this scenario’s feasibility given the shortage of professional caregivers.

“There are huge opportunities for developers to respond,” he said, by developing innovative products that anticipate the needs of multigenerational families. “Sometimes, people are not aware of what they do want.”

Conley was joined on the panel by Donna Butts, executive director of the nonprofit Generations United, and Alan Jones, president of the homebuilding division of Lennar Homes. Jeremy Sharpe, vice president of community development at the Rancho Sahuarita Company, moderated the discussion, streamed live as part of the Terwilliger Center’s Housing Interchange webinar series.

Successful Communities

Intergenerational programming that is intentional, purposeful, reciprocal among age groups, and constantly revised with feedback from residents is what distinguishes a successful intergenerational community from those that simply construct housing for different generations on the same campus and leave interactions to chance, said Butts. Her nonprofit develops programs to foster youth/senior interactions.

Panelists cited as a creative example Kendal at Oberlin, a retirement community near Oberlin College in Ohio, where intergenerational activities are planned each day. An on-site early-childhood learning center for the children of Kendal’s staff creates opportunities for residents to engage with toddlers and preschoolers. Oberlin College students pursue volunteer work and art/music therapy internships with seniors while local high school students staff Kendal’s dining facility. And residents have access to cultural amenities the college offers, like music performances at the distinguished Oberlin Conservatory. “It has to be intentional from the beginning,” Butts noted.

Conley said intergenerationalism can also evolve organically. For example, in a proposed development, his company is incorporating a restaurant that will serve as both a kitchen for assisted-living residents and as a stand-alone eatery open to the public.

Research shows that seniors reap tremendous benefits from being around young adults and children, Butts said. They tend to feel less isolated and depressed, she said. For their part, children learn soft skills, such as saying “please” and “thank you,” and are more likely to progress academically if they have a strong connection to a caring adult.

Real estate developers interested in weaving intergenerationalism into their products cannot go at it alone though, panelists said. They need to enlist the help of nonprofit organizations, municipalities, and schools to create programming that will be perceived as authentic and meaningful.

Lennar’s NextGen

A few real estate developers have been quick to respond to changing demographics. Not only do seniors want to live near family in less institutional settings, but also young adults returning to their parents’ homes after college are influencing housing trends.

For example, Lennar Homes offers its NextGen home in 13 states. Marketed as “two homes under one roof,” NextGen incorporates a completely separate suite within a larger, single-family home. In Arizona, NextGen accounts for 25 percent of Lennar’s sales activity, Jones said.

From the exterior, NextGen homes blend seamlessly into the neighborhood with over 40 floor plans offered, Jones said. The suite’s separate entrance and a double-locking door between it and the main home mean a grandparent—or a 20-something grandchild—can enjoy both family time and privacy.

To Jones, NextGen is simply catching up with reality: 51 million Americans live in a multigenerational household, the AARP reports. “We’re providing housing that reflects the way people are already living,” he said.

Archana Pyati is an impact writer for ULI.