The right housing in the right community can mean the difference between being able to age in the community you love and having to move. As housing markets have gotten more complex, so, too, must the strategies of advocates for quality senior housing. This article shares the story of one community that continues to fight for the housing they need, while growing and supporting the community that binds them all together.
Inman Park, Lifelong Inman Park, Atlanta, senior housing
When longtime residents of the Inman Park neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia, discovered they would have to move to find housing that could meet their changing needs as they aged, it was time to take action. A group of residents, all of them older than age 65, began to examine what it would take to provide good housing options in their neighborhood. Their aims were to prevent other older adults from being forced to leave their communities when it came time to downsize, and for others to be able to acquire accessible one-level living and to find supportive services.
Having just retired from careers spent working with older adults, several residents were keenly aware of the disruption and isolation that can follow when a person is forced to leave his or her community. Others had cared for relatives and experienced firsthand the importance of having the right type of housing, at the right time.
Decades of Activism Turns to the Needs of an Aging Population
Almost seven years later, they have yet to achieve the housing choices they desire and need. Supportive, affordable, and accessible housing options have proven much more challenging to create than these active and knowledgeable residents had first imagined. Nonetheless, these residents have laid the necessary groundwork by increasing awareness among fellow residents and key city leaders, working intently to build multigenerational support for the options aging residents need, and adopting the broader goal of not just housing for an aging population, but also building a lifelong community that works for people of all ages.
Inman Park lies just outside the downtown business district in Atlanta. Homes were constructed starting in the 1880s, but the Great Depression and the movement of Atlantans from downtown to the growing suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in disinvestment, leaving most of the large Victorian homes broken into apartments and boarding houses. In the early 1970s, people began to move back into this downtown community, purchasing, renovating, and living in these previously abandoned homes.
Early on, these neighborhood activists realized that to build a sustainable, supportive community, their work would have to extend well beyond house renovations. They became practiced in advocacy, or “fighting to stay.” In the 1970s and 1980s, as in many communities across the country, Inman Park residents opposed the construction of a highway that would tear through their streets and houses. But, unlike many others, they succeeded in halting its construction.
These same residents created a cooperative preschool, launched the first recycling program in the state, turned their local public schools into some of the highest performing in the district, built a co-op grocery store (because the large grocery chains had fled downtown), and partnered with developers to transform a former industrial site into a large, mixed-use community. They also launched one of the city’s first annual festivals (the Inman Park Festival), which produces thousands of dollars in revenue to support education, safety, infrastructure improvements, and other neighborhood priorities.
Lifelong Inman Park Focuses on Older Residents’ Needs
Given their history, is not surprising that these same “do-ers” were ready to tackle the housing needs of older residents. They formed a resident group called Lifelong Inman Park (LIP), with a mission to focus on issues that affect the livability of Inman Park, and a particular emphasis on aging residents. LIP also addresses housing, transportation, health, access, safety, and security. Residents’ experience with preschools, highway construction, and grocery stores taught them that the housing options they needed were not likely to come about as a result of the perfect construction project. Instead, they would need broad support to ensure that aging residents—urban pioneers included—could continue to call Inman Park home. They would need to build a partnership with other neighbors, developers, landowners, and community groups if they were to realize the housing options that met their needs and that would fit into the community.
They became practiced in “fighting to stay.”
They began by launching periodic information sessions on critical issues facing older neighbors that they called “Aging Well.” Initially, these sessions attracted only a few people, but now the gatherings comprise many older adults and their caregivers. Topics have ranged from choosing a Medicare Part D plan, to managing technology, to end-of-life planning. Speakers almost always are neighborhood residents. The information has been invaluable to many and the process has unearthed a tremendous amount of expertise and knowledge that exists within Inman Park.
LIP lobbied the Atlanta City Council and the larger neighborhood association for funding to hire a planning firm that would put the LIP’s vision on paper. The final report detailed the housing types and infrastructure changes that could make it easier to age in place. Working with a councilmember, this plan solicited tremendous community input and now serves as a model for the rest of the city.
LIP has fully embraced a multigenerational approach to its work, advocating for people of all ages. It integrates priorities into other workgroups and committees of the neighborhood association rather than separating out aging issues. It creates and now hosts an annual Halloween Stroll for children and families. While supporting the renovation of a neighborhood park, it ensured there were both a new playground and a bocce court.
Volunteer hours drive the neighborhood’s Hospitality Team, which welcomes new residents and pays them visits. LIP is an active supporter of the neighborhood’s sidewalk repair program, insisting that changes accommodate strollers, walkers, and people with temporary or permanent mobility challenges. Residents recently launched a program called Neighbor to Neighbor, which connects individuals who have a certain need with residents offering the time or resources to supply the solution.
LIP continues to aggressively pursue the housing options it knows residents need. It surveyed all existing multifamily developments within the neighborhood to identify those that could be retrofitted and made accessible. LIP has examined the land around the neighborhood transit stop so that when it is redeveloped, senior housing will be considered as part of the larger plan. It has catalogued vacant land in the neighborhood, monitoring for potential sales. LIP leaders worked very closely with developers who were converting a local church into condominiums. While they were able to convince the developers to integrate accessibility features into the renovations, unfortunately the final sales price was far from affordable to the majority of longtime residents.
Addressing Challenges Collectively
Over these seven years, LIP leaders have expanded their knowledge of the development process and built invaluable relationships with planners, policy makers, and neighbors who had never before considered the needs of older adults. But the real estate market has not remained static.
Since their work began, land has become significantly more expensive. LIP leaders discovered that historic preservation regulations currently do not allow for the density required by any type of assisted living. Recent public and philanthropic investments in an extended walking-biking trail has made it easier to walk to critical services, including a grocery store, parks, banks, and restaurants. But the trail also has made the neighborhood far more desirable, increasing development pressures and driving up prices.
‘LIP continues to aggressively pursue the housing options it knows residents need.’
When asked to reflect upon their progress to date, residents reported that despite not having achieved their original goal of more housing options, this work has confirmed that “there are people just like me,” and “we are all in it together.” It is this profound sense of connection, this shared desire to address these challenges collectively rather than alone, that the group claims as its most concrete results. Residents also are clear that it has taken leadership to sustain their momentum. They have benefitted from having in their group a retired Area Agency on Aging director, a retired high school principal, a former director of hospital-based senior services, and multiple social workers with thirty and forty years of work experience. These individuals have been able to tap into networks and help the group set goals and adopt strategies. They also have combined years of helping others to age well, with their new personal experience of aging to chart their way forward.
Housing remains a top goal. These Inman Park activists know how to build a movement and they know that remaining open, saying yes to ideas and options, educating, and including others are the only ways real change happens. In 2019, they surveyed more than 200 residents, the majority of whom were younger than age 60. Eighty-three percent said, “Housing designed for and restricted to seniors would be a benefit to Inman Park.” A large industrial tract of land on the edge of their neighborhood will soon be redeveloped. In a recent community meeting with the land’s owner and developer, a resident not directly associated with LIP stood up to ask the developer, “Where will the senior housing go?”
As a result of all LIP’s work, senior housing is not just the priority of a few older residents, but it has become part of a larger vision for how the neighborhood will evolve. Much like the preschool that still serves neighborhood children, and the park that stands where the highway was supposed to run, it is very likely that once built, housing options will be available for not only Inman Park’s current older residents, but also for generations of older adults to come.
Kathryn Lawler, M.P.P., is executive director at the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement, in Atlanta, Georgia. Cathie Berger is the former director of the Area Agency on Aging at the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Pictured at top: Bungalows in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta