We need a “conscious, affordable housing policy” to replace the current policy of “drive until you qualify,” said new urbanist developer and author Christopher Leinberger during the design panel at a recent conference titled “Designing for an Aging Population” at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

“The attributes of the single-family house are becoming obstacles to aging in place well,” with the distance from shops and services and the lack of walkability, said Ellen Dunham Jones, architecture professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We need to link the needs of the aging population with dead big-box stores and dying malls.”

Dunham Jones and June Williamson have researched many such suburban retrofits around the country. Two triggers for retrofits are aging properties and opening of a subway station. In Denver, Colorado, eight of 13 regional malls have been retrofitted or are planned to be.

In Mashpee Commons in Massachusetts, former strip center parking lots have been transformed into shops facing sidewalks, with apartments above the shops. Thirty percent of the units are occupied by seniors, who say they enjoy the convenience and the chance for social interaction.

Senior housing can also be integrated into transit-oriented development. A five-mile (8 km) portion of Columbia Pike in Arlington County, Virginia, is being redeveloped after many community meetings. The county gave developers incentives to build mixed-use buildings that will include affordable housing for seniors and a community center and senior center. Taxes derived from increased density will pay for a new streetcar. The senior center will be within walking distance for many older residents, and subsidized taxi service will help transport others.

An organization called National Church Residences helps address the concerns of affordable housing for seniors. It has bought distressed properties and managed and redeveloped them. It is currently working on ten rehab projects, with the help of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Assisted Living Conversion Grant.

Portage Trail Village in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, was converted from a nursing facility into an assisted living facility. The bottom six floors are for assisted living, the top seven for independent living. Kiwanis Village in Findlay, Ohio, an affordable housing facility for seniors, has a walking mall that connects two strip malls and includes a computer room, fitness center, and beauty parlor. The building received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

A big challenge in helping older people with housing needs is to make suburbs less auto-dependent. In most U.S. towns, “at the moment we lose our driver’s license, we are stuck,” said architect Matthias Hollwich, principal of Hollwich Kushner.

His firm has created retirement communities that Hollwich said “take into account community life, not elderly life.” They include universal design (see, Preparing for an Aging Population) that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The community, with a prototype in Palm Springs, California, offers individual living quarters, a connecting pool for community activities, and informal health care delivery.

One obstacle to retrofitting current property to senior housing can be zoning codes, which often put up barriers to creating walkable communities, said Dunham Jones. And zoning can create other obstacles. For example, there are thousands of surplus bedrooms that could be rented out as affordable senior housing, said Leinberger. “Why is it illegal?”

And though protests of NIMBY—not in my backyard—are always a concern with retrofits or new developments, many NIMBYs have become YIMBYs since the recession. Communities may prefer senior housing to an empty shopping mall.

Retrofits make sense as we try to accommodate seniors’ housing needs, said Leinberger. “We have been doing greenfield development for 60 years. We wanted it, we built it, it’s over.”