ABINGDON, VA. - The 29-unit ElderSpirit Community 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, the $3.6 million mixed-income development offers seniors 16 affordable apartments and 13 market-rate ownership units.

Geraldine “Dene” Peterson, executive director of ElderSpirit developer Trailview Development Corp., said she was inspired to invent the novel retirement community by the way aging has changed for the worse in America.

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 working in community service and development in Appalachia. FOCIS used the grant to develop a conceptual housing model centered on interdenominational late-life spirituality—a radical departure from the traditional types of seniors housing, according to 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. Social services and community ties are not arranged for by the developer but are expected to be a natural extension of the community-oriented complex.

To raise the funds to purchase the site, Peterson 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.

In addition, 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, which, in turn, used it to provide $1.25 million in construction financing for ElderSpirit. 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, and a $178,551 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Affordable Housing Program.

In the year that the property has been open, there have been three instances where residents have pitched in to care for neighbors returning from the hospital.

“It was so easy because each one of us only had to help out one day with meals or things like dressing. The alternative would have been that they would have had to be in a nursing home,” said Peterson.

The development has generated so much interest that an ElderSpirit outreach program is helping to plan similar communities in other states.

Additional project information, as provided in application by the nominator.

Q. Why does the nominated project deserve to be recognized based on the award criteria of this contest?

A. The ElderSpirit Community deserves to be recognized for its creative approach to providing affordable housing for active retirees in a rural community. As the nation’s first mixed-income co-housing community for people aged 55 and older, ElderSpirit offers a community of mutual support where the residents do for each other what adult children would do for their parents.

Formed by a group of former nuns in Abingdon, Va., (pop. 7,780), ElderSpirit was initiated by a $240,000 grant from the Retirement Research Foundation to develop a model for affordable housing for older adults that provides housing in a community that focuses on meaningful lifestyle and spirituality for the second half of life.

ElderSpirit is located on 3.7 acres near the Virginia Creeper Trail. The community includes a mix of 29 rental and single-family homes, a common house, and a meditation hall, and all residents are requires to help maintain or contribute to the community.

The community also offers residents extensive empowerment programs, including employment training, communal meals, transportation, a tenant association, and safety initiatives. The project also includes four one-bedroom rental apartments within the common house, which developers may eventually use to provide housing for onsite caregivers and other supportive service providers.

Dene Peterson, ElderSpirit cofounder and executive director of Trailview Development Corp., tapped a broad mix of community support and funding resources to develop the project, including a unique arrangement with Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS), a group of her fellow former nuns who provide community development and human services in Appalachia.

To raise funds to purchase the site, Peterson asked 50 members of FOCIS if they would be willing to loan the project $1,000, to be paid back with 5 percent interest. The effort raised $52,000, which covered the land purchase.

The project also garnered financial support from state agencies, private funding sources, community banks, and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta through member financial institution Highlands Union Bank.

While other co-housing communities have been developed in the U.S., ElderSpirit is the first to be completely designed by and for seniors who want to live in an affordable, supportive environment. Together, renters and homeowners participate in consensus decision-making, and share in the work of the community.

ElderSpirit has attracted national attention, and an ElderSpirit outreach extension program is now helping to plan similar communities in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Kansas, and Virginia. The elder co-housing concept is expected to increase across the country as more baby-boomers seek alternatives for independent retirement living.

Q. How does this project represent an innovative solution to a specific development challenge?

A.  ElderSpirit addresses demands for affordable housing that suits the elderly in a rural Appalachian community. In addition to a creative structure of funding sources, the developer used several unique design features to maintain the project’s affordability and take advantage of the site’s challenging landscape.

Built in the rocky hills along the Virginia Creeper Trail in Washington County, the project site’s uneven landscape and rural location made development difficult. The property required a $250,000 retaining wall to minimize water runoff, but the developer was also able to use the site’s hillside location to create unique home features.

The single-family homes are built into the hillside and feature flat roofs, with another home built on top. Each house has its own entrance. The single-story, wheelchair-accessible homes are clustered around a shared pedestrian green space—a hallmark of all co-housing communities—which promotes social interaction. Common structures include a spiritual sanctuary for contemplative activities, and the Common House, a hub of community life for communal meals, meetings, and community gatherings.