Annise Parker, 66, served as mayor of Houston from 2010 to 2015 — the first openly LGBTQ mayor of a major American city and the only person in Houston history to have served as a council member, controller and mayor. In 2010, Time magazine named Parker one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Today she is the president and CEO of the Victory Institute, the only national organization dedicated to elevating openly LGBTQ leaders who can promote equality at all levels of government.
Parker is married to Kathy Hubbard and together they have four children, three daughters — whom they adopted out of foster care — and a son (now in his 40s) who was homeless when they took him in. He was, according to Parker, a “runaway from grandparents who tried to force the ‘gay’ out of him.”
During her time in office, Parker worked to tackle the city’s homelessness problem through initiatives like The Way Home, a collective effort of more than 100 partners to prevent and end homelessness in Houston. On a trip to Los Angeles, Parker witnessed first-hand the challenges facing LGBTQ seniors in need of affordable housing, and as mayor, she used her influence to make a difference. This is her story.
Annise Parker: In 2013, during my second term as mayor of Houston, I took a trip to Los Angeles to visit the U.S. VETS complex for housing homeless veterans and while there also arranged a tour of the Triangle Square complex — the first LGBTQ-affirming affordable senior housing center in the U.S. During the tour, I stopped in at the apartment of a woman whose partner of many years passed away after a long-term illness had depleted their savings. This woman was not alone in her predicament. I was shocked by how many had been thrown into poverty when they lost a life partner, and I was outraged that some struggled to find a welcoming place to live without returning to the closet.
LGBTQ Senior Housing: The Numbers Behind the Need
- According to SAGE, a national nonprofit organization serving LGBTQ seniors, the number of queer people 50 or older is anticipated to grow to an estimated 7 million by 2030, pointing to increasing demand for LGBTQ-friendly housing for older adults. SAGE also found that more than half of LGBTQ older adults have reported being discriminated against in employment and/or housing.
- A 2022 AARP survey, “Dignity: The Experience of LGBTQ Older Adults,” showed that 14 percent of respondents were very or extremely worried about future housing discrimination as they age because of their LGBTQ identity. That share rises to 41 percent when including respondents who are somewhat worried, and to 58 percent among transgender and nonbinary individuals who are concerned about needing to hide their identity to access housing options for older adults. A 2018 version of the AARP survey found 9 out of 10 respondents said they would be interested in LGBTQ-welcoming housing developments for older adults if they could afford it.
- In 2019 there were 543,000 same-sex married couple households, 469,000 same-sex unmarried partner households and 191,000 children living with same-sex parents, according to the U.S. Census Current Population Survey.
A seed was planted that day. When I returned to Houston, I knew it was within my abilities as mayor to move the needle on this issue. It was an area that I hadn’t thought about in concrete terms before as I was focused on chronic homelessness. But it fit into my passion for housing and helping the most vulnerable. According to the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, this population is twice as likely in old age to live alone and more likely to confront poverty, homelessness and health challenges. I knew I had to get to work immediately on securing land and funding if I wanted to start creating something in Houston like the Triangle Square complex before my third term as mayor ended in 2015.
As I met with various stakeholders, I learned more about the challenges facing LGBTQ seniors. Many, for instance, have aged in relationships at a time before marriage equality, so when their long-term partners die, they are denied benefits or even locked out of their own homes because they were not given the opportunity to legally marry. Eventually, many LGBTQ seniors need to find a facility where they can live out their remaining years with dignity. Some of these facilities are not friendly to the LGTBQ community, and some reject them outright.
I’m fortunate that my now wife and I have been together for 31 years, married for eight of those years. We have four adopted children and have a family support structure. But many LGBTQ seniors either don’t have family to support them or their families do not accept them. This especially becomes a difficult situation when these seniors become dependent on these family members and feel the only way they will receive crucial support is if they deny their identity, pretend their lived experiences didn’t happen. There is a real cruelty in this — an emotional cost that is hard to fathom.So, the questions become: Are there places where LGBTQ seniors can go and be who they really are? Places that acknowledge their memories and the lives they’ve led? Or do they have to deny their identities to even be admitted to some of these facilities?
Working with the Montrose Center as owner of the project, I was able to secure a suitable tract of land and an initial investment of city housing funds, but it wasn’t until 2019 that we finally broke ground on what would become the Law Harrington Center — named after two Houston LGBTQ advocates, Charles Law and Gene Harrington. At the time it was completed in 2021, it was the largest senior housing facility in the United States, with 112 units targeting LGBTQ seniors. It is partially federally funded, so it’s open to everyone, but it is an open and affirming place for LGBTQ seniors. They know if they come to live there, that they will be respected, and their lives and memories will be uplifted.
Putting housing on the ground is critical. But places like Law Harrington are a small solution to a big problem. I could replicate it a dozen times in Houston and it would fill up immediately. The need is great for safe, quality housing for LGBTQ income-eligible seniors — actually, for all seniors. What’s the solution? We need to build more senior housing facilities and make sure they are all welcoming and open to all people. We need to educate, raise awareness and understanding.
My hope is that maybe 20 years from now, when I need to make these decisions for myself, or my kids make these decisions for me, there will be more and more options available, and better and better choices. We need this as a society, as communities, but we have to make the investments. We have to make the investments now for the future.
In 1954, AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus built the nation’s first affordable, age-friendly housing, the Grey Gables Retirement Community in Ojai, California, helping change the image of retirement years. That age-friendly housing became a model for future retirement communities nationwide. At that time, the only housing models for older adults were nursing homes — known as rest homes — and subsidized housing for the poor.
Lourdes Alcañiz is a contributing writer and the author of eight books on Latino health and cultural topics, for which she has been awarded three International Latino Book Awards. Alcañiz has also worked for Univision, NBC, CNN, Hispanic Radio Network and other outlets.