Some wonder if building spree will damage occupancy levels

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Many financial experts look at the current senior living construction boom as a foregone conclusion. After all, markets and the investors who shape them did what they're expected to do when riding the crest of a healthy economic recovery: they built.

But an unexpected thing happened along the way: the seniors didn't come to this field of dreams, at least not in the numbers many had hoped.

How they got ahead of the curve is a subject of much debate, but every banker and analyst interviewed for this article agree on one thing — we won't see what happened the last time an over-supply of senior living units sprouted in the late 1990s, a boondoggle that left a lot of entrepreneurs red-faced and bankrupt. 

One reason stems from baby boomers' health and resiliency. “In the ‘90s, people said, ‘OK, the baby boomers are coming.' Well, those baby boomers today are running companies,” observes Michael Gehl, chief investment officer for Housing & Healthcare Finance LLC. “The 65- and 70-year-olds aren't yet moving into assisted living. It's growing and there's demand for it, but the question remains, are we getting overheated?”

Still, the numbers put forth by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (NIC) over the past 18 months are collectively described by most observers as “sobering.” (By early January, however, NIC reported seniors housing occupancy increased to 90.1% in the fourth quarter of 2015 — still 20 basis points below a late 2014 surge.)

Most lenders confidently shrug off the current housing swell, pointing to numbers that show a steady uptick in the 85-and-up age group in the next 15 years.

“There's certainly been a lot of shovels in the ground, especially on the private equity side, but it is way too early to say there's any oversaturation going on,” says Jason Stroiman, president, Evans Senior Investments. 

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