The Challenge of Senior Housing. Should your church consider offering it?

The Challenge of Senior Housing. Should your church consider offering it?

Posted on July 10, 2013 by ECR Louisville in Assisted Living, Blog, Caregiver Education, Community Resources, Education, Home Care Non-Medical, Independent Living, Long Term Care Information, Nursing Homes, Retirement Communities

Church members Frank and Florence were 94 and 89, respectively, when I first called on them in their home for a pastoral visit in 1983. Frank was all but deaf and Florence could hardly walk, but they were fiercely independent. They’d married late in life and had no children.

“We’re not going to any nursing home!” Frank bellowed. “We’re going to stay in this home if we have to die here!”

And they did just that.

Twenty years ago, the choices for senior care could be summed up this way: deteriorate at home, live with the children, or go to a nursing home. Today there are more options available. There are independent-living facilities and assisted-living homes to complement the skilled but expensive care provided by nursing homes.

The Census Bureau projects that by the year 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65. Opportunities to build for seniors exist in many larger communities, and this fact is not lost on secular providers, who are adding units fast, especially in assisted living. Some experts think that the number of assisted-living units will triple in the next 30 years.

Denominations and churches are also beginning to recapture a vision for senior care, just as 100 years ago “homes for the aged” were founded in metropolitan areas. Churches, groups of churches, and denominations are building for seniors so that they can live the final third of life surrounded by faith, fellowship, and care appropriate to their needs.

The Basics on Senior Care
There are several reasons a church might want to build for seniors, says Bruce Anderson of Donné Corporation in Brandon, Florida. “First, a church may have an interest in ministering to seniors. Also, there may be an interest in creating alternative cash engines to create ministry. The rewards can outweigh the risks.”

However, churches considering providing senior care should know that developing such facilities requires careful planning and consistent followthrough. Care and prayer are paramount when building for seniors because of the possible pitfalls that exist if something goes wrong.

“Church leaders need to know what their vision for ministry is and whether it really includes housing for seniors,” observes Jeffrey Smith of Creative Ministry Concepts in San Antonio, Texas, and consultant to Century Builders in Houston, Texas. “Then they have to be prepared to deal with businesspeople, experts on seniors, health-care providers, and government officials, each of whom has a kind of tunnel vision for their own industry.”

If your church is still interested in building for seniors, here’s some basic advice to get you started. Create a nonprofit. Experts urge churches interested in senior housing to create a separate nonprofit (501(c)(3)) organization solely for senior housing, to limit liability. This nonprofit should have a board made up of church leaders who have professional acumen for senior housing. The broader and more professional the board, the more confident potential financiers will be.

Have a plan. Do the research and the math. Do exhaustive research before entering the market. “If you’re talking about multimillion dollar communities, a church must perform due diligence and have a feasibility study done,” Smith says.

Anderson adds that the study should be done by a firm knowledgeable about the senior-housing industry. “They can ask whether the location is right, whether it meets zoning requirements, what people are willing to pay for area housing, and a project’s costs.”

Dee Ann Campbell is vice president for communications and planning at the Episcopal Homes Foundation, a nonprofit group that recently developed a life-care community called San Francisco Towers. “When we developed San Francisco Towers,” Campbell recalls, “we had to fulfill many legal and planning requirements and conduct studies dealing with things such as urban archaeology, soil remediation, zoning, construction requirements for earthquake safety, proof of need, and so many other steps.”

To acquire financing your church will need to have these types of studies completed. You will also need a carefully developed business plan and accompanying financial projections.

Dave McKnight, president of The McKnight Group in Grove City, Ohio, observes, “It’s crucial to have a good business plan. Senior housing is always a good idea, but there’s not always a good market.”

Design for easy access, comfort, and security. First, a church will need to find the appropriate land for their senior housing. “A church needs to have a minimum of 5 to 10 acres for the facility, including room for expansion, garden space, activities areas, and room to walk,” says Bernie Tucker of Myler Church Buildings in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Then, a church will need to consider design. Wayne Nowlan, architect with Morton Buildings in Morton, Illinois, says, “Think about accessibility. Be sure to build on grade or use two-story construction because of the cost of property.

Urban areas are sometimes more expensive and require more dense construction.” Outside grades must also be easily accessible, with no steps and no steep slopes. This is a must, especially in areas with frequent inclement weather. Amenities like a screened porch or patio are usually preferred. Rooms should be larger, especially bathrooms. Restrooms should not have slippery finishes and should provide grab bars where they normally would not be needed.

Lighting is another important consideration. “Lighting is vital,” Nowlan adds, “even to the extent of emergency lighting if one falls in a bathroom. It gives a senior a sense of security.”

Pay in advance. After determining what fees people are willing to pay to live in your facility, you’ll need to find residents. The project should be at least 50 percent presold, with potential residents paying deposits before facility completion. This significantly reduces a church’s financial risk. San Francisco Towers operated on that basis, Campbell says. Prospective tenants had to wait ten years before it was completed.

Hire a management firm. A church should also hire a professional senior-housing management firm to operate the facility, which reduces some of the risks and makes the project easier to finance, experts say. National professional associations such as the Assisted Living Federation of America (703-691-8100; and the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (202-783-2242; can provide valuable leads.

Government Money With Strings Attached
Churches and senior-housing nonprofits must take special care with all legal, regulatory, and planning agencies. This is especially true if churches want to build senior housing subsidized through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (hud). Through the Section 202 program, hud can make a direct grant to a nonprofit to provide independent-living facilities for low- and moderate-income seniors. (Note: These are independent-living units that offer no nursing care.)

In these cases, the ongoing relationship with the government must be carefully maintained. If a property is not operated properly, hud could come in and take it over. Many churches form a Community Development Corporation (cdc) to develop such projects.

Episcopal Homes Foundation has developed two hud-subsidized properties in San Francisco. Campbell says that, unlike their life-care properties, these properties have no special amenities. “It’s a challenge to provide certain needed services, such as transportation. Episcopal Homes Foundation and Episcopal Charities of San Francisco banded together to provide a gift of a van for transportation. We’ve also added service coordinators to these properties to help residents access community services, especially those for which they are eligible.”

Whether funded publicly or privately, senior housing may be the next wave of church ministry to an aging population. Bruce Anderson of Donné sees plenty of opportunity for churches and ministries. “Here is a caring ministry of practical help that can also create revenues to support other ministries.”

John R. Throop ( is a management consultant. He pastors Christ Church Limestone near Peoria, Illinois.

Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today, Inc./Your Church magazine. Click here for reprint information on Christian History. May/June 2001, Vol. 47, No. 3, Page 28