National Real Estate Investor ASHA's newly elected chairman, Philip Downey of Marriott Senior Living Services (left) and ASHA Executive Director David Schless are at the forefront of shaping seniors housing policy matters for the future.When you join any trade association, you're probably looking for at least several things from your membership - an ability to learn more about an industry, networking opportunities with your peers, and making a difference.

Since its founding seven years ago, the Washington, D.C.-based American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) has consistently delivered on those counts. As an affiliate of the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), the organization was formed to represent the interests of owners, managers, lenders and investors of seniors housing.

"We've got the benefit of being part of a very sound and healthy organization which has kept us from going out recruiting for the sake of making our membership bigger," says ASHA Executive Director David Schless. "In essence we keep a running list of 10 or 15 companies that we consider our top prospective members, not necessarily big companies because we have most of the bigger companies as members, but they're companies in any given market where we hear good things about them, their people and their product. That has been a very healthy approach for us over the years. Our membership has grown steadily and we haven't lost the profile of the member."

Who is the "typical" ASHA member? He/she is a senior executive with a company that is well regarded in its particular markets. "Whether it is a company involved in senior apartments or continuing care retirement communities, we're open to serving different segments of the industry as well."

While assisted living has been the industry darling for some time now, ASHA focuses on companies along the entire continuum of care. "It's always been a strength of the organization. It's kind of funny, but when we got the seniors housing committee started, many of the early members were more congregate seniors housing oriented and almost immediately we started attracting the interest of some of the really good for-profit CCRC-oriented companies. We realized early on that there was another group there we could serve, in particular because of the complexity of the CCRCs that were looking for a very sophisticated trade group that welcomed them and it was a real nice fit," says Schless.

Presently ASHA has about 360 members, which is the high-water mark for the organization. What a change a few years makes. "I remember distinctly our first meeting in June of 1991 at the Radisson in Minneapolis. I think we had 10 or 12 people sitting around the table and it was a very different moment. What was most different about it was the lenders and investors just did not want to know about seniors housing as a general rule. Our meetings today are still owner and operator oriented, but in some instances close to half of the attendees are either lenders or investors in seniors housing. That's been a real monumental change in a short period of time.

NMHC President Jonathan Kempner echoes the theme regarding the early days.

"Given ASHA's relatively quick ascent into a leadership position within the seniors housing industry, it is easy to forget that in 1991, when ASHA was created, the seniors housing industry was not booming the way it is now," says Kempner. "As you know, the aging of our population has increased the attention on seniors housing, both from the media and the real estate industry. In fact, a recent Urban Land Institute survey of real estate executives ranked seniors housing as the top sector among all housing segments for profitable development prospects. Seven years ago, however, seniors was not a thriving market segment, and we formed ASHA with limited expectations. It is a tribute to the ASHA membership and staff that ASHA's growth - in membership, in clout and credibility, and in the quality of its services and programs - has far exceeded everyone's initial expectations and continues to improve and expand as the market evolves."

Schless stresses that owner/operators are still the essence of ASHA's membership, but a definite shift has occurred, primarily on the information front.

"Certainly on the informational side, a lot of what we do now is useful to lenders and investors. A perfect example is what we have done for two years with the State Regulatory Review, which is essentially a set of matrices. It is a great piece because it's so hard to get your arms around everything that is happening on legislative and regulatory issues around assisted living and CCRCs. We have gotten more feedback and more positive comments from lenders and investors than from anyone else. It takes a very complex but critical piece of the business and allows you to really get a very good feel for the key licensure and regulatory requirements on a state-by-state basis."

It may not have started out that way, but research has become part and parcel of ASHA's mission. "I think initially when the group was started it was the legislative and regulatory. That's always been the very top. Initially, I don't know if anyone really thought that this group would be as involved in research as it has become. Again, we're a small organization where we don't have a big bureaucracy. The research is a perfect example of where we've been able to focus our resources in areas where candidly if we weren't involved in doing some of this, it's conceivable that no one would be collecting the data. Now certainly things have changed over the past seven years or so. There is more research being done by other groups, but for example the work we've done collecting the financial and operational performance data was work that we were uniquely situated to do. It hadn't been done for several years since the late-'80s. So we did see opportunities that would benefit the industry and we moved in that directi on."

