For 20 years Marti Smith lived in an apartment in a fairly upscale neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. Smith loved her home—it was affordable, had three bedrooms, and a backyard where she could garden. Her landlord even allowed her to mow the lawn and shovel snow in order to keep the rent down. But over the years, the area began to change and home prices increased dramatically, making it difficult for locals—especially those on fixed incomes—to find housing they could afford.
The apartment building where Smith lived was eventually sold, and Smith, who at the time was in her late 60s and retired, had to find someplace else to call home. A self-described “card-carrying lesbian,” Smith knew it wasn’t going to be easy to find a place where she could live comfortably and be herself, without judgment. As luck would have it, Chicago’s first LGBTQ-welcoming, 100 percent affordable housing residence was accepting applications. Town Hall Apartments, a 79-unit building, opened in 2014 and Smith has been living there ever since.
While she misses her garden, and she tends to be a person who sees her glass half empty, Smith knows she’s one of the lucky ones. LGBTQ seniors are far more likely to face poverty and homelessness because of discrimination—48 percent of older same-sex couples have experienced discrimination when seeking housing, according to a 2014 Equal Rights Center study. And due to sometimes-rampant homophobia in retirement communities, it’s not uncommon for LGBTQ elders to hide their sexual preference and gender identities, Smith says. Those settings contribute to social isolation, which is deadly.
The LGBTQ senior population—estimated at 3 million strong in the U.S.—have contended with a lifetime of insufficient legal protections, and racial and gender disparities. LGBTQ older adults also experience serious health issues, like higher blood pressure rates and earlier onset of disabilities, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
And the community is only growing. It’s expected that the LGBTQ senior population will grow to 7 million—double the size of Chicago—by 2030.
In recent years, LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing residences like Town Hall Apartments have been popping up in major cities across the country—from Philadelphia to San Francisco. At present there are about 12 developments in the U.S. that account for almost 1,100 units of affordable housing geared toward LGBTQ elders, according to SAGE, an advocacy and services organization for LGBTQ elders. Six other developments on the horizon are expected to have 300-plus units, and several more of these types of developments are in the early to mid-planning stages.
How are these units getting built, and what are the obstacles to building more?
The Need for LGBTQ Senior Housing
From rooms in communal housing to larger 80- to 100-unit apartment buildings, there’s been more movement focusing on the needs of not only the elder population in general, but LGBTQ older adults in particular.
Sydney Kopp-Richardson, the director of SAGE’s National LGBT Elder Housing Initiative, attributes this to the aging baby boomer generation.
“It’s exponentially bigger than generations before and society can no longer deny that these are communities that have very specific needs as people who age,” says Kopp-Richardson. “The ways that people age is looking different because we have gained certain rights. But there are still so many barriers that LGBTQ elders face and people in the mainstream-housing sector are realizing and seeing this and want to do better.”
While we’re still not where we need to be, we are moving a little closer. There’s much more awareness of the significant obstacles LGBTQ people face as they age—barriers that amplify financial and health challenges.
“You can lose your job, you could lose your house, and you could lose your children. You could lose your family, you could be ostracized, and you can lose your life . . . [only just] recently, I want to say in the last 10 to 15 years, have people even come out as teachers because, you know, gay people were thought of as pedophiles,” says Dr. Imani Woody, who’s spent decades advocating on behalf of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.
Decades of employment segregation and marriage inequality have led to economic insecurity for LGBTQ adults. Nearly one-third of LGBTQ seniors 65 and older live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, according to SAGE, compared to one-quarter of non-LGBTQ older adults. And when you couple that with increased rates of housing discrimination, the compounded stress is undoubtedly another factor that can lead to significantly worse health outcomes. It’s no surprise then that being LGBTQ is likely to lead to chronic health conditions at a younger age.
It’s for that very reason that Town Hall Apartments accepts seniors starting at age 55, not 62, as many other senior facilities do.
