To attract active retirees, plenty of rental developments offer spiffy clubhouses or classes in conversational Italian. But a new California project goes one step further, focusing on a single theme — the arts. The Burbank Senior Artist Colony, a 141-unit apartment development, enables residents to make movies or paint pictures.

Since opening in April 2005, the $28 million project has an occupancy rate of nearly 100%. “Many of our retired people worked in the entertainment industry and they want to stay active in the arts,” says Maribel Leland, senior redevelopment project manager for the City of Burbank.

The artist housing seeks to create a sense of community, explains John Huskey, president of Meta Housing, the Los Angeles project developer. With the California economy languishing in the early '90s, Huskey struggled to fill senior projects that had occupancy rates of 94% or less. He began offering classes in writing and drama. “We noticed an incredible phenomenon,” he says. “Projects with low occupancies began to fill up.”

To refine his approach, Huskey conducted informal surveys at senior projects. He learned that in a typical project, less than 40% of residents would participate in organized activities. Huskey concluded that the higher the participation rate, the happier the tenants were — and the more likely they would be to renew leases.

At the Burbank project, resident participation rates have surpassed 70%. To encourage activity, the development offers a full range of film-making facilities, including digital video cameras and a 45-seat theater where the residents' films are shown. Art workshops house courses in sculpture and pottery making.

Huskey says that activities are designed to involve as many people as possible. When a group sets out to make a movie, some residents must run the cameras, while others act and direct. When a team wants to film outside, someone must travel to city hall and apply for a permit.

While the project seems a natural fit for a city that has long been home to movie studios, Huskey had to jump through several hoops to finance the development. To win a $3.25 million loan from the city, he had to keep 30% of the units at affordable rents. Federal tax credits and a low-cost loan from the California Housing Finance Agency also helped get the project off the ground. In the project's market-rate units, rents can reach $1,800 a month, comparable to rents at other new buildings in the Burbank area.

Huskey plans to build specialized developments in cities around the country for groups such as teachers. “As the popularity of theme rental housing catches on, it will be possible to charge a premium over market rents,” he says.

While the Burbank project may be unique, other developers are working on specialized projects. Hyatt, for example, recently built seniors housing at Stanford University aimed at retired faculty and alumni. In other cases, developers are marketing to retired military officers.

“Consumers of seniors housing are becoming more demanding,” says David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association. “To stand out from the crowd, developers must provide something more than bingo.”