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Tampa Bay assisted- and independent-living occupancy is 4th highest in country, nonprofit says

Occupancy rates in senior housing are down nationally, including in Tampa Bay.

Occupancy rates dropped nationwide in assisted- and independent-living facilities the first half of the year, including in Florida, according to a national nonprofit that tracks industry data, but the Tampa Bay market is faring better than most.

Occupancy in Tampa Bay facilities dropped from 89.5% at the beginning of the year to 87.5% at the end of June, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care. It ranks Tampa Bay — Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties — as the fourth strongest of the nation’s 31 largest markets.

Despite a 2 percentage point drop, the Tampa Bay occupancy rate was higher than the national average of 84.9%. The National Investment Center recorded a 3.2% decline nationally in assisted-living occupancy and a 2.4% decline in independent-living occupancy.

In August, the center reported the nation’s lowest overall occupancy rates in the 14 years since it started collecting data. The organization is a nonprofit education and resource center that serves investors interested in the senior housing and care industry. The organization doesn’t compile data on nursing homes.

Nervousness about long-term care facilities has spread as more than 70,000 residents and staff members in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities nationwide had died of COVID-19 by mid-August, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In Florida, 6,126 staff and residents of long-term care facilities had died from COVID-19 as of Oct. 7, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Tampa is a relatively steady market, said Beth Burnham Mace, chief economist and director of outreach for the National Investment Center. Occupancy rates here tend to fluctuate around the 88% mark, she said.

“New development that occurs gets leased up pretty quickly to be able to allow that occupancy rate to stay that way,” she said.

At the start of the pandemic, many facilities reduced the number of people moving in as a way to protect existing residents, Mace said, but the demand is still there.

“It’s not easy to just say, okay, we’re going to take you home, because you don’t have the equipment or you don’t have the nursing care,” she said.

However, in a separate National Investment Center survey of senior housing executives in August, 74% said families had voiced concerns about moving loved ones in as COVID-19 cases spiked in many parts of the country.

“Our COVID experience over these last few months magnifies their concerns that they had prior to the pandemic, and that is that too many facilities are unable to care for their loved ones in a safe manner, said Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, a nonprofit that advocates for better services at long-term care facilities and former Florida long-term care ombudsmen.

The pandemic-induced lockdowns also undermined one of the benefits of long-term care facilities, as residents were unable to have visitors, participate in activities or eat together in their dining rooms.

“The whole value of the congregate care setting is to have a sense of community,” said Robert Kramer, founder and strategic advisor to the National Investment Center. “Well, it’s harder to deliver that when people are restricted to their rooms.”

The pandemic will impact retirement planning in the future, said Colin Milner, chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging.

Many will still choose to live in long-term care facilities, he said, but the pandemic has reinforced safety on everyone’s list of concerns. Prospective residents should make sure that they move into a community that is prepared for "pandemics, floods, fires, hurricanes — all of these different things,” he said.

“In the long term, it’s going to impact the amount of buildings that are being built,” he said. “In the short term, it is going to impact how people make those choices and what type of community they’re going to move into.”

Kaiser Health News contributed to this story.

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