In 1997 alone, ASHA produced or co-produced studies such as The State of Seniors Housing, 1997 Seniors Housing Construction Survey, Seniors Housing State Regulatory Review, and Managed Care Flexes Its Muscle - Capitation Infiltrates Long-Term Care.

ASHA's agenda is a full one as the industry continues to evolve. Its newly elected chairman, Philip Downey of Marriott Senior Living Services, is looking to maintain the regulatory vigil.

"States are more and more looking to the industry organizations to be a voice for what they think is a positive approach toward regulation. If and when the issue emerges here in Washington, I think we can be in a position to be a positive voice for what the industry would like to see happen," says Downey.

"I want us to be there at the table when that occurs. It is a fast-running time to be involved in the industry, things are changing very quickly. As we enter into a more mature phase of assisted living growth and development, ASHA can continue to be a forum for leaders of different companies to really learn and grow from each other as we get into a new stage of our evolution as far as assisted living goes. We want to basically maintain and in some ways mature as an organization. I just hope we can continue to grow the organization as our industry continues to grow," says Downey.

Schless points to property management issues which involve fair housing advertising as one important area. But perhaps most importantly is monitoring individual state regulations and their changing nature.

"Staying on top of what is happening at the state level and monitoring the 50 states is going to be a big issue for us and for anyone involved in the business because there is so much happening. I was surprised when we revised the Seniors Housing State Regulatory Review when you saw that 25 states had modified their assisted living regulatory or licensure requirements. I mean that's just staggering," says Schless.

"I think groups like the American Seniors Housing Association will be very focused on advocacy work that essentially fights for a reasonable regulatory climate. That's not to say that we're opposed to all regulation, but I think that for a group like ours, it's incumbent on us to stay poised to be sure that some of the problems that have ultimately plagued other segments such as the nursing home industry don't come to bear on this industry. That's not to say that I expect to see a push for federal oversight, but it is incumbent upon the industry to be prepared to respond to those who would like to standardize this business."

"Done correctly, regulation is not inherently damaging to the industry, but too much regulation or regulation that isn't grounded in reality has the potential to be extremely damaging to the industry," says Schless.

"I think that long-term care is really flawed fundamentally at its core because of the way in which Medicare has evolved. I think experimentation is taking place at the state level. I always cringe when I hear people say that the industry is not regulated. It clearly is regulated all across the country. Most states do a pretty good job, but it is an area where the industry is vulnerable. Historically the seniors housing industry has not been as focused on supporting advocacy efforts as other industries are. We have probably the most cohesive membership because our members are all professional owners and managers. But there are a lot of perspectives on what to do, and it is very challenging, even more so than other real estate types."

While owner/operators have found specific market niches for their products, ultimately the older adult consumer has shaped the industry's structure and product offering today.

"The seniors housing industry looks the way it does today almost entirely because of the consumer," says Schless. "The industry today is still probably 97% - 98% private pay. It has been defined by the marketplace and competitveness. It is an industry where the good operators and better conceived properties have thrived and those that haven't been conceived of intelligently or are flawed have been turned over to other owners and operators. Right now the older adult population is about 34 million people, 65 and over. That number will almost double over the next 50 or 60 years. It is an incredibly diverse population. Every decade we will see refinements and people building a better mousetrap as I think has already happened in the last 10 years or so. Operators that don't listen to the consumers will probably find themselves wishing that they had."

ASHA members often see federal legislators face to face regarding public policy matters (top left). Research is another value driver, including the annual State of Seniors Housing report (above). And the ASHA 25 released every October spotlights the industry's largest owners and operators nationwide (left).

More and more, research studies are a mainstay of ASHA's work.