Jim and Linda Schlaefer were at home in Lucas, Texas, one recent winter afternoon when they got a call at 4:30 p.m. from a real estate agent at The Villages in Central Florida, the largest adult community in the United States.
The agent had telephoned to advise them that properties representing the type of home they wanted to buy would be on the market the next day at 8:30 a.m.
“Could they be there?” the agent asked. “Of course,” they said. And they were. They got in their car and drove 15 hours to The Villages. They were outbid on some homes, but eventually they signed a contract on the home where they are living now.
They had visited The Villages on a whim the last time they were in Florida, a few months before. “I loved it. I like all the activities and everything there is to do there,” Linda said. “I had fun.”
You don’t have to be wealthy to live in The Villages, but you do need to be at least solidly middle-class to buy or rent a home there. And that is out of reach for many aging people already living in Florida or dreaming about relocating here.
Inequities in housing options for those who are aging may become more of an issue in Florida and throughout the United States in the coming years as people live longer, and often healthier lives.
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Many age-specific or age-segregated Florida retirement communities promote the idea that, day in and day out, a good time will be had by all who opt for retirement living here. Certainly, that’s the message The Villages puts out on its website, in the newspaper and on radio stations it owns, and in the weekly calendar of events, which lists as many as 1,000 clubs and activities.
“Places like The Villages are one of many forms of age-restricted communities that serve people who decide that they want to move from their homes,” said Ruth L. Steiner, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida and director of the Center for Health and the Built Community. “I often think of age-restricted communities as a choice for healthy and wealthy people to move when they are a young-old.”
Life plan or continuing care retirement communities like Gainesville’s Oak Hammock, which offers long-term care options when independent living is no longer possible, are also out of the reach of most.
At Oak Hammock, with its emphasis on life-long learning, residents are purchasing not just housing but what is really a long-term care health insurance policy, explained Nickie Doria, Oak Hammock’s director of sales and marketing. “The idea of a life plan or continuing care community is that as you age you are surrounded by people you know and who are familiar to you,” she said.
Doria said Oak Hammock has about 500 residents. “The affiliation with UF is a draw for people to come to us from all over the country. … I think people want to be warm and they love the idea of life-long learning,” she said.
Doria said the facility has had inquiries from people in 30 states, most recently from Colorado and Wisconsin.
The Village in Gainesville, distinct from The Villages, offers rental options for those who want a maintenance-free lifestyle, as well as some of the long-term care options provided at Oak Hammock.
“We must generalize with care,” said Stephen M. Golant, a Fulbright Senior Scholar award recipient and a professor at UF focused on gerontological issues.
“Certainly, all levels of care in Oak Hammock with entry fees and higher monthly costs are largely restricted to higher-income older persons and this is largely true for The Villages of central Florida. The recent rapid appreciation of home prices will also result in lower-income exclusion,” he added.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, more than one in five of Florida’s almost 22 million people are over the age of 65. It is a trend that has continued to grow since 2010 when the over-65 demographics accounted for 17.3 percent of a population approaching 18 million people.
While the average of 230 days of sunshine each year is part of the attraction, so is the lack of a state income tax. Property taxes are significantly lower than many Northeast and Midwest states, where many of Florida’s newer residents once lived.
In the area around The Villages there’s a plethora of medical facilities catering to the needs of older people with Gainesville’s UF Health and The Orthopedic Institute now offering health care in central Florida.
The Villages, which now occupies a good part of Sumter County, even as it spills into Marion and Lake counties, is the fastest-growing metro area in the United States, according to the census. And it is continuing to expand. Between 2010 and 2020, it grew 39%, from about 93,000 to 130,000.
Yet efforts to reach managers at The Villages for more information were gently rebuffed. “We have determined that with all of the requests we receive similar to yours, we just don’t have the staffing support to do this,” said Maddie Gunn, communications coordinator for The Villages Community Development Districts, in an email. The district serves as The Villages governing board.
When a photographer from The Gainesville Sun came to get photos of a parade in one of the town squares, a security guard and a Villages staffer told him he couldn’t take pictures at what was a public event on public streets because it was contrary to The Villages policies.
Clearly, The Villages likes to control its messaging.
The Villages has its own Turnpike exit and golf carts are the favored way of getting around. The Villages had the first golf cart bridge in the United States to pass over a major highway, and now boasts several others.
