Lessons of an Accidental Developer

by Dene Peterson

My mother used to tell everybody that I’ve been “an administrator since the age of two.” Chances are, the first time that occurred to her was in a moment of exasperation. From the beginning, I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted things to go. And I would insist in moving in that direction, organizing processes and people around me, no matter what the barriers. As a child, those qualities probably didn’t always endear me to adults. Nor was it always a plus in dealing with job supervisors as an adult. But it was exactly those traits, refined over the years by lessons learned working in collaboration with others, that served me well in my unexpected career as an accidental real estate developer. In fact, if there is one category of advice I have for those hoping to replicate our work in establishing what we believe is America’s first affordable, mixed-use, elder cohousing community, it’s the following.

To turn beautiful ideas into bold action, make sure that your leadership team:

  • Possesses a high tolerance for risk;

  • Prepares for steep learning curves;

  • Keeps laser-like focus on long-range goals (so that they’ll work their way through the inevitable frustrations to get there); and

  • Understands the need to attract powerful allies and to build, nourish, and leverage networks of influence.

If reinventing communities for successful aging were easy, reinvention wouldn’t be necessary.

From Convent to Community

The vision for what became the ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon, Virginia, had its foundation in 1967, when a group of us women working in Appalachia in areas of community service and development organized the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS). We had an advantage when it came to seeing both the big picture of service to others and the finer-grain responsibilities that come along with lofty goals. Core members of that founding committee were former nuns. For years, we had been committed to community development in Appalachian communities. When the Church hierarchy insisted we be more conventional than what we thought our work required, we chose mission over obedience, and we left the convent.

The FOCIS group expanded to include men as well as women. As some members approached retirement age, we thought about what it might take to create a retirement community that addressed our concerns for conscious, meaningful aging. We decided on the following goals:

  • Create a model that allows older adults to share their wisdom with the larger community in such a way that younger people begin to look differently at old age.

  • Create a community that builds personal relationships, as we believe that this is where we find much of our spirituality and meaning in life.

  • Create a model that is affordable for all those people who have not made big salaries, but who have contributed to our society by the lives they have lived.

  • Create a community where we are encouraged to face the fact we will die, and are supported to do what we need to complete our lives.

Finding the Right Place for the Right Idea

With those goals in mind, the where and the how of the community became crucial. It would have to be a neighborhood within an existing community, so that even though we were planning a close-knit group of aging friends, we’d be surrounded by multigenerational families in the larger community. The way homes fit together, the balancing of private and public space — all of that called for expert design. And, toughest of all, the homes and maintenance responsibilities had to be within reach of incomes of ex-nuns and others who had not amassed huge nest eggs.

In 1995, we formed the FOCIS Futures committee to explore alternatives. We learned about the cohousing movement and chose that as a model. We found ourselves attracted to the later-life spirituality concepts of Drew Leder because of our background and missions orientation.(1) We chose the name ElderSpirit for our community, based on Leder’s writings.

ElderSpirit Community is located on 3.7 acres alongside the Virginia
Creeper Trail in Abingdon, Virginia. A mixed income development, 13 of  thee
cluster houses belong to owners; 16 homes are for means-qualified renters.

Several people interested in the project lived in or near Abingdon in southwest Virginia, and they invited all who had expressed an interest to come to an “Immersion into Abingdon.” Our friends gave us a tour of the town. They showed us the health, professional, and shopping resources for seniors and told us stories and experiences of living in Abingdon. The town has many features that make it attractive for retirees—a rails-to-trails walking, cycling, and running trail; the Barter Theater; several arts and crafts establishments; a fine health activities center with indoor pool; and an annual arts festival. It looked perfect.

I moved to Abingdon to look for property and found 3.7 acres bordering the Virginia Creeper Trail, a Rails-to-Trails success story and a popular recreational destination for visitors. To purchase the property, we borrowed $45,000 from 23 FOCIS members. The Retirement Research Foundation of Chicago awarded FOCIS a three-year grant for pre-development expenses, which provided salaries for a part-time staff.

In 1999, our group bought the 3.7 acres. Thanks to the grant, I had a job as project manager — and not a clue what was ahead.

Embracing the Challenges

Despite all my years as a born administrator, including fundraising and managing community development projects with budgets in the millions, I had to learn a whole new set of skills. Designing and implementing the kind of nurturing environment for aging the way we envisioned was an act of real estate development. That means overseeing teams of experts, not only in design and construction, but also in engineering, storm water management, landscaping, building and zoning codes, finance, sales, marketing, health regulations, and a long list of other responsibilities that folks who are not in the development professions can’t imagine. It is also a political act, requiring allies in government at the local, state, and national levels.

The surest route to managing all those tasks successfully is to hire an experienced developer who will remove the day-to-day headaches of project oversight. But for us, and for most groups like us committed to affordability, renting the political and real estate development expertise we needed at market rate prices was likely to push costs beyond the means of many of those most open to the idea — and many of those most in need of the aging in community experience. What’s more, even if we could come up with the money, there was no assurance we could find a developer with the right mix of political and real estate development experience AND the ability to apply that expertise to the goals of our project.