“That’s very intentional. For people in that young senior [age bracket], there are very few resources are available to them. So it’s important that we were able to reach that incredibly vulnerable population,” says Britta Larson, senior services director of Center on Halsted, which runs Town Hall Apartments. “For the lower-income population, it really can be life or death because it’s so difficult to find any type of housing that’s affordable in Chicago, and when you add being LGBTQ-friendly, and also a walker or a wheelchair, aging is virtually impossible.” Eight percent of seniors who live at Town Hall Apartments are in the lower age bracket—55 to 60—but most are between 66 and 70.
There’s a distinct difference between seniors in their 50s and those who are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, says Barbara Satin, an 85-year-old transgender activist. Among many accomplishments, Satin was involved in the development of Spirit on the Lake Apartments in Minneapolis, a 46-unit affordable rental project that has a special focus on the LGBTQ population. The development opened in 2013 and at the time, was only the second in the U.S. geared to the needs of the LGBTQ elder population.
During SAGE’s LGBT Housing Symposium in 2019, Satin said that while LGBTQ baby boomers may be more comfortable living open lives, most of her peers are not. Some older LGBTQ folks, even when surrounded by their peers, are still fearful of coming out. They’re worried about being discovered, she says, and about being viewed as sinners, or mentally ill.
Satin shared the story of a trans woman who suffered a stroke and was required by the health care provider to present as masculine in order to get care. “You’re not going to be in an argument” to get the help you need, Satin said. Being misgendered takes a toll on the psychological well-being of a patient, and it’s certainly not something that’s needed when they’re trying to heal.
How It’s Happening
Like all affordable housing projects, these developments are challenging and complicated to complete. Some developments can take decades from concept to construction to opening, if they open at all. The projects take layers of financing to happen—most will be built with Low Income Housing Tax Credits, other subsidies, and private and public support, and multiple partners. Most developments will accept Section 8 vouchers, others Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) vouchers, which are for formerly homeless folks living with HIV/AIDS, or a mix of both. And most have a lottery-style application system due to the high demand for affordable housing, though some have used a first-come, first-served system. Earlier this year, The Residences at Equality Park in Florida—the state’s first LGBT+ focused affordable housing community for seniors—had more than 1,500 applications for its 48-unit complex.
A particular development can’t say it’s LGBTQ-exclusive or it’d be violating fair housing laws. It can be “LBGT friendly,” “LGBT affirming,” or “LGBT inclusive,” meaning that the facility is open to everyone, says Kopp-Richardson. The goal is to create inclusive communities with LGBTQ culturally competent staff and LGBTQ-focused programming, Kopp-Richardson says.
“Some people do marketing that just says senior housing, some people may be a little more explicit and have different kinds of messaging, like rainbow flags,” Kopp-Richardson adds. “That, along with the community and other living agreements, helps set the tone of a space so when prospective residents interview to live in the complex, everyone is on the same page … It’s also a way to really create a safer space for everyone, not just for LGBTQ people, but for people who have been vulnerable due to any part of their identity,” says Kopp-Richardson.
Many of the LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing buildings—like Triangle Square Apartments in Los Angeles, the first LGBT-friendly complex in the nation; Town Hall Apartments; and Spirit on the Lake—have more than 60 percent of their units filled by people who identify as LGBTQ.
How do they do it? Typically with targeted outreach. LGBTQ service providers pass information on to their clients about the upcoming housing opportunity to make sure they are ready to apply once the application process opens up. These organizations often partner with housers that are developing the affordable units; if their name appears as part of the project, people know what to expect.
Openhouse in San Francisco, which has worked with LGBTQ older adults for decades, co-developed its two buildings with affordable housing developer Mercy Housing California.
“As a co-developer, if you’re really holding onto the marketing and outreach piece and your developer or the housing company holds on to … the housing application piece, it allows you to really lead the voice and the outreach and the marketing to the LGBTQ community that you’re already serving,” said Karyn Skultety of Openhouse during the National LGBT Elder Housing Virtual Institute last month.
Because Openhouse has been serving the area for decades, it was able to reach out to thousands of people it works with each year to let them know affordable housing was coming and how they could apply.
