Abingdon, Va. — A new $3.6 million seniors development seeks to offer an alternative kind of independent-living community, one in which close-knit residents will care for one another as they grow older.

Tucked alongside the Virginia Creeper Trail, which runs the length of an old, defunct railroad line in the mountainous southwest corner of the state, the mixed-income ElderSpirit Community will offer 16 rental and 13 ownership units. It is one of the first “co-housing” developments for people aged 55 and older in the United States, and it may be the first residential community for older adults that has “late-life spirituality” as one of its primary goals.

Geraldine “Dene” Peterson, executive director of ElderSpirit developer Trailview Development Corp., said she was inspired to invent the novel retirement community based on two very different life experiences.

“My parents lived in a small community in Kentucky, and they both died at home,” supported by their whole community, said Peterson.

But her parents’ final days seemed unusual, compared with what Peterson saw when she worked with Chicago seniors in the 1960s.

“When people died, no one even knew who they were,” said Peterson. “They were totally anonymous to the extent that [the city] ended up putting bracelets on them with a contact name and a phone number. I thought, ‘Why do we have these systems that don’t support people at the end of their life?’”

So, in 1999 – when she herself reached retirement age – Peterson secured a $240,000 planning grant from the Retirement Research Foundation on behalf of the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS), a group of women she belongs to that works in community service and development in Appalachia.

FOCIS used the grant to develop a conceptual housing model centered on interdenominational late-life spirituality. Its goal was a radical departure from the traditional types of seniors housing, said Bernice Wilson, project director for Trailview. “The options out there take away control of your life and/or they take away control of your life savings,” Wilson said. “We looked at lots of different creative ideas for how housing could serve the real purpose of later life.”

FOCIS settled on a co-housing model – a type of housing popular in Denmark – for ElderSpirit. In co-housing, private homes have all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to common facilities. Co-housing communities also usually serve optional group meals in the common house at least two or three times a week and require residents to help maintain the complex or otherwise contribute to the neighborhood.

At ElderSpirit, the rental units consist of six one-bedroom and six two-bedroom apartments, with half targeted to households earning no more than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI) and half to be rented to households earning no more than 80 percent of the AMI. There will also be four efficiency-style apartments affordable to people earning no more than 50 percent of AMI. These units will be part of a common house. In addition, 10 two-bedroom and three one-bedroom single-family units were sold for market prices.

The final phase of development, expected to be completed in July, will include the construction of a small meditation hall and the common house with a large kitchen, dining room, meeting rooms, craft spaces, library, office, and visitor room.

Social services and community ties will not be arranged for by the developer but are expected to be a natural extension of the community-oriented complex.

“If you keep people isolated and without control of their lives, that model makes sense – you have to bring the church in,” Wilson said. “But these are people who led active lives. Our residents belong to a variety of local churches, and those churches are interested in us. They volunteer as ushers at the local theater. We weave in and out more naturally with the community.”

Residents will be encouraged to share and develop their talents through such activities as music, dance, theater, storytelling, gardening, and crafts. Because the co-housing neighborhood allows for mutual support, home care, and dying at home, Peterson said “spirituality will be the glue in the community that children typically are in an intergenerational community.”

A creative financing quilt

“The hardest part was getting started,” said Wilson. “There is so little financing for land and predevelopment costs. It took a hugely committed group a number of years to do that.”

The three-year planning grant allowed FOCIS to hire an architect, perform site reviews and conduct other predevelopment work. During that time, FOCIS incorporated Trailview for the purpose of purchasing land and developing the site.

To raise the funds to purchase the site, Peterson took a unique path. She asked 50 members of FOCIS if they’d each be willing to loan the project $1,000, which would be paid back with 5 percent interest. Twenty-three members contributed a total of $52,000, which covered the total land acquisition cost.

“The land was cheap, but it was tough to develop,” said Wilson. “We had to build a $250,000 retaining wall. But it’s now a gorgeous property.”

Five local banks – Highlands Union Bank, First Bank and Trust, New Peoples Bank, Commonwealth Community Bank, and First Bank of Virginia – loaned money to the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises (FAHE), which, in turn, used it to provide $1.25 million in construction financing for ElderSpirit.

“We didn’t go into the project planning on financing it. [The construction loan they needed] was more than we could handle on our own,” said Jim King, president of FAHE. “But, fortunately, the local banks were willing to step up. They just needed a platform that made sense for them.”

Although Trailview had very little history and ElderSpirit was its inaugural development project, the banks felt comfortable loaning the money to FAHE – a well-known and respected nonprofit community development financial institution.

Also helping to meet the development costs were $850,000 in two 35-year loans from the Virginia Housing Development Authority, a $776,489 HOME grant distributed by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, a $178,551 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Affordable Housing Program applied for by Highlands Union Bank, and assorted small grants.

When this funding allowed Trailview to pay the FOCIS members back for their initial land loan, Peterson asked if they would prefer to donate that money toward the construction of the “Spirit House” meditation hall. About $30,000 was raised through that effort.

The town of Abingdon also proved very supportive – forgiving building fees, granting variances, widening the street, and improving the curbs, gutters, and sidewalks.

In fact, the development was so well-received by the town and community at large – there’s already an 18-person waiting list – that Trailview plans to build a second ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon if it can obtain suitable property.