Special Feature: Living with Art
- Jul 28, 2013
Including podcasts featuring John Huskey’s observations on how these projects have succeeded.
Since founding Meta Housing Corp. in the early ‘90s, John Huskey has been intent on providing seniors not only with high-quality housing but housing that encourages interaction and engagement. What started with an education orientation expanded into a more specific focus on the arts, and in January the third such community, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, opened in North Hollywood with a new twist: a professional on-site theater.
With some degree of the education or arts orientation now in all of Meta’s projects and the education theme a pronounced part of a number of the Los Angeles-based company’s family-focused affordable housing projects as well, Huskey envisions ultimately taking the currently California-focused concept to markets around the country.
Longtime seniors and family apartment developer Huskey credits Tim Carpenter, founder & executive director of non-profit seniors activity provider EngAGE, for identifying the need to encourage interaction among seniors housing residents to improve their quality of life rather than simply providing the high-quality environments on which Huskey’s company and its predecessors have focused. Research provided by the University of Southern California at the request of financier Century Housing Corp. confirmed that providing such interaction increases residents’ health, longevity and happiness, he said.
The specialized seniors housing properties target a mix of professionals with a “strong desire to share and teach”—the first to be recruited to a new property in order to establish a base—and those who have an avocational devotion to the applied and performing arts and who “want to be taught.” Both groups¬—and those who fall in between—take their art seriously, whether painting, singing in a choir or joining together to write a screenplay and produce a movie. (Perhaps the best-known success story is Suzanne Knode, who took creative and dramatic writing classes for the first time as a resident of the Burbank Senior Artists Colony and won an award for her first screenplay, “Bandida.” The resultant short film was recognized on Ira Glass’s “This American Life” program on Showtime.) EngAGE provides arts and wellness classes, computer training and even a Senior Olympics.
The properties’ popularity is paying off for Meta Housing. Over time, Huskey noted, they see about a 35 percent greater return due to reduced turnover. And even if someone does leave, their replacement is quickly caught up by the enthusiasm of the longer-term residents.
The concept has also caught on with municipalities. Nine years ago, for instance, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency asked Meta Housing to apply it to family-oriented housing, as well. That result: At the Pico/Gramercy Apartments, a 71-unit affordable and mixed-income property completed in 2007, two licensed teachers offer a variety of classes in a standalone building on the property.
Other groups are also benefiting by extension. In Burbank, residents of the Burbank Senior Artists Colony have been working on art and music programs with students at the high school next door.
Local involvement increased still more when the school lacked the budget to expand a parking lot as planned and decided instead to convert it to a garden; the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of California at Los Angeles got involved, and the three groups worked together to complete the project.
As Huskey seeks to expand the concept to other geographic areas, he looks for communities that already have some sort of arts orientation. That coupled with the dramatic changes seniors housing has undergone in recent years encourages success. Even so, “the change in how one sees old people I believe is the critical thing for the cities as it was for us,” he noted. He recalls being a young person starting his career “with the idea to do well by doing good.” What changed over the course of his career is the realization “that the level of talent and wisdom incorporated in residents of these projects is absolutely incredible. And by creating a critical mass and concentrating them and giving enough of the facility that they can use (their abilities), we hope to have a great deal of wonderful work come out of this.”