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Marilyn HawkesOctober 24, 2019
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Illustration by Angelina Aragon
Illustration by Angelina Aragon

Home-based elder care facilities are popping up in neighborhoods around the Valley – to mixed reactions.

Two years ago, Paul Murphy purchased a North Phoenix home to remodel. His plan was to live there, but as he watched his father diminish physically and mentally after a heart attack, Murphy decided to turn the property into a residential group care home where his father could receive quality 24-hour care. The decision came after touring care facilities around the Valley.

“I couldn’t find one that I’d put him in. It’s just depressing. Basically, people go there to die,” he says. “They don’t go there to live.”

Murphy’s home, Abellavida Assisted Living and Memory Care, is part of a growing trend of residential group assisted-living homes for 10 people or fewer sprouting up in single-family neighborhoods across the Valley and beyond. In addition to housing, group homes provide medical services for seniors, as well as meals, community spaces and planned recreational activities. Some offer private rooms with bathrooms.

These smaller, home-based facilities differ from larger assisted-living homes in size, have a smaller patient to caregiver ratio, offer more personalized care and are located in residential neighborhoods rather than on commercially zoned property.

Often, neighbors are unhappy about the prospect of a group home in their neighborhood, but soon discover that the homes are protected under the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which states that people with any physical or mental disabilities (that includes seniors) are a federally protected class.

As of September 1, 2019, the Arizona Department of Health Services database listed 2,108 licensed residential assisted-living home facilities in Maricopa County with capacity for 10 or fewer occupants.

According to Racelle Escolar of the city of Phoenix Planning and Development Department, senior group homes in Phoenix must be at least a quarter mile apart to avoid clustering. “Once you have clustering, it turns into more of an institutional environment, rather than residential,” she says.

Common community concerns include increased traffic, sirens from emergency vehicles and decreased property values, says Paradise Living Centers owner Robert Adamo, who operates three Valley elder care group homes in upscale residential neighborhoods. “If you’re a smart and responsible business owner, you’ll provide as many parking spaces onsite as possible, so people won’t park in the street. And once a home is registered, [first responders] don’t put the lights on and there’s no noise because they know it’s a care home.”

Before opening a care facility in a new neighborhood, Adamo sends an email or mailer to let neighbors know his intentions and extends an invitation to contact him with questions. “You know right away if there’s opposition and if they’re mobilized,” he says.

Adamo holds meetings for neighbors to ask questions and voice concerns. The most opposition came from neighbors near his North Central Phoenix care home, who initially were worried about property values dropping, traffic and uncertainty about what the home would be used for. After the facility opened, the neighbors relaxed, Adamo says. “We’re not running a drug rehab. We’re not running sober houses. This is true elder care luxury assisted living. It’s a loving and welcoming environment.”

The Cost of Care

According to the Pew Research Center, 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 years old every day until 2030, and many will need assisted living or nursing home care. Costs vary from state to state and by type of care. Here’s how the Valley ranks in a 2018 survey conducted by Genworth:

Many seniors and their families opt for residential group homes over larger assisted living facilities because the aging person needs a higher level of care. “Sometimes they don’t remember if they took their medications or if they’re eating enough,” Adamo says. “They might need somebody to monitor their vitals more often, or may have trouble walking.”

In a Scottsdale neighborhood close to Old Town, a ranch-style home recently sold to an assisted-living company with plans to renovate the house to accommodate 10 seniors. Some neighbors welcome the home, including June (who asked that only her first name be used), who has been a neighborhood resident for more than 30 years. “I may be able to move in if I am in need of those services in later life,” she says. “How great would that be to be able to stay in the same neighborhood I have lived in for 30-plus years?”

While most neighbors in the Scottsdale neighborhood understand that the property usage is protected under the Fair Housing Act, not everyone is happy about it. More than one resident has voiced concern over property values decreasing in the area, where homes have sold for more than $1.5 million. “It will damage the property values of those homes in the vicinity, and I don’t see any upside for our neighborhood,” says one neighbor, who asked not to be identified.

But according to Tom Ruff of real estate consultancy The Information Market, the notion that property values will be affected is largely anecdotal. “When you look at the sales around [the three group homes mentioned], it doesn’t look like they are impacting property values.”

Adamo agrees. After he built a care home in Paradise Valley, the house behind it sold for close to $3 million, which he says was within 5 percent of the owner’s asking price. “When we build these houses, they look like large residential homes, unlike some operators who take a typical 3,000-square-foot ranch house and blow out the garage and stick a couple of beds in there,” he says. “I tear them down and start over. My homes are built from the ground up specifically for luxury assisted living.”

The Arizona Department of Health Services requires residential elder care homes to be licensed, Escolar says. “The state will do inspections [initially] and then also, if there is a complaint.” Other grievances, such as parking violations, blight or noise, are handled by the cities where the properties are located.

For Murphy, the owner of Abellavida, the bottom line is that seniors under his care are experiencing a better quality of life. “Our residents are like family members,” he says. “I just want them to know that there’s more to life than just dying at the end of it.”

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