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An 'LGBT-Welcoming' Place to Call Home

Recognizing a need, some cities are developing housing options with older adults in mind

An oversized gift tag decorates the John C. Anderson Apartments

Image courtesy of the John C. Anderson Apartments

When an "LGBT-welcoming" apartment building opened in Philadelphia, a giant gift tag decorated the facade.

Older adults who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender often age alone.

As the first generation to be open about their sexuality and united around the gay rights movement, many are estranged from family and never had or have lost a partner.

Prejudice may have meant fewer work opportunities over their lifetime, resulting in meager, if any, savings. Finding affordable and welcoming senior housing is a challenge.

Aging Assistance

According to SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), when compared to older heterosexual adults, older adults who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are twice as likely to live alone; half as likely to have life partners or significant others; half as likely to have close relatives to call on for help; and are themselves caregivers for older loved ones, but four times less likely to have children to help them.

Learn how SAGECare "cultural competency" training is helping older adults who are LGBT.

"There's already a level of discrimination just for being older, and more so if you're LGBT," says Doveal Goins, Psy.D., a mental health therapist in Washington, D.C., who works with LGBT older clients and is herself gay. "It's a double-whammy."

LGBT men tend to suffer most, says Jesus Ramirez-Valles, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois-Chicago and author of Queer Aging: The Gayby Boomers and a New Frontier for Gerontology. "They typically have no children, no relatives or partners, younger gay men don't want them around and they are priced out of neighborhoods," he says.

With the aging boomer population — and more than 2.7 million people age 50 and over identifying as LGBT or LGBTQ (the Q standing for "Queer") — the demand for low- and moderate-income "LBGT-welcoming housing," as it is called, could not be greater. A 2014 Equal Rights Center study found that 48 percent of LGBT older adults have faced at least one form of rental housing discrimination.

Recognizing this need, one way that LGBT advocates, municipalities, the federal government, nonprofits, developers and others are responding is to create affordable LGBT-supportive housing. Among the challenges, say those pioneering this concept, are:

  • choosing the right (read "LGBT-sensitive") developer, affordable housing company, architect and others who understand the needs of older adults

  • sustaining funding for services and property management

  • finding land to build apartments in urban areas

A handful of affordable, LGBT-welcoming senior housing projects have been developed. (Since federal anti-discrimination laws apply, heterosexual people can, and do, rent in these buildings, too.)

We discuss three innovative projects, below, and examine how "cultural competency" training (see box at right) can help to lessen the need for such uniquely targeted residences. 

Town Hall Apartments, Chicago, Illinois

The garden level of Town Hall Apartments in Chicago

Image courtesy Town Hall Apartments/Heartland Alliance Housing

The second-floor rooftop terrace of the Town Hall Apartments.

When Town Hall Apartments opened in August 2014, there were 400 applicants (minimum age 55) for just 79 units. The long waitlist has since closed. 

Located in a vibrant, gay community near public transportation, the development has two buildings: an historic, former police station and a new, colorful, six-story building next door. Studio and one-bedroom apartments have sweeping city views, some of Wrigley Field. A senior center in the complex offers programs and services, and there's a full-time social worker and an on-site property manager.

The $25 million project grew out of LGBT seniors in Chicago repeatedly saying that their greatest need was for safe and affordable housing. In 2016, 63 percent of the residents in Town Hall Apartments were below the poverty line. Eight out of 10 have an annual income of less than $15,000, and 9 percent report having been homeless at some point in their lives. Government subsidies mean that a resident's rent amounts to no more than 30 percent of his or her income.

"There's a sense of camaraderie. We have all lived through the difficult times of being gay or bi or trans, and now that we're seniors, we look out for one another."

— Carla Harrigan, resident of Town Hall Apartments

From the start, co-owners Heartland Housing, an affordable housing developer, and Center on Halsted, the largest LGBT community center in the Midwest, had residents-to-be and members of the community provide input about the design, layout of units and needed services.

One request was that the property manager be sensitive to transgender residents. Others sought ample indoor and outdoor common space to foster a sense of community. All of those wishes were granted. Today, residents gather on a sprawling, second-floor rooftop terrace or indoors in what's called The Rainbow Room. The building also has a fitness and computer area.

As of the fall of 2016, 60 percent of Town Hall residents identified as LGBT and 40 percent as heterosexual. Sixty-five percent are male, 32 percent female and 3 percent are transgender. Twenty percent of Town Hall residents are HIV-positive and 41 percent report a physical disability.

Former nurse Carla Harrigan pays just $374 a month for her studio apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows. "An apartment like this would cost $900 a month without utilities elsewhere in this neighborhood," she says. Married briefly, Harrigan previously lived in Iowa. "It was a very small town. I didn't feel comfortable coming out. I had a son and nobody questioned me," she recalls. "Here, there's a sense of camaraderie. We have all lived through the difficult times of being gay or bi or trans, and now that we're seniors, we look out for one another."

Resident Glenn Charlton, a former social worker, loves feeling socially engaged. "I lost many friends to AIDS," says Charlton. "Town Hall has increased my connectedness to the LGBT community, extending my circle of friends."

