A place to call home

By: Sarah L. Stewart

Blending executive expertise with a charitable core, National Church Residences provides housing to thousands of seniors nationwide
Mark Ricketts, CEO, National Church Residencies

When preparing for retirement, Fred and Marjorie Ricketts did everything right.

Children of the Great Depression, they resided for decades in the same simple three-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Central Ohio, where they lived modestly, clipped coupons and saved enough to put three children through college. Fred, a schoolteacher, retired in his early 60s, as did Marjorie, who spent her career as a nurse at a time when many women didn’t work outside the home.

They entered their golden years with $300,000 in savings, plus an annual retirement income of about $45,000. Their future seemed secure.

Then, at age 81, Fred was diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia, a personality-altering disease that made him increasingly violent.

Mark Ricketts, CEO, National Church Residencies

Marjorie grew unable to care for him, and eventually, Fred was forced to live separately from his wife, in a memory care unit equipped to care for people with his condition. The cost? $84,000 per year. Within three years, Fred and Marjorie’s hard-earned life savings had evaporated.

It’s a tragic tale that’s played out daily across the country, as a growing number of seniors and their families encounter the exorbitant costs of end-of-life care. But Fred and Marjorie’s story had a silver lining: Because Fred lived in a facility owned by the not-for-profit National Church Residences, he was able to finish the remainder of his life without worrying about being turned away because his family couldn’t afford his care.

“Our not-for-profit never evicts because of inability to pay,” says Mark Ricketts, CEO of National Church Residences — and Fred and Marjorie’s son. “We believe it’s our job to take care of the family.”

Although Ricketts has been a part of National Church Residences for more than 20 years, it was his parents’ experience that further crystalized the organization’s mission for him: To advance better living for all seniors, allowing them to remain home for life.

“That has been my ‘aha’ moment,” Ricketts says. “I was stunned by how little money we had for a very big expense. I hear that kind of a story a lot.”

Fred and Marjorie Ricketts are just two of many seniors nationwide who have benefited from the services provided by National Church Residences. At 326 campuses in 28 states, tens of thousands of seniors each year rely on the organization for a wide range of needs, from affordable housing and in-home health care to adult daycare and family support.

“We are an advocate and a coach and a service provider for seniors,” Ricketts says. “We’re convinced that seniors are in their best spot when they’re able to stay at home.”

From startup to success

National Church Residences got its start more than 55 years ago as a joint project of four Presbyterian churches in central and southern Ohio. In 1961, the group — led by the Rev. John R. Glenn — purchased a failing subdivision of about 400 homes in Waverly, Ohio, to serve as senior housing. Sixteen years passed before the organization added its second property, a low-income senior housing development in Gahanna, Ohio.

Since the late 1970s, however, National Church Residences has undergone explosive growth, from just a handful of facilities serving a small geographic area to hundreds of campuses across the country. Ricketts credits the organization’s rapid expansion in part to the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

“We’re convinced that seniors are in their best spot when they’re able to stay at home.”
– Mark Ricketts, CEO, National Church Residences
Mark Ricketts, CEO, National Church Residencies

“A lot of it has to do with the federal government’s decision to incentivize not-for-profits to get into affordable housing,” he says.

Tax credits outlined within the legislation encouraged both corporations and nonprofits alike to play a role in low-income housing that had previously been filled mostly by government entities. Since then, affordable housing has become a major component of National Church Residences’ mission, encompassing 23,000 apartments for seniors. Together with about 600 skilled nursing home apartments, 700 units for assisted living and 900 units at market rate, National Church Residences has become the largest not-for-profit provider of affordable senior housing in the country.

The organization’s meteoric rise in recent decades isn’t just the result of favorable tax legislation, however; it is also the product of keen business acumen. Under the direction of its executive team and a 24-member board of directors, National Church Residences runs like any successful corporation, but with the heart of a nonprofit.

Ricketts joined the organization from the private sector, with a background as chief financial officer of a real estate investment firm. National Church Residences’ mission and faith-based foundation aligned with his personal values, but Ricketts didn’t abandon the lessons from his corporate career.

“We needed to get much more business savvy,” he says. “We have to be as nimble and businesslike and efficient as any for-profit organization.”

That means recruiting and retaining top talent, striving for innovation, overseeing measured growth and keeping an entrepreneurial spirit alive. The main difference between National Church Residences and its for-profit senior housing competitors?

“We don’t cut dividend checks,” Ricketts says. “Our dividends stay in the organization, and all we do is grow.”

Over the decades, the organization’s real estate value has grown from one struggling subdivision in southern Ohio to $1.6 billion in bricks-and-mortar assets. Yet unlike its corporate counterparts, National Church Residences doesn’t calculate its bottomline in dollars and cents but rather in the expansion of its mission to benefit the lives of seniors and their families.

“We’re always reinvesting,” Ricketts says. “If we have a good year, we just build more.”

Looking forward

While National Church Residences’ history is impressive, its future may be even brighter. The United States is in the midst of a major demographic shift, as baby boomers begin to retire in droves. According to the Pew Research Center 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, a trend that will continue through 2030. And all of those seniors will need somewhere to live, especially as they begin to need more assistance.

“The demand for housing for people over 65 is growing,” Ricketts says, adding that once the boomer cohort begins to turn 80, the organization’s mission will explode.

National Church Residences is preparing for the expected increase in demand in a variety of ways. The first focuses on growing the number of its campuses, particularly in core markets such as Central Ohio, Atlanta, Detroit and suburban Tampa. The organization buys struggling housing facilities, which not only boosts its portfolio but also makes life more secure for the seniors who call those places home.

But acquisitions aren’t the largest area of growth for National Church Residences; that title belongs to home health care, part of a diversification effort that aims to better assist seniors and their families and to reduce the organization’s reliance on federal Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. Annually, the organization provides about 5,000 people with in-home assistance, including home health aides, nurses and doctors, and that number figures to grow in the coming years.

“We are as focused on keeping people at home as we are on having them move into our campuses,” Ricketts says.

Mark Ricketts, CEO, National Church Residencies

Ultimately, National Church Residences is preparing for future success by employing the same philosophy that has led the organization to its current stature: Maintaining a focus on quality.

Whether responding to residents’ concerns, paying workers competitive wages to reduce turnover, or simply streamlining the customer service process to help seniors and their families figure out which type of care they need, National Church Residences is constantly looking for ways to improve.

“In the end, the providers that have the highest quality will be the mission leaders,” Ricketts says. “Quality is the No. 1 investment we are making.”

“We’re always reinvesting. If we have a good year, we just build more.”
– Mark Ricketts, CEO, National Church Residences

For Ricketts, the commitment to quality is personal. After all, the seniors who rely on National Church Residences aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet — they are people like his parents, Fred and Marjorie. Although Fred ultimately lost his battle with dementia in 2013, he lived out his days in the same Columbus-area campus where Marjorie had been a nurse for years.

Now 87, Marge lives in a condo on a retirement income of about $30,000 per year. Ricketts worries what may happen if she ultimately needs the type of care that his father did — but at the moment, her life is comfortable. “Right now, she’s great.”

For more information about National Church Residences, visit www.nationalchurchresidences.org.


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