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Redefining 'senior living' in Phoenix

The Lofts at McKinley

Pam Wells pays $400 a month for her apartment in downtown Tempe.

Sunny Phoenix, Ariz., has long been a magnet for retirees. The city's suburbs are lined with golf courses and home to communities like Sun City. But that image may be changing as Baby Boomers reach retirement age, because more seniors in the Phoenix area are looking at spending their Golden Years in the city.

"Quite frankly, it's all driven by economics," said Gorman and Company's Brian Swanton.

The developer is bringing another 60 housing units for seniors to downtown Phoenix with its latest project, The Lofts at McKinley. The Lofts at McKinley were partially financed by a group of nonprofits and set aside for low- and middle-income residents 55 years and older. The complex is a few blocks from a light-rail station. And most importantly, it's close to jobs. Far fewer seniors can afford to retire early and and almost no one has guaranteed pensions anymore, Swanton said.

"Folks in their 60's today are not in that same situation. So the economics have driven them into a different housing prototype," he said.

Nearly 300 affordable housing units for seniors will be available along the Phoenix metro area's still burgeoning light-rail system by the end of 2013. For cities like Chicago and Miami, where seniors have been living urban lifestyles for generations, this may not sound like much. 

"For Phoenix, this is a new concept," Swanton said. "Bringing seniors into the downtown urban core is sort of a whole new dynamic."

For an indication of how this might actually work, you only need to travel a few miles down the rail line. About five months ago, Joel Cohen moved into the latest urban senior development in Tempe, called Encore on Farmer. 

Cohen is a New York native with a vascular condition that limits his walking. He just turned 60 in June.

"It was a horrifying experience," he said from his second-floor apartment. 

But living in the senior housing development near Arizona State University has been great on his bank account. The $400 subsidized monthly rent is the first reason he moved here.

"I have nothing but my pride and my dignity and I'm not afraid to say I take advantage of every program out there I can get my hands on for a disabled individual," he said.

His neighbor, Pam Wells, also pays $400 a month.

"This was the determining factor," she said. "This is what made me decide to pack my clothes, quit my job, leave my furniture and come here."

Wells moved from St. Louis to be closer to her children. She couldn't afford to live in a suburban single-family home, she said. Just like Cohen, every penny of her $1,000 Social Security check goes out the door each month. Now, her car is breaking down and fixing it costs money.  

"I drive a PT Cruiser -- a Chrysler PT Cruiser -- which I love. But I am thinking about giving it up," she said.

Advocates of urban-senior housing say giving up the car can save $9,000 a year. But for most people in the Phoenix area, going without a car is almost unheard of. The thought of ditching her PT Cruiser is less stressful on Wells because she lives so close to the light rail.

Life without a car has been easy for Cohen. His disability prevents him from driving. So he rides the train. He takes the bus. And he uses a motorized scooter to explore the neighborhood, where rowdy college kids dip in and out of bars.

"For me, being close to the younger generation is very important. I like being in a college town. I like to see all the craziness and zaniness. It makes me feel young again," he said.

And if Cohen tires of the college scene, he won't need to go far. The 56-unit complex is completely leased out, all with people his own age. 

Pam Wells pays $400 a month for her apartment in downtown Tempe.

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My husband and I are wintering in an RV park in Gold Canyon near Phoenix. We retired from General Motors with defined pensions in 2011. We are living the American Dream. We do not understand why the US let go of its highly lucrative automobile industry. For decades huge numbers of retirees moved to Az. Didn't anyone notice who they worked for and where they came from?

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