Retirement Sex, Drugs, And Real Estate

Sex, Drugs, And Real Estate

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Tempe is a college town near Phoenix with around 190,000 regular residents and more than 50,000 students of Arizona State University (ASU). Though Tempe is young now, it is about to get older. In the middle of Tempe is a towering complex under construction called the Mirabella. The building is slated to become an expensive retirement community, with apartments ranging from $350,000 to $1 million. 

Just a couple blocks from the center of campus, Mirabella aims to give retired seniors a chance to pursue higher education in their golden years. College president Michael Crowe has said Mirabella will be the “world’s coolest dorm.” Of course, it will also be a new source of revenue for the school. 

ASU isn’t the first campus to experiment with elder housing. Notre Dame was an early model with several senior residences. SUNY Purchase in upstate New York was featured in a New York Times story that focused on the effect of older people will have on students. (One student who was open to boarding with an older person said, charmingly, “Grannies are my weakness.”)

This trend has me wondering if I am seeing gold in a graying economy. The economic effects of an aging population are a matter of growing interest. Macroeconomists have found that aging populations can cause productivity declines. Urban planners have used state of the art simulation models to determine how cities will fare with a graying populace. 

As you would imagine, the magnitude and nature of the local impacts depend on the household size and socioeconomic class of those aging. Older people might require more local government spending, but those increases would be matched by the money that retirees spend on healthcare and other services.

One particular problem that every community faces is housing mismatch. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is worried that the housing stock we have is not the one we need. The number of U.S. adults aged 65 and older will grow from 48 to 79 million by the mid 2030s. Twenty-four million people will be over the age of 80. 

For a population like this, the suburbs are far from ideal. Three-bedroom ranches in suburbs are the absolute worst places to be when you are old, alone, and unable or unwilling to drive. This fact is likely to cause major shifts in housing markets and the demand for homes.

All of this has me worrying that the American suburb could become, as Christopher Leinberger wrote in 2008, “the next slum.” The median income of households 80 and older is $25,000 and roughly a quarter of them live on $15,000 or less annually. One in three 80-plus households will face mobility issues and require accessible housing. Yet only 4% of housing stock in the U.S. is built for accessibility. Aging people should make plans to protect against isolation and limited mobility, as well as other natural concerns, like lack of sexual partners

With regards to the many challenges brought about by an aging population, the Mirabella project is relevant to some and irrelevant to others. Elders need affordable housing in an appropriate space. They also need interaction, sex, physical activity, and education—why waste college dorm life on the young! By attending college in old age, grannies and grandpas—and a growing number of older people who transcend binary gender distinctions—may help heal economic weaknesses in local economies that need vibrant and affluent elders. 

But the Mirabella project is irrelevant for the vast majority of seniors who need affordable housing. Surely many of them would appreciate one of the Mirabella’s 252 units, as well as its four restaurants, its art museum and its spa. But only a few can afford it. And whatever happens on campuses around the country, it remains to be seen what will happen to the suburbs. 

Arizona is second in the nation in relocating retirees over the age of 60. Figuring how to make gold out of this gray wave is an urban planner’s challenge. But the real economic challenge is how to solve the elder poverty in this nation and stem the tide of elder loneliness and despair.

Still, Mirabella hits a sweet spot economically, and perhaps it’s an idea that could be democratized with the right mix of elder groups and poverty activists. From everything I am seeing about ASU and Tempe’s growth and vibrancy, if any place can figure out how to close the age and wealth gap, maybe it will be this town. The city with an economically viable plan to integrate elders into its community will win, and that’s why I’m watching Tempe, Arizona. 

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