Roger Byers, 68, is poised to do something that would've been unthinkable for someone like him just a few years ago. Byers grew up among a generation of gay men who fought for every right and scrap of acceptance.
Now, he plans on marrying the love of his life and settling down in one of the nation's first affordable housing developments aimed at LGBT seniors. "I'd like to be a pioneer on this matter," says Byers, a Chicago resident, of the development. "It is an environment that I can say with pride that whoever lives there is going to be pleased and be able to be themselves."
Old age often hits LGBT seniors hard. They can easily find themselves back in the closet after moving into housing communities where openness to queer lifestyles isn’t pervasive. Loneliness is magnified. Senior gay men, survivors of the AIDS crisis, may have few living friends and lovers.
"Oftentimes, when we think of the gay community, we think of it as a youth community," Byers says. "Our demographic and our community become invisible."
In recent years, there’s been a small but growing group of urban developers trying to change that. The idea is to build housing aimed squarely at the queer and elderly.
"These seniors want to know that they will be welcome in this building," says Britta Larson, director of senior services at the Center on Halsted, a community center for Chicago’s LGBT population. "They want to live among seniors who are family whether they are an ally or a member of the LGBTQ community."
The first of this new type of housing, named RainbowVision, opened in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2006 as a condominium and assisted-living based development. The firm behind that development is in bankruptcy and seeking a new owner. Before the housing crash, 200 people lived in the development's 146 units.
The first affordable development, Triangle Square, opened in 2007 in Hollywood. A 2008 documentary titled "A Place to Live" chronicles seven seniors who competed in a lottery to live in the building.
In Philadelphia, a similar $20-million low-income development is set to begin construction this month. In Chicago, an 80-unit affordable housing development is slated to finish in 2014 in the heart of Boystown, the city's major gay neighborhood. "It is an environment that I can say with pride that whoever lives there is going to be pleased and be able to be themselves," says Byers, who participated in focus groups to help plan the development’s services.
Fundamentally, what separates these senior housing projects from others is simply intent. LGBT housing can’t weed out anyone who isn’t gay. But by calling a development queer-friendly, there’s an understanding that its staff and residents must welcome any lifestyle regardless of their own sexual and gender preferences.
LGBT seniors also require specialized attention, says Larson, whose organization will provide services at the new development in Chicago. The center already has programs serving about 500 LGBT seniors who live throughout the Chicago area, providing social lunch opportunities as well as home visits to those who are isolated and immobile. Larson says housing is the next step for this group, which has told the center via surveys that they "have a great need for more socialization opportunities."
"These seniors have a profound loneliness or isolation. Many of them don't have children or a relationship with their families," Larson says. "They form circles of choice with people in their own age group and as they age that support system tends to diminish."
The few communities that have sprung up nationally are helped by a few factors. Firstly, and most obviously, these are areas that have substantial LGBT populations. Secondly, all of these projects have benefitted from political and funding support from local leaders, organizations and government institutions. Joy Silver, president and CEO of RainbowVision, said her firm chose Santa Fe for its first community not only because of the city's vibrant queer population, but because of a state act passed in 2003 that prohibited housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Having gay men on the city council also helped, she says.
The Chicago development has been 10 years in the making, says Hume An, director of real estate development for the Heartland Alliance, which is developing the property. “Boystown an important neighborhood for the gay community, and we’ve been working on this project for years, but maybe there was some sort of wider attitude shift," An says. "All these projects happening now are the pioneers for these kinds of developments."
Attention to LGBT senior housing issues has also grown at the federal level. December, the Department of Housing and Urban Development held a summit specifically about such issues, as a part of its broader attention on all LGBT housing discrimination issues. Nonetheless, the federal Fair Housing Act doesn't prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Still, Silver says these developments can offer lessons about not only how to provide seniors with a place to live out their days happily and comfortably. "Aging is not easy in the United States," Silver says. "The lessons learned with these LGBT-targeted developments will influence how the baby boomers in the mainstream will handle these challenges."