Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
A new coalition of advocacy groups aims to help cities plan affordable housing geared toward the aging LGBTQ community.
The senior-living and affordable-housing worlds are preparing for a "silver tsunami." Where will all the Baby Boomers live out their golden years? Will more age in place than in previous generations? The coming decades will see major transitions in elder-care as this particularly large generation retires en masse.
For LGBTQ Boomers, many of whom lived in the cultural shadows from the 1950s until relatively recently, housing and support needs are likely to be different still.
Even though about half of the country now supports gay marriage, most older LGBTQ Americans can remember at time when being gay or transgender was punishable by arrest and violence, not to mention familial rejection. Many of them will also have experienced housing or employment discrimination. These experiences can leave LGBTQ elders even more vulnerable as they begin to require a supportive living environment.
Late last month, New York-based SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders) announced a first-of-its-kind initiative bringing together high-profile affordable-housing advocates, developers, and LGBTQ organizations to form a "national, comprehensive LGBT elder housing strategy." The groups involved—including Enterprise Community Partners, HELP USA, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and the D.C.-based Equal Rights Center—represent housing developers, affordable-housing strategists, and even federal-level leadership through HUD. The goal of the alliance is to make sure LGBTQ seniors have affordable living options, that their rights are protected, and that they have the opportunity to age among their communities.
"There is an affordable-housing crisis in America—period," says Jennfier Ho, senior adviser to HUD Secretary Julián Castro and the "principle queer" representing the agency in this effort. "America is aging at a rapid pace, and they are losing income in collision with the affordable-housing crisis," she says. "America is going to have to face the needs of an aging population, and LGBT people are part of that. Those of us in the younger generation owe it to the older generation who showed the way."
Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE, says that state and local support for affordable housing for LGBTQ seniors is "incredibly important." "Most of this work happens at this level," he says. "We are pleased to be working with a network of 27 cites and 20 states that have made this a focus for the next four years."
Part of this work will be helping cities plan for their own affordable housing geared toward (but not exclusive to) the aging LGBTQ community. A handful of LGBTQ elder-living communities do exist or are being planned across the U.S., offering varying degrees of services, including Minneapolis' Spirit on Lake, Chicago's Center on Halsted* and San Francisco's Openhouse.
Triangle Square in West Hollywood, California, opened in 2007 and was one of the first planned affordable housing communities aimed at serving aging LGBTQ people. The $21.5M facility has 104 units devoted to low-income seniors. A third of the units are reserved for seniors with HIV/AIDS or who are at risk of homelessness.
Kathleen Sullivan, director of senior services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which provides services to Triangle Square, says that her experience there has shown her what helps LGBT people do well in their later years. "What I found was that where LGBT elders have support, they are able to thrive. Older LGBT adults are primarily living alone, and living alone you have an increased likelihood of death—if you have no sense of belonging. Triangle Square creates this sense of community."
Sullivan recalls an older woman who had lost her partner of 35 years, and found that she could finally freely talk to other people about it. "Not having the burden of keeping a secret about who you are is transformative," she says. "It's sad in a way that these folks are waiting until their seventies and eighties to be in an environment where they can completely be themselves."
The building also has a community center, where at-risk LGBTQ youth can receive day services from the Los Angeles LGBT Center. "One thing we've found is that the kids love to be around the elders, and vice-versa," says Sullivan. "They like to share their lingo, and the youth love to support the seniors." A second L.A. site, the Argyle Apartments, will pilot a true intergenerational model, offering housing to low-income families and individuals of all ages.
Triangle Square and the Argyle were financed via a method that the SAGE working group hopes to replicate across the country: a combination of federal affordable housing credits, city and state affordable-housing funds, and support from banks experienced in building and sustaining relationships with affordable-housing agencies
Cheryl Gladstone, program director of senior housing for Enterprise Community Partners, a real-estate investment company specializing in long-term planning and strategic development of affordable-housing projects, says forging a relationship with the right developer is akin to embarking on a 40-year marriage. Agencies need to work with such developers to make a long-term plan to pool federal, state, and city funding with other sources to raise enough cash to even bid on potential sites. They are also integral to supporting these projects in the decades after they are completed.
These are the issues that the working group hopes to tackle as plans move forward for an upcoming New York LGBTQ senior center in Queens. Adams says that this project, much like Triangle Square and other successful projects, will be financed through the federal* low-income tax credit program, loans from the city of New York, funds from city council and borough presidents, and private foundations.
More housing is great news, but Enterprise's Gladstone notes that affordable housing can't be the only solution.
"The vast majority of LGBT older people are not going to live in subsidized housing," she says. Like most of the general population, they are going to live in mainstream elder housing—which is why the cultural element of these sorts of partnerships is just as important as the housing one.
"We will never be able to build our way out of this problem," she says. "We will never be able to build enough units. So how can we increase cultural competency and work with caregivers to meet the needs of the LGBT population?"
Few health care providers have specific experience or training focused on seniors who are LGBTQ. Many older transgender people, for instance, require specialized care that takes their transition choices—medically, surgically or otherwise—into consideration. Older lesbians and trans men may be reluctant to seek gynecological care and regular cancer screenings. And specialization in HIV/AIDS and the elderly is critical since not only is this one of the first generations of people to live into old age with the disease, but HIV infections are on the rise in the overall senior population.
SAGE's Wayland says that the importance of cultural training cannot be overstated. "So often, when we walk into a care agency, it is the first time the staff have ever had a training on how to serve LGBT older adults," she says.
Outright discrimination in mainstream housing remains a challenge. Melissa Rothstein, deputy director of the Equal Rights Center, points to a study the center led last year in which 48 percent of testers seeking housing for same-sex couples encountered "at least one form of adverse differential treatment." These included not being informed about available units, being charged additional fees, and being told that each member of the couple had to apply separately and not as a couple.
Fixing this also means making sure LGBTQ elders know their rights. "We are entering the first time in history when LGBT elders have [some] laws that protect them against discrimination and harassment," Wayland says.
It's all part of a multi-pronged effort that groups like these hope will become a model for decades to come. "We're not just building buildings, we are building communities," says Adams.
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify that HUD is involved in informing the federal low-income tax credit program, but does not manage the credits themselves on a state or city level. It also corrects the spelling of Chicago's Center on Halsted.