published Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

3 senior couples plan downtown Chattanooga co-housing complex

Finn Bille, Sue Reynolds, Jay Ku and Jeanne Bille, from left, discuss their plans for senior co-housing complex with Times Free Press reporter Kate Harrison at ClearSpring Yoga.
Finn Bille, Sue Reynolds, Jay Ku and Jeanne Bille, from left, discuss their plans for senior co-housing complex with Times Free Press reporter Kate Harrison at ClearSpring Yoga.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
LEARN MORE

The Chattanooga co-housing group will hold informational meetings today and Wednesday for individuals and couples 55 and up.

• Today, 3 p.m., 1109 Hanover St.

• Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., The Flying Squirrel, 29 Johnson St. (behind Niedlov's Breadworks)

• Online: www.seniors-together.com

• Or call: 423-622-2232

It sounds like a dream conjured by a group of visionary twenty- or thirty-somethings.

Find or build an urban housing complex -- close to the city's most bustling venues, coffeeshops, bars and parks -- and move there with a group of friends and like-minded peers.

To stay social and save money, you share common space like the kitchen and a living room, but you each have your own small apartment.

And your shared desire to be environmentally friendly affects everything from the building materials to rooftop gardening and organic cooking.

It all seems like a young progressive's cosmopolitan ideal. But for a group of Chattanooga seniors in their 60s and 70s, this is the vision of retirement.

Wanting to remain plugged into the city and hoping to avoid social isolation and the institutional care so typical of their parents and peers, three senior couples are casting a new vision for how they want to spend their golden years.

They have called it Chattanooga Collaborative Senior Housing. It's a form of co-housing: Not a condominium, and definitely not a commune, they emphasize.

But it has elements of both -- separate quarters, designed around close-knit, community living.

"We're designing the facility to make social contact inevitable," said retired teacher and writer Finn Bille, 71, who is part of the group with his wife. "You can't stay isolated."

And unlike most retirement villages or facilities, residents own the complex and control all operations. The group is adamant about being consensus-driven about all big decisions.

"We're not governed by a corporation," said Jay Ku, a 74-year-old retired attorney. "We make our own policies."

Part of the goal of the complex is to economize, Ku said.

"But the main concept is that we help each other," she said. "We have been through the struggles caring for our parents as they aged. It's a heavy responsibility we don't want to put on our children."

The couples may not want to burden their families as they age -- but they want to grow older in a family like environment.

"We're forming the family of our older years," says Finn's wife, Jeanne Bille, a 72-year-old former health worker.

The current group has mulled over plans for senior-specific collaborative housing for several years, and is starting to take steps to make it happen.

There are many practical benefits to such an arrangement, they say.

Living in smaller units will force them to downsize and pool resources. And it's more environmentally sustainable, they say -- one of the group's big goals.

But the wider goals of senior co-housing are less material, says Kay Stewart, a resident in a 24-home senior co-housing village built last year in Stillwater, Okla.

"At a basic level, it has nothing to do with housing. It has everything to do with community," she said. "The goal is not to live independently, but interdependently."

They will work to keep each other active and mobile. And when they fall ill, or their spouse is disabled or dies, they won't be isolated.

"We are hoping to minimize the jarring dislocation of those challenges by being in a community," said Ku's husband, Charles Hughes, a 74-year-old retired neurologist.

The group acknowledges that mutual care won't replace professional help. If someone in the group faces permanent disabilities, they will need to come up with some kind of home health care -- even hospice, if necessary.

But the option to stay in the complex will remain open.

The concept isn't really new, says 67-year-old Sue Reynolds, a former teacher and yoga studio owner who hopes to shift into co-housing with her husband, Bill.

"It's the old village concept," she said. "People living close together, and looking out for each other."

And they hope others will join them. Before the group settles on property, it hopes to add to or double its current number of participants.

If more people than that are interested, they want to help others start similar ventures.

AGING ALTERNATIVES

The co-housing movement began in Denmark and spread to the U.S. in the 1980s. The idea was more popular in the Western part of the country, but has reached Atlanta and more recently Nashville, where intergenerational co-housing neighborhoods have popped up.

Over a decade ago, the Reynoldses bought land to start a sustainably built co-housing village in North Chattanooga. But the city "just wasn't ready" for the idea, Sue Reynolds said.

But today, co-housing -- and co-housing for seniors, in particular -- has begun to catch on nationwide. In a 2011 report, the AARP found that five senior co-housing complexes had been established in the U.S., with 15 more in the works.

And as baby boomers age, experts on aging trends expect more seniors will seek alternatives to the more traditional retirement communities and assisted-living homes.

"People are living longer, and want more options for how they live out this stage," said Steve Witt, executive director of the Southeast Tennessee Center for Area Agency on Aging and Disability. "A growing number of folks just do not want to move into an assisted living facility."

Before helping start the Oklahoma co-housing community, Stewart said, she saw people trying to age in place "in every way they could" during her long career in home health services.

"It became clear to me that the only ones who were successful had a close support system of family or friends," Stewart said.

Within the year of that senior village's construction, all but one of the 24 houses were filled.

"When you combine everyone's skill sets, it's incredible what can be done," she said. "I think it is a very realistic option for the future."

But Witt said he didn't think the co-housing layout works for everyone.

"Personally, I'd go crazy in such a close environment," Witt said. "I think it would depend on the person, and whether they could commit to this long term. And I think you'd have to put proper safeguards in to ensure it doesn't become a small assisted-living facility."

The Chattanooga group's members say they know the setup will appeal only to particular personalities and lifestyles. And they acknowledge conflict can be a given in such close quarters.

But they say the group -- which includes three licensed mediators -- is developing methods to work through that.

PLANS SO FAR

While co-housing communities typically are built as a neighborhood, the Chattanooga group wants everyone to be under the same roof. The group envisions separate suite-style apartments joined by common rooms like a kitchen, library and rooms for exercise and laundry.

"When you get a cup of coffee or pick up the paper there will be at least two people who you will be forced to see and say hello to," said Jeanne Bille.

Units likely will be between 800 and 1,000 square feet, with the entire complex around 10,000 square feet.

The estimated buy-in per unit is $250,000 to $350,000, and monthly fees could run from $1,000 to $2,000 to cover utilities, staff, taxes, insurance.

The group says they "estimated on the high side" for property and construction costs.

They hope one day to hire staff members to help with housekeeping, driving or other needs.

Living in an urban environment is crucial for the group, and members say they are committed to Chattanooga and city revitalization.

"We want to be able partake in all of the cool things that are going on downtown," said Sue Reynolds.

The group wants to be within walking or biking distance of cafes, grocery stores, parks and attractions such as the Tennessee Aquarium.

"And places where we can get a good beer," added Finn Bille.

But the group also wants to become its own destination, hosting book clubs, poetry readings and other events.

They are already busy with volunteer work and passion projects -- everything from teaching yoga and taking medical trips to Africa, to writing a book on poetry and donating legal work.

"We hope to be an asset to the urban scene here," Finn Bille said.

And as the city touts itself as a destination for outdoor sports, they want to encourage more active retirement.

"Chattanooga is not just for the young athletes. It's for us old codgers, too," Jeanne Bille said, laughing.

Sue Reynolds chimes in.

"As the young rock climbers and athletes come here, they may want to stay to grow old," she said. "Hopefully there will be more communities like this. I see it as a way to the future."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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