Construction continues unabated as the dirt flies to clear the lots for a fourth Villages community, that is expanding into Wildwood near U.S. Highway 301. It too, will have its own town square, to be known as Sawgrass Grove, and like the three already existing town squares, is expected to offer music and dancing under the stars 365 days a year.
Billboards around the area are awash with the slogan, “Continuing the dream.”
Chris Stanley, a political consultant for The Villages Democratic Club, is a second-generation Villager. Her parents moved into the Villages 30 years ago and Stanley became familiar with the community when she visited her parents.
As she points out, although The Villages is well known for the majority conservative, Republican perspectives of its residents, The Villages Democratic Club is the largest in the state of Florida. “There’s something here for everyone,” she said. “There’s cheerleading, belly dancing, and if you can’t find something you want, you can start your own club.”
Others now call The Villages home because they knew some someone who knew someone who knew someone. They came for a visit, were charmed by the possibility of a permanent vacation and a readymade and ever-expanding circle of friends.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” said Steve Kochnover, who moved here with his wife, Linda. “I have more playmates now than I did as a child. And more activities than you can imagine being available.”
At The Villages, many of the residents have moved from other parts of Florida, but also from the Northeast or the Midwest, and that is reflected by geographic clubs like the South Jersey Club, the Detroit Club, and hundreds of others.
But while The Villages may be the biggest age-restricted community, it is far from the only one. Dozens of communities in Florida, not quite as large as The Villages, also offer fun-in-the-sun retirement living options. These include On Top of the World in Ocala, GL Homes’ Valencia, which has eight communities in Florida, and Latitude Margaritaville in Daytona Beach.
Latitude Margaritaville is so popular that on a visit to view properties the greeter told people they could look, but it might be at least 10 years before something would be available to buy.
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Numerous manufactured home communities cater to seniors in the Daytona Beach area, offering two-bedroom units which can be purchased for as little as $30,000. But what many may fail to consider in these communities is that although it may not cost much to purchase a mobile home, a monthly rent must be paid for the land where it sits.
Income aside, age-segregated communities are not for everyone. Many older residents who could afford a move to a retirement community are opting to age in place in homes they may have occupied for decades. For some it is a well-considered choice to remain in their home sweet home.
“I’m not leaving my home until they have to carry me out feet first,” said Julie Grey Burns, a Gainesville homeowner. “I have been in my home 46 years. Why would I want to begin again now? And I like being around people younger than me.”
For others, economics play a definite role. “My condo is paid off. With my Social Security and small state pension, I’m making about $30,000 a year. Where would I move?” said Kathy Newman, a retired schoolteacher. “My family is here. Access to medical care here is terrific, and as a former teacher, I’m also able to pick up some tutoring jobs as well."
But many still ponder whether age-segregated communities are the way to go. Many feel that older people benefit from living in communities where they can interact with people of all ages. Additionally for others, there is the plus of familiarity by staying in a home and a community where one has lived for years.
“The question of intergenerational relationships is very hot,” Professor Golant said. “If you dare say anything that suggests that older people should be interacting with younger people, at this time in history you're on the right side of the argument.”
“Both examples of The Villages and Oak Hammock buck these trends because they are age homogenous and age segregated and in some experts’ minds, they are examples, especially The Villages, of an ageist attitude,” he said.
Move? Or stay in place? That is the question that those who are aging contemplate.
“For most, the most likely option is to age in place by staying in place. For some low-income people, aging in place can be more akin to being stuck in place,” said Professor Steiner. “While they have an asset – a home – they may not have enough income to move from that home to another more appropriate one or they may not be able to maintain their home.”
And even those in the aging population who change their place of residence may face limitations.
“Their best pathway is to find a lower cost of living place (states and communities) to spend their final years, recognizing that these places may have other less desirable features (e.g., weather, ethnic or cultural diversity), and less state-of-the-art medical facilities,” Golant said.
As people live longer and stay healthier, the decision about where to live becomes more complex despite the desire of many to dig in and stay right where they are.
“The general wisdom is that most people want to age in place, and they do so until an emergency occurs that requires them (and their family) to reconsider their living situation. Given the interest in aging in place, we need to develop ways to bring services to people who stay in their home,” said Steiner.
This article was written with support from a fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, the Journalists Network on Generations, and The Silver Century Foundation.