It would be a big understatement to say that the long-term demographics for the seniors housing industry are favorable. Consider that in 2008, there were 38.9 million people age 65 and older in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. By 2050, the number of people in that same age group is expected to swell to 88.5 million, accounting for 20% of the country's total population.

But in 2011, the weak state of the U.S. housing market is a concern because demand for seniors housing is influenced by home prices. The Zillow Home Value Index reached $240,700 in June 2006, but fell to $169,600 in April 2011.

That whopping 30% drop in the average home price over a five-year period has dealt a financial blow to the elderly and delayed their transition to seniors housing in many cases. As a result, seniors are “frailer” upon move-in to assisted living facilities today than in the past, and in need of more services.

“Certainly we are finding seniors electing to stay put [in their homes] longer, even though they intend to come to seniors housing,” says Bill Pettit, president and chief operating officer of Merrill Gardens. The privately held company based in Seattle owns and operates 56 assisted living and independent living communities in 10 states, primarily on the West Coast.

One unexpected consequence of the recession, points out Pettit, has been the decision by some healthy, independent seniors to move back home to be with their children. “In many cases, it's because the adult child has either lost a job or been affected by the recession.”

Pettit's comments came during an hour-long webinar moderated by NREI in June. The program focused on trends in seniors housing, including the rapid expansion of health care REITs in this highly specialized sector. The live event drew 280 attendees.

Chasing history

“Probably the question we're all wrestling with today is if, and when, we will see seniors return to pre-recession spending habits that gave us such a boost in occupancy prior to the recession,” Pettit told attendees. That doesn't appear likely in the near term.

In the first quarter of 2007, the occupancy rate at assisted living facilities in the nation's top 31 metropolitan statistical areas stood at 90.6%. By comparison, the vacancy rate for assisted living in the first quarter of this year was 88.4%, or 220 basis points lower, according to the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry.

The occupancy trend among independent living facilities has shown an even wider swing. In the first quarter of this year, the occupancy rate averaged 87.7% at assisted living facilities, well below the high point of 92.7% in the first quarter of 2007.

The good news is that while real estate fundamentals aren't nearly as robust as they were four years ago, market conditions are improving. The average occupancy for seniors housing (assisted living and independent living combined) climbed from 87.3% in the first quarter of 2010 to 87.9% in the first quarter of 2011. What's more, owners and operators strongly believe occupancies will rise over the next six months, according to a newly released study by NREI (see chart).

Meanwhile, new supply is at a minimum. The annual inventory growth was 1.3% in the first quarter compared with 2.6% a year ago, or “record low levels,” says Pettit. The number of units under construction in the first quarter of 2011 was down 57% from the peak in early 2008.

Pettit is confident that the combination of a limited amount of new supply coupled with the expected rise in demand for seniors housing “sets the stage for a rapid recovery in occupancy,” but that recovery will be regional in nature.