Senior Housing Occupancy Hits Record Low, Suggesting More Tailwinds for ‘Aging-in-Place’ Providers

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Senior housing occupancy in the U.S. hit a record low in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to the National Investment Center for Housing & Care (NIC).

The record downturn is further proof that seniors and their families are looking for alternative long-term care options, at least until a vaccine is widely distributed and concerns about congregate living are lifted. The numbers out of NIC similarly suggest that tailwinds for home-based care providers are likely to persist — and maybe even grow stronger.

The final quarter of 2020 brought another decrease in senior housing occupancy, from 82% in Q3 to 80.7% in Q4. The 1.3% drop brought the total loss in occupancy up to 6.8% since Q1 of 2020.

Declining occupancy in senior housing was the story for nearly all of 2020, with no month standing as the main culprit. Occupancy fell steadily each month after March, according to NIC data.

While the drop in Q4 wasn’t as drastic as Q2 and Q3, it’s likely that the trend isn’t yet over.

“Senior housing occupancy declines were less pronounced in the fourth quarter than the previous two quarters, though the fourth quarter decline is still quite large from a historic perspective,” NIC’s chief economist, Beth Burnham Mace, said in a press release. “The surge in COVID-19 cases following Thanksgiving and Christmas suggests further disruption lies ahead. That said, the recent distribution of the vaccines should soon provide some relief.”

NIC conducts intra-quarterly occupancy rate updates, covering 31 major metropolitan markets. Within those markets, there is some degree of disparity, NIC notes.

For instance, in California, San Jose and San Francisco all remained right around or above 85% occupancy — as did Seattle in neighboring Washington. On the other hand, Houston, Cleveland and Miami all checked in below 77% in terms of occupancy rates, with Houston falling all the way to 73.5%.

That is the lowest out of all markets reviewed by NIC.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted move-ins and move-outs across senior living properties,” Chuck Harry, chief operating officer of NIC, said in the release. “Move-ins slowed as operators enacted moratoriums to keep residents safe and as safety protocols limited new leasing activity, while move-outs have been affected as residents moved to higher-acuity care settings.”

Assisted living occupancy also fell another 1.3%, to 77.7% in Q4. Independent living occupancy dropped to 83.5%, falling by 1.4%. Those occupancy numbers have fallen at a similar rate to senior housing, around 6% to 7%.

There are home-based care operators involved in senior housing, such as BrightStar Care.

But BrightStar’s senior living segment hasn’t experienced the same headwinds. 

In September, BrightStar CEO Shelly Sun told Home Health Care News that she had seen significant growth in the company’s communities in 2020. She credited that to the more personal space that BrightStar had created in its brick-and-mortar locations.

“The concept of a lot of personal space has really resonated in the community,” Sun said. “There’s very strong interest in [them]. And I think a lot of that is because a lot of the choices around assisted living or memory care tend to be hundred 200- to 300-room formats.”

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