Britta Larson, director of senior services at Center on Halsted, adds, "Town Hall is meeting its mission and more! We're building community among LGBTQ individuals and allies, many of whom are facing challenges exacerbated by their identity, such as isolation. It's our hope that Town Hall will serve as a model for other projects around the country."

John C. Anderson Apartments, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Exterior of the John C. Anderson Apartments

Photo courtesy John C. Anderson Apartments

The John C. Anderson Apartments is an LGBT-friendly apartment community for people age 62 and older.

"When you walk in the front door, you have a wow experience," says Mark Segal, a gay activist who envisioned and helped develop the John C. Anderson Apartments.

From the time the sleek, subsidized $19.5 million building opened in 2014, in what is referred to as Philly's "Gayborhood," its 6,000-square-foot courtyard garden has been an attractive location. The space became even more stunning when, early on, residents asked if they could take over the garden — and then replaced the landscaper and won prestigious gardening awards.

"What makes the garden extraordinary is that it's a reflection of the people who live here, as well as of the people who administer this building and support us," says Elizabeth Coffey Williams, who is transgender and one of the self-dubbed "Garden Gang." 

"My hope is that this building serves as a beacon to communities to address the needs of LGBT older Americans."

— Elizabeth Coffey Williams, resident of the John C. Anderson Apartments

The garden and an adjacent community room are used by the building's residents (all of whom are age 62 or older), as well as by people from the area for fundraisers and meetings. A coffee shop leases retail space at the front of the building.

Because Segal had no development experience, his company, DMH Fund, joined forces with Penrose Partners, a local affordable housing developer, to demolish an old building and construct the 67 one-bedroom apartments. The project received $2 million in grants from the city, $6 million from the state and $11.5 million in low-income housing tax credits. There was no private funding.

While the developers are proud of the building's ceramic tiled baths, wall-to-wall carpeting and open floor plans in its sun-filled units, what makes the building particularly special was that members of the community were active participants throughout the design and construction phases. In 2015, the American Institute of Architects included the John C. Anderson Apartments as one of the "10 Most Impressive Houses" of 2015. Said the AIA: "The John C. Anderson Apartments is the first 'LGBT friendly' affordable senior housing project to be developed in the eastern United States with such direct community involvement. Its realization has been the source of great community pride."

Ensuring that LGBT seniors knew about the development, and when to sign up for apartments, took thoughtful marketing. The developers and LGBT community leaders held regular meetings and sent updates via mailing lists. On the first day applications were accepted, a bus was dispatched to provide a ride to applicants in need of transportation. (Under fair housing laws, the process was first come, first served.) Nine out of 10 residents at the John C. Anderson Apartments identify as LGBT. More than 300 applicants are on the waitlist.

"My hope is that this building serves as a beacon to communities to address the needs of LGBT older Americans," says Williams. "Here I get to be me openly and unapologetically."

Triangle Square Apartments, Los Angeles, California

City Intersection looking toward a building with a circular glass tower on corner and palm trees on sidewalk

Courtesy photo

Residents of the Triangle Square Apartments in Hollywood are age 62-plus.

In June, 2007, 104 units of housing debuted near the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Triangle Square Apartments was the first affordable housing building in the nation to focus on the LGBT community.

"No one was sure it could be done or replicated again," says Tripp Mills, deputy director of senior services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which partnered with developer McCormick Baron Salazar. (Originally, the nonprofit Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing partnered with McCormick Baron until the LGBT Center took over the general partnership in 2014.) 

The $21.5 million project was built with low-income tax credits, dedicated funds from a community redevelopment agency and $1.5 million in private funding. The average age for the Triangle residents (minimum age 62) is 75. Rent ranges from $241 to $967 a month with 32 percent using U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers. Most of the units are one-bedroom. The eight two-bedroom units are available for income-qualifying tenants with caregivers, couples or other family members. Thirty-five units are set aside for people who have HIV/AIDS, are homeless or at risk of being homeless.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center's Senior Services division provides recreational, community and health services to the building, including choir, Reiki and intergenerational programming. The community room is also the site of more than 70 monthly social, educational and enrichment programs and services, including a reduced-cost lunch program for residents and their guests.

Brown Crawford, who goes by "Brownie," swims two hours a day in the apartment complex's pool. He helped raise money and awareness for Triangle Square, and when it was time to get wannabe residents to sign up, he went to LGBT bars and churches in the area to spread the word. When the building opened, 58 percent of its residents were LGBT — in 2016 the number was 78 percent.

Coming Soon

Just four blocks from Triangle Square, the Los Angeles LGBT Center expects to break ground in 2017 for The Anita May Rosenstein Campus, the nation's first intergenerational LGBT senior and youth housing complex. The development will feature 100 units of affordable housing for older adults, 100 beds for homeless youth, 35 units of permanent housing for younger people, new senior and youth centers and a kitchen to feed homeless youth and older adults.

In New York City, the national nonprofit SAGE is spearheading the construction of two LGBT projects. With 145 units, the Ingersoll Senior Residences in Brooklyn will be the largest LGBT-welcoming elder-housing venture in the country. 

Sally Abrahms writes about caregiving, baby boomers, housing, retirement and aging-in-place topics. (See "Teaching Elder Care Providers the Importance of Fostering a Welcoming Community," her companion article to this one.)

Page published December 2016

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