Boom in nest building for Md. empty nesters


As growing numbers of baby boomers reach age 55 - that first threshold of "senior" status - governments and developers across Maryland are in hot pursuit of new kinds of housing aimed at keeping these prosperous taxpayers happy, and home.

The state's senior population is expected to increase by 77 percent in the next two decades, and at double that rate in fast-aging counties such as Howard, where the government is moving to create zones to encourage more homes designed for active seniors.

Local officials are boosting the trend because seniors don't send children to expensive schools and make relatively few demands on services. Builders love the potential profits from these expensive, low-maintenance homes. And older Americans are drawn to the amenities of senior-only living.

So, senior homes are springing up across Maryland.

On Kent Island, a 1,350- unit, age-restricted development was approved last month. In Anne Arundel, builder Michael DeStefano is raising a 209-unit condominium apartment complex near Crofton for seniors. In Baltimore County, senior developments have cropped up in Catonsville, Carney, Towson and Pikesville. And in Howard, a new luxury development is under way in Columbia and another is proposed in the western county.

"Clearly, the elderly housing market is booming," said Ilene Rosenthal, chief of housing services for the Maryland Department of Aging.

Dodging workers as he prepared to move into his expensive, compact new Columbia home, Paul K. Bennett explained one recent afternoon why he's happy to be in his "active adult neighborhood."

Everything's on one level, there's no grass to cut, and it's not a retirement community, although an assisted-living home and a nursing home are each within walking distance.

"It's kinda pricey, but what isn't?" the semiretired, 59-year old former federal employee said about his 40-foot-wide townhouse. The units range from $220,000 to nearly $300,000.

"I think this is a great concept," he said.

Anne Arundel builder DeStefano, president-elect of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, described sales at his senior condominium as "unbelievable." He's sold 64 units since October, including 28 in the first month, and "half are paying cash," he said, from equity in larger, paid-for homes. The units cost from $120,000 to $200,000.

"We have literally been inundated with senior housing," said Baltimore County planning director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller. Special zones offering builders higher densities haven't been needed, he said.

Howard County officials are to vote Monday on changes in local zoning laws to encourage developments containing several different kinds of housing for seniors - including more one-level, age-restricted homes for still vigorous people over 55.

And two years ago, the Johns Hopkins University School of Professional Studies in Business and Education created the nation's first graduate program for the business of senior housing and care.

The Maryland seniors boom reflects a larger trend.

"Nationally in homebuilding, this is a very large issue," said Bruce Harvey, chief financial officer of Patriot Homes, a partner with Orchard Development in the Columbia project.

Paul Emrath, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders based in Washington, D.C., said the 55- to 64-year-old group is the largest among seniors and will grow much larger over the next few years.

Market possible everywhere

"We project there will be 18 million households of 55- to 64-year-olds by 2006," he said, compared with 11 million households now. This means that instead of flourishing mainly in Sunbelt states, "A substantial market of active senior housing could exist almost anywhere," he said.

Housing industry estimates predict an overall senior housing market of $126 billion by 2005, up from $86 billion in 1996.

Since this age group is generally prosperous, builders must produce a quality, well-designed home to attract buyers, Emrath said. "I think the trick here is to build the right product and market it correctly."

Many suburbs, such as Howard County, have very little one-level housing, and officials want to keep productive, often civic-minded people from moving away, for more reasons than one.

"These are people who tend to contribute to the community - to serve on a lot of community boards - it's a great population to have," said Duane St. Clair, assistant administrator of Howard County's Office on Aging.

There's an even more pragmatic consideration, St. Clair said.

"They pay real estate taxes, yet their demand for services is lower because they don't have young children. It's a net plus on taxes," he said.

"You want to have a diverse community. What this allows you to do is stay in your neighborhood where your friends and your church are," deputy county planning director Marsha McLaughlin said about the county's proposed new Planned Senior Community District zone.

And senior housing can be tucked into smaller, leftover plots of land that builders have passed over before. Since the housing contains no school-age children, counties need not worry about the effect on classroom crowding.

"You've got a growing market and land the county won't let you build on for 10 years," because of school overcrowding, DeStefano said.

Hickory Crest in Columbia will fit 88 townhouses on an 18-acre site next to the Hickory Ridge village center. Half the units are already sold, said Bruce Harvey, chief financial officer of Patriot Homes.

As for DeStefano, most buyers at his Village at Waugh Chapel are coming from nearby, either in Columbia or elsewhere in Howard County. "Some are coming from out of town to be near their children," he said, and the average age is 62 to 65.

Not far from home

Emrath said that nationally, three-quarters of those in the 55-64 age bracket who move stay in the same state, and 50 percent remain in their home county.

"That group is very active and they're just looking to get rid of the back yard and the responsibility of the single-family home to live in a one-level, smaller home."

"All we're trying to do is recognize that the population is getting older, to provide equal footing for this type of housing, but recognizing that you have issues of affordability," said Rusty Toler, chairman of the Howard County Commission on Aging.

That's what Allen Hackner, 82, an Ellicott City resident who heads the commission's housing committee, wants too - but at a lower price than is now available.

"I need a smaller home. I want to be able to stay in Howard County," he said, adding that prices at Hickory Crest are too high for his budget.

"I don't need any subsidy, but I need something I can buy around $200,000," he said.

Because the units are built with "universal" features such as wide hallways and doors, lever-handled doorknobs, higher electrical outlets and reinforced walls for grab bars, people near retirement age can chuck their old homes, with the yard work, and still have a nice, barrier-free home they can use for decades to come.

Move 'while you still can'

That's why Charles McGovern, 69, and his wife, Walli, moved from the three-level Owen Brown townhouse they bought new 25 years ago to the new Hickory Crest homes five miles east, near the Hickory Ridge Village Center.

"You have to do it while you still can," the balding retiree said, explaining that he didn't want to wait until they had to move. Now, the McGoverns are right across Freetown Road from a large shopping center, and they have plenty of room in their huge finished basement for visiting children and grandchildren.

But many seniors - maybe a majority - are more like Marshall O. Donley, the 69-year-old chairman of the Columbia Association's senior advisory committee, who lives in a large, three-level townhouse in Wilde Lake.

"Right now I live in a house that's 2,700 square feet. I've got two beautiful curved staircases, and my wife's in a wheelchair." Yet Donley isn't yet planning a move, but he acknowledges it's eventually inevitable.

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