Saying that the worst of the pandemic is over, Ventas Chairman and CEO Debra Cafaro said the real estate investment trust’s portfolio delivered “better than expected financial results” in the first quarter. The REIT, she added, is “actively engaged in taking steps to win the recovery” through its portfolio and capital allocation decisions.
COVID-positive cases in Ventas’ senior housing portfolio have fallen to one person per day out of a resident population of 40,000. All communities have opened to move-ins, and most have reintroduced expanded visitation and communal activities.
“As a result, the natural resilience and demographically based demand for senior living has revived, and we reached the cyclical pandemic occupancy bottom in our [seniors housing operating portfolio] in mid-March,” Cafaro said.
Led by a 280-basis-point (2.8%) increase in the U.S. communities in the Ventas portfolio, senior living occupancy improved by 190 basis points (1.9%) to 77.9% from pandemic lows in mid-March through the end of April. March and April showed positive spot occupancy gains of 80 and 120 basis points (0.8% and 1.2%), respectively, driving the first two consecutive months of spot occupancy growth since the start of the pandemic.
Average occupancy in Ventas’ seniors housing operating sequential same-store portfolio in the first quarter was 76.5%, which declined sequentially by 260 basis points (2.6%) from the fourth quarter. Net move-in trends improved in February and March, following significant occupancy declines earlier in the quarter as a result of challenging COVID-19 conditions in December and January.
In April, leads, move-ins and move-outs were 104%, 110% and 83%, respectively, of their pre-COVID-19 same period 2019 levels. Move-ins in April totaled 1,880 residents, the highest number since June 2019.
Justin Hutchens, executive vice president of senior housing, said he expects occupancy improvements benefiting from a return to 2019 move-in levels and fewer move-out levels due to lower occupancy.
“With leads continuing to gain traction and all of our communities open to new moves-ins, March and April were the first two consecutive months since the onset of COVID-19 when move-ins exceeded both pre-pandemic levels and move-outs,” Cafaro said. “This improvement, while still in its early stages, demonstrates resilient demographic demand for senior housing and the essential care and socialization available to residents in our communities.”
Ventas is expanding its Canadian senior living footprint with Le Groupe Maurice. The portfolio has shown resilience through the pandemic, declining only 110 basis points (1.1%) in occupancy from February 2020 to January 2021, according to the REIT.
Two Le Groupe Maurice projects containing 775 units were delivered in the fourth quarter and reached 87% spot occupancy as of April 30. Three additional development projects are underway totaling $290 million and spanning 900 units, with one of those projects expected to be delivered this year.
Ventas is currently evaluating potential portfolios in senior housing and medical office buildings, with the potential to recycle about $1 billion of assets in the second half of the year through sales across its asset classes. Hutchens said the priority is to position the company for recovery, with “a lot of review underway.” Cafaro said the team also has reviewed more than $30 billion in investments, wth the pipeline of potential investments growing across asset classes.
Hutchens said Ventas is actively reviewing opportunities to optimize its portfolio through pruning, making strategic capital expense investments, transitioning communities to other operators and pursuing new developments and acquisitions.
Slow construction starts in senior housing and favorable growth of the older adult population provides a favorable occupancy tailwind over the next several years, Cafaro said.
Internet and referral agency leads, which have lower conversion rates, have almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Personal and professional referrals, marketing and other lead sources are still at half of 2019 levels but should increase as pandemic-related concerns ease, Cafaro said.
“We believe we’ve turned an important corner, and key metrics in our business are showing meaningful improvement,” she said. “The positive investment thesis for all of our demographically driven asset classes, and for Ventas, is pointing firmly positive.”
The underlying demand for services should continue to grow, Hutchens said, noting that vaccines are available, activities are picking up again, communal dining is coming back and communities are open to visitation.
See more coverage of the earnings call in the McKnight’s Business Daily.