LGBTQ-friendly developments tend to have connections to supportive services, either on site or nearby. And if the services are on-site, they tend to be open to all LGBTQ seniors who live in the area. Openhouse and Mercy’s developments, which have 119 units of affordable housing, offer on-site case management services, psychosocial support, and community engagement activities for residents. The John C. Anderson Apartments in Philadelphia, which has a medical case manager on-site one day per week, has a bevy of programming that ranges from support groups to a gardening club to quarterly dance parties.
Trust is also a major component in all of these developments. Staff must show residents that the space is a welcoming and safe environment.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have people who understand our situation not only as seniors … trying to navigate the … medical issues and the medical delivery, but who also understand how that affects us, as we’re gay,” says Marti Smith of the services and social workers available to residents of Town Hall Apartments. “They already get it. We don’t have to go through saying ‘I want to have so-and-so see me at the hospital’ …. They are very much our advocates.”
Larson of Center on Halsted says the organization provides cultural competency training for mainstream aging service providers because “we’ll never be able to build enough buildings like Town Hall” and “most mainstream providers really don’t have much knowledge or familiarity with our population.”
SAGE’s new residence in Brooklyn will have a large mix of folks involved in the day-to-day operations, but because SAGE will be handling programming, “We will always be in control of messaging and the culture and the tone of the space there,” Kopp-Richardson says. It’s really important to make sure that “everyone involved—property managers, developers, security staff—is aware of the mission and is trained in cultural competency.”
The properties tend to be built in more urban settings. SAGE didn’t have knowledge of an LGBTQ-friendly senior development in a rural location.
“There’s an assumption that queer people don’t exist in rural areas … They absolutely do,” says Kopp-Richardson. “The reality is a lot of LGBT people, particularly the current aging generation, did escape or leave where they were from for bigger cities for safety. But also a lot of people did not and a lot of people want to be in the communities that they live in and don’t want to go somewhere else.”
Kopp-Richardson says there must be a concerted effort to look at the places where there are less resources to address the needs of people in rural areas, or areas that are not inclusive. As of now, there is a funding issue as funders typically look at how many people a project can help—if it’s a small number, is it worth it? A similar problem faces entire rural communities that seek any type of philanthropic dollars. (Also worth noting: aging services get very little funding. Only 2 percent of foundation funding goes to aging services, says Skultety of Openhouse.)
Besides the lack of philanthropic dollars to rural locations, there’s also the issue of access to services—such as doctors, pharmacies, and supermarkets, says Imani Woody, who’s also the CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults in Washington, D.C. Woody had thought Joshua Tree, California, would be a wonderful place for a LGBTQ-friendly, affordable senior development, as the rural location is known for its breathtaking sunrises. But access to important needs was a stumbling block. “What services are available? How do they get to a doctor? Does that mean that one provides transportation? How do you get groceries? Where’s the closest grocery store?” says Woody. “And when you’re talking about aging in place, those are the types of issues that are raised.”
Mary’s House intends to build its first LGBTQ-friendly affordable property, a 15-bedroom house with communal spaces—kitchen, living room, etc.—on property that once belonged to Woody’s father in Washington, D.C. The plan is to have the facility be for independent LGBTQ seniors age 60 and above. Woody calls it the “Golden Girls” model.
“The people who are renting, they’ll bring their whole selves to the picture—their gay selves, and their Black selves, their Asian selves, fat, short … ” she says.
One the main issues Woody wants to address with Mary’s House is the lack of family the LGBTQ community is likely to contend with, and isolation. Older people who identify as LGBTQ are twice as likely to be single and live alone, and four times less likely to have children. That’s the uniqueness of Mary’s House. “We are creating family. We are creating community with this house,” Woody says. “We really need each other.”
To help facilitate living together in a communal space, Mary’s House will put together information about how to deal with difficult situations, and there will be house rules about things like not leaving dishes in the sink so everyone is on the same page.
Woody had expected to have shovel into ground this fall, but that schedule was pre-coronavirus. The groundbreaking is now planned for early 2021. Once the property is up and running, the dream is to have a Mary’s House in major cities across the U.S.—”even one in each state”—Woody says. She envisions the next would be assisted living, the following a continuing care facility, and all would be friendly to LGBTQ seniors.
