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New bayfront senior housing in Virginia Beach is only ‘scratching’ what the city needs

A rendering of the 22-story bayfront tower expansion that just broke ground along Shore Drive in Virginia Beach. (Courtesy of Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay)
A rendering of the 22-story bayfront tower expansion that just broke ground along Shore Drive in Virginia Beach. (Courtesy of Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay)

The nonprofit Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay recently broke ground on a new residential tower in Virginia Beach.

The tower overlooking the bay will have 226 units of independent living for seniors. It's the latest project to try to tackle the growing need for affordable senior housing in the city.

A study by LeadingAge Virginia says the number of seniors in Virginia Beach will increase by nearly 50% just in the next six years. Based on U.S. Census estimates, that’s about 32,000 people - either current residents turning 65 or seniors moving to the city.

“There's definitely a demographic senior housing crisis developing and that's going to explode in our city over the next ten years,” said Westminster-Canterbury CEO Ben Unkle.

“We knew that 226 was just scratching about half of that whole that our city needs.”

And the demand was confirmed when they went out to pre-book the units planned for the new tower. The nonprofit needed to sell 70% of the units before they could take on the bonds to fund the construction.

“We were told the earliest we could expect to sell these units was in 18 months, and it would more likely take 24 months. We were able to sell it in 13 months,” Unkle said.

When the new 22-story tower is finished, it will bring with it roughly 56 new subsidized units. 

The religious nonprofit charges 20% less for a third of its units to ensure affordable access for those who can’t pay full price, in addition to scholarships for residents that come from its charitable foundation.

Unkle said the entry fee for a lifetime slot at Westminster-Canterbury is about $103,000, plus a few thousand dollars monthly to cover meals, utilities and other services., services and so on.

“People who own their own home can afford to live here,” Unkle said. “The impression because we're on the water and our finishes are nice is that it's only for the rich and as a church-sponsored ministry, we are trying really hard, and we are proud of the price levels that we're able to achieve, to help people get in.”

A report commissioned by the city showed that senior-led households are more likely than average to be burdened by the cost of housing - meaning they spend more than 30% of their monthly income on rent or a mortgage.

The report was presented to City Council in January. Councilwoman Sabrina Wooten said she already heard worries from her constituents.

“Many of them live on a fixed income, many of them do live alone and they don’t have relatives who live near to take care of them, so if they’re being priced out of their homes or their assisted living facilities, where do they go?” Wooten said.

“This is a persisting problem that I see perhaps getting worse.”

The city housing report notes that the median income of a person receiving Social Security is less than $33,000 a year. Someone getting another retirement income in addition to Social Security still only makes about $47,000 on average - a little more than half of the area’s median household income. 

Seniors are also more likely to live alone, meaning their fixed income is often the only money coming in.

Unkle said Westminster-Canterbury did a series of studies five years ago that found Virginia Beach was short about 200 units of independent and assisted living housing for people over 65 years old. The findings said within a decade, that gap would double.

Despite the growing need for senior housing, the Westminster-Canterbury project on Shore Drive has been controversial, opposed by neighboring condo owners who went as far to file a lawsuit in an effort to halt the construction. They argued the tower was improperly approved by the city and it would deprive them of “rights to light and air” because of the shadows the bayfront tower would cast.

A succession of judges rejected the lawsuit, but the legal proceedings did delay construction by between 2.5 and three years, Unkle said. The tower is now slated to open in December 2026.

The development of affordable senior housing could also directly benefit younger families, who face their own struggles with affordability in Virginia Beach.

The city’s housing report says rising housing costs can mean that when seniors are ready to downsize or move to an assisted living facility, they can’t afford to. 

That leaves them in homes that aren’t suitable for them and those homes aren’t hitting the market to be purchased by younger families.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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