The simple fact is that, over the last half-century, the real estate development marketplace has become very good at delivering pretty much the opposite of what we wanted: car-dependent suburbs that tend to isolate people from workplaces, school, healthy exercise, and food — and from one another — at costs beyond the means of most family incomes. Choosing alternatives, including connected neighborhoods nestled within broader communities, often means paying a premium to others to face the political and technical headwinds. Because of those headwinds, even though elder cohousing is gaining traction throughout the U.S., the hassles make it tough for the movement to achieve growth on the scale necessary to make a difference in most seniors’ lives.

What We Learned

Over the course of the decade-long effort that began with our initial meetings, followed by the purchase of the property — and thereafter the financing, design, and construction of our community — before finally moving-in in 2006, I had a series of revelations.

I, of course, renewed my gratitude for the gritty determination that seems wired into my head and heart, and for lifelong friends who have indulged and supported my ideas, even when the ideas seemed a little nuts. But I also grew to appreciate — more than anything, perhaps — the need to forge networks of support beyond our core group. At every stage, we could call upon well-placed experts, many of whom knew us from our previous lives as nuns and community development workers, and had no doubts about our competence and commitment.

There was no way that we could achieve our goals of affordability without help from nonprofit foundations and government agencies. Just when we needed them most, old and new friends from these networks of support stepped forward to help us with grant writing, with contacts with the right officials, and with coaching on design and engineering matters.

The community gathers to celebrate the first five years of living in ElderSpirit.

We ran into delays and dead ends. Construction was all but halted for 150 days because of rain, while the interest on our loans continued to grow. We negotiated and detoured our ways around unexpected barriers with regard to the site, and with environmental and public health requirements. We had to rethink wish lists when costs threatened to bust our budgets. We hired and fired. We argued (respectfully) among one another. And we continually engaged with the broader community and our future next-door neighbors to prevent rumors of a “cult” moving into Abingdon from gaining traction.

Few, if any, of these tasks were anticipated in our initial, inspiring discussions of how we wanted to live with friends, new and old, for the rest of our lives. And I suspect the same goes for other groups just starting on this journey. This is why I wanted to spend so much time emphasizing the practical and often exasperating responsibilities that go along with making better places.

It’s just as important, though, to stress that the struggle is rewarded. By the time we moved into our ElderSpirit homes, we were already a community, tested by adversity and made more confident by the ways in which we overcame the challenges. Our self-esteem went through the roof. As a result of managing all the practical necessities of building a physical place that enhances community, we’ve grown to be quite good at managing it. All the advantages we dreamed of when we first talked about aging in community have materialized, enriched by the experiences we’ve already shared. It just shouldn’t be so hard to get to this point.

The tasks are made harder because of their against-the-grain ambitions. Many of the habits and rules of business-as-usual real estate development are unreasonable barriers, especially now that so many of us in America and the world are entering the last stages of our lives in places inhospitable to aging in community. So what I often stress in my talks to groups these days is that we all need to invest more energy into making changes in the way we shape neighborhoods.

That’s my first recommendation: Let’s lobby for change.

For those looking for more detailed lessons learned from the ElderSpirit journey, I offer these practical tips:

  • Hire design and construction professionals with experience with affordable housing. Be honest about your intended price points. And understand how last-minute tweaks and amendments can radically alter costs.

  • Get the best advice you can on how to make contracts clear and binding when it comes to what’s expected of contractors. Be specific about who’s responsible for absorbing costs for budget overruns and for missed deadlines. The “time is money” adage is never truer than in real estate development.

  • Understand how real estate valuations and market rates in your locale affect financing and the perceived value of your project. Make homes affordable through compact, well-thought-out design, not through unrealistic discounts from market rates. If subsidies are part of your financial plan, make sure profits realized through later sales are at least partially recouped to continue supporting your project’s affordability.

  • Be aware of local building and zoning codes. Changing them to accommodate your project’s needs can be a political ordeal. Be prepared for that, or adjust design to accommodate the rules.

  • Take advantage of Universal Design, which address accessibility concerns in passageways, counter heights, bathrooms, etc. By itself, Universal Design doesn’t assure successful aging in community. But if the place is right, in terms of neighborhood access to what seniors need for physical mobility and social interaction, then Universal Design completes the package.

To learn more about ElderSpirit, visit the community’s Web site: www.elderspirit.org.

Dene Peterson, a former Glenmary Sister, is the founder and developer of ElderSpirit Community® in Abingdon, Virginia. Her professional background is in fundraising and administration of nonprofit organizations. She has won national recognition for her work with Head Start, community mental health, family planning, and neighborhood organization. Dene serves on the boards of the Aging in Community Network and Second Journey, and she has been honored with a Life-Achievement Award from the National Cohousing Organization.


1 Leder, Drew. “Spiritual community in later life: A modest proposal.” Journal of Aging Studies, 10(2):103–116, 1996.