On the Horizon in Dallas, Texas
Dallas, Texas, has a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units, according to Cece Cox, executive director of the Resource Center, an organization that provides services for LGBTQ communities and all people affected by HIV.
The organization and its partner, developer Matthews Southwest, plans to open one of the larger LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing developments for seniors in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood. It has already purchased a two-acre site to build the facility, which is expected to have about 84 affordable units. While the Resource Center is still working out the details, the units may be divided between those affordable for residents who earn up to 40 percent of AMI, 60 percent of AMI, and 80 percent of AMI, says Cox.
Cox doesn’t anticipate working with the local housing authority or seeking funding from them. Instead, the organization plans to raise $4 million on its own, and so far, it has raised about $1 million. The goal is much smaller than its last capital campaign, when it raised $9.2 million for its building and renovated health campus, which is separate from the affordable housing plan.
“Even though we’re in this red state, we’re in a city that’s generous and a city that has had these conversations and is willing to be educated on top of the conversations we’ve already had,” says Cox.
But Cox acknowledges that part of the journey will include educating area residents of issues that face the LGBTQ elder population. “People just aren’t aware,” Cox says, “[For example] the particular vulnerabilities of the transgender population who have an even harder time finding competent medical care and get discriminated against all across the board, from public accommodations, to access to health care, and some protections and access that have been put in place have been stripped away systematically by the Trump administration.
“I think that will be significant for them to understand because the reality is, all LGBTQ people can’t just go to an LGBTQ-serving organization, there aren’t enough or they don’t exist.”
‘The Next Huge Step in This Movement’
There are a lot of things to think about when developing this kind of housing, but establishing a relationship with the communities you serve before asking them to fill out housing applications is an important step.
Older adults are going to have a difficult time with the application process because they’re probably not going to have a caregiver involved, Skultety says. “In San Francisco, 60 percent of them live alone … and fear and bad experiences with the health care system, with providers of aging services, and quite frankly with LGBTQ providers who may only serve the younger population, are going to really be barriers.”
How are seniors going to get help preparing for and filling out their applications?
In San Francisco, LGBTQ seniors are 2 ½ times less likely to access aging services than their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts, Skultety says. If you look just at the trans community, it’s even less—there’s almost no utilization of city-funded aging services among the trans community.
Larson of the Center on Halsted recommends that groups working on projects like Town Hall Apartments have a specific outreach plan for reaching underserved communities. The trans population at the development is low—about 4 percent, and Larson says they missed an opportunity because they didn’t do designated outreach to that population. They aim to do better, Larson says.
What could others do? Partner with a local transgender-specific organization to help mobilize the trans community to apply, or engage with transgender people to help with outreach.
Another issue: Making sure those who need the housing most are being reached. While these groups are already focused on a vulnerable population, they are also trying to make sure that within that group everyone is present at the table.
Sean Coleman, the executive director of Destination Tomorrow in the Bronx, raised that very issue during SAGE’s elder housing event in 2019.
“There should be more Black and trans people in this room,” Coleman said at the time, adding that if the groups in the room didn’t have people of color or those who identify as trans on their boards and staffs, they are doing a disservice to the community.
Kopp-Richardson says it’s important to hear those critiques and to actually name the problems in order to address who is being left behind. “LGBT elders are people of color and they are trans people, and they are sex workers, and they are people who have survived nontraditional economies because of workplace discrimination … It’s become a lot more commonplace to say that Stonewall was a riot led by trans people of color and sex workers and people living on the street. But what does that mean when we actually interrogate the ways we’re building systems, or not building systems …
“That’s one of the next huge steps in this movement and in this work: who are we reaching and who are we leaving out? We still have a lot of work there … we can build an affordable building but if we’re not reaching deeply vulnerable people … that’s a problem.”
Editor’s Note: We thank Citi Community Development for their financial support and for respecting our complete editorial independence.