April 1, 2015
If you don’t know the acronym, a NORC is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. It can be on the scale of a whole neighborhood or a single apartment building. Whatever its size, a NORC has a preponderance of older residents. But it’s not the same as a retirement home or a “55 plus” development—NORCs become NORCs organically, over time.
I live in a NORC, a suburban condo complex with 160-odd units. I don’t have data to back me up, but I’d guess that 60 percent of my fellow residents are over 55. Some of them are “original” residents, i.e., they bought their homes back in 1980, when a developer converted the buildings from garden apartments.*
They weren’t seniors then, but that was 35 years ago. They aged in place, which is how many NORCs form.
I moved here on my 30th birthday (almost nine years ago, but who’s counting?). I didn’t realize that so many of my neighbors would be older; if I had known, I doubt I would have cared. Since then, I’ve learned that like anything else, living in a NORC has its good and bad points.
Let’s start with the good. Many of my neighbors have lived here for decades. They know the area and each other (sometimes very well). They also know how everything works: who to call when a light on the footpath burns out, what the rules are for home renovations, how to get a guest parking pass.
Another great thing about having retired and semi-retired neighbors is that they’re around a lot. Older residents walk their dogs or work in their gardens during the day. They are quick to spot when something’s amiss—like if someone has thrown their junk into the nearby woods, or if a car with expired plates has been abandoned in the parking lot. Eyes on the street—or in our case, on the pathways and the parking lot—are an important built-in safety measure.
Older residents give their time to the community. Some serve on the condo’s board of directors and committees. One of my neighbors, who loves gardening, has completely revived the landscape around our homes. On a more selfish level, seniors are far less likely to be the nuisance neighbors who drive you nuts. I’ve never been woken up by a wild party or had to ask someone to turn their music down.
So there are a lot of positives to living in a NORC. But there are downsides as well. Most of them stem from generational differences. As a thirty-something homeowner who’s not going anywhere, I have a wish list for making the community better: What about hosting a bike-share station, or building a bike storage shed? Why don’t we have a small playground on site? Or a Zipcar parking space? The planned Purple Line light rail will pass very close to the condo, and I’m excited about the redevelopment that it will spark—fingers crossed—in the neglected retail district up the road.
Seniors, understandably, have different priorities. Few of my older neighbors ride bikes; they don’t have young children (although some have grandchildren who visit). Many oppose the Purple Line. In some cases, it’s out of a fear of “over-development” ruining a neighborhood they chose for its peace and quiet; but the main worry is having to put up with years of construction-related noise, road closures, and the like. Older people have to tolerate the pain of big development projects without, frankly, getting to enjoy the advantages for as long as younger generations.
It’s a cliché that the one thing all homeowners care about is property values. Living in a NORC, though, I’ve found it’s not true—or it’s true only up to a point. People here care much more about keeping their monthly condo fees low. If you’re on a fixed income and past the life stage of “moving up the ladder,” that makes sense. And since a new amenity would have to be paid for by everyone, through higher fees, my wish list is likely to remain just that. Fair enough.
The danger is a lack of long-term investment. For a period before I moved here, fees were kept artificially low by deferring essential maintenance and letting the reserve funds dwindle. This was popular at the time, but it led to major problems. And fees went back up again—way up. Infrastructure is something we have to pay for, like it or not.
*Note: There are very few residents in advanced old age, however. Almost all are mobile and live independently.