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Down Under Visitors

Australian housing experts visit Potomac senior apartments.

On the heels of winning a national award for excellence in senior housing earlier this year, Potomac’s Victory Terrace got another kind of recognition last week: a visit from senior housing experts from the other side of the world.

A 25-person contingent of Australian developers, housing managers, and non-profit chiefs toured the 72-apartment home for seniors March 16 as part of a week-long visit to study senior housing in the United States. The Australians mingled with residents who had decorated the downstairs lounge with Australian flags and stuffed koalas, before touring the facility and then reuniting for an English-style afternoon tea.

In January, Victory Housing, located across from the former German School property on Newbridge Drive, won third place in the “Affordable Rental Apartments” category of the National Association of Home Builders’ Seniors Housing Council Awards.

That caught the attention of the Australian contingent, which had plans to come to the east coast for the American Society on Aging and National Council on the Aging joint conference March 10-13 in Philadelphia. Following the conference, they visited a variety of housing facilities in southern Pennsylvania, Baltimore, and the Washington area.

Victory Terrace, developed by Victory Housing, which is affiliated with the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and managed by Annapolis-based Habitat America, a private firm, offers a mixture of moderate-income and market-rate housing units. The affordable units are connected to a federal tax credit program that helped fund the development’s construction.

“From a low-income perspective, I think these are magnificent,” said Rex Leighton, who works in senior housing in Wollongong, south of Sydney. He said that the group had gained insight and ideas from visiting senior housing facilities in the U.S. but that economics —and demographics— behind the housing are markedly different in the two countries. “We have a booming market, but you have a population of 400 million,” he said. “We do have a boom, but nothing like the sheer numbers that you have.”

Those numbers make a more varied array of senior housing options viable in the United States. Victory Terrace is geared towards active and healthy seniors who want to live independently but value a sense of community not offered by many other senior facilities, according to residents.

“It’s really first rate,” said resident Monroe Goldberg, whose daughter lives in Potomac. Goldberg said that people drawn together as residents tend to become fast friends at Victory Terrace. “If you were to speak to 20 people in a row, I think you would get 19 out of 20 giving you all positives,” he said.

“It’s not a nursing home. It’s another stage in their life,” said Jeanne Hendricks, Vice President for the Maryland area at Habitat America.

And while members of the Australian delegation applauded that spirit, they saw it as a further point of contrast between the countries’ senior housing markets.

“I think some of the things we’ve seen just wouldn’t sell. [Housing for ages] 55-plus without the ability to get in assisted nursing, assisted care, or skilled care wouldn’t sell in Australia,” said Penny Procter, who works for a nursing education non-profit near Melbourne. “What’s going to happen with these residents in 20 years time, when they need help? Do you have somewhere for them to go? That’s the problem.”

Procter said that her first impression of U.S. senior housing facilities was their sheer size. As for Victory Terrace, “This size we’re sort of used to,” she said. “But we’re at the moment only developing these for the upper end of the market, because they’re costly. We don’t have tax credits or a lot of grants like you do. …  I see a huge business opportunity, for somebody, after the tax credits are gone, for somebody to develop home care, assisted care, and skilled nursing care for precisely these sorts of facilities, because there’s going to be a huge market for it.”

Talk of economics dissolved into cultural exchange as the Australian visitors rejoined residents for tea and cookies. Procter gave a lesson in Australian geography to several residents looking at a cloth map of the country draped on one of the lounge’s tables while others talked of food and sports. A resident reception committee had gathered fancy teacups from their neighbors and secured the Australian decorations in preparation for the event.

That kind of initiative is what residents said sets Victory Terrace apart from other communities, and left Australian organizers saying their visit to Potomac was the highlight of their trip.