A look inside Chicago's first LGBTQ-friendly, affordable senior housing development, Town Hall Apartments.
When asked why he applied to live in Town Hall Apartments, Chicago’s first LGBTQ-friendly senior housing complex, resident Tom Genley is ready with a pithy response: “Because this place is going to have closets for clothes.” He is all too familiar with the other, metaphorical kind of closet. “It took long enough for me to get out,” he says. “I didn’t want to go back in.”
Genley and his partner occupy one of Town Hall’s 79 units, a mix of affordable one-bedroom and studio apartments at 3600 N. Halsted in Chicago’s gay district, nicknamed Boystown. Town Hall is a joint project of Heartland Alliance, the anti-poverty group that developed and manages the property, and Center on Halsted, Chicago’s LGBTQ resources and cultural center, which provides services including case management and programming.
The $23.7 million facility opened in August 2014 (a ribbon-cutting ceremony, attended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was held in October) and includes Center on Addison, Center on Halsted’s senior services annex. Residents must be 55 or older, meet a maximum income requirement (of roughly $30,000), and pass background and criminal checks. The Chicago Housing Authority’s Property Rental Assistance program provides subsidies so that rents do not exceed 30 percent of a resident’s income.
Genley and his former partner, James, had lived together in the Boystown neighborhood before purchasing a condominium on Chicago’s Far North side. They took out a home loan in 2008 and, as the recession hit, watched their equity dissolve. Genley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, James died, and Genley was forced to quit work as his health worsened. “I had to find some place to live. This was perfect.”
As of 2007, the Heartland Alliance estimated Chicago’s population of LGBT elders at 40,000, one-fifth of whom are living in poverty. Several factors render Genley and his peers especially vulnerable. As CityLab’s Shauna Miller has written, older LGBT adults grew up in an era when honesty about one’s sexual and/or gender identity could lead to arrest, violence, blatant employment and housing discrimination, and social and familial rejection.
Genley describes his own family as accepting, but says the process was gradual. He found an outlet in the broader LGBT community. “When you’re not affiliated with your family, you get to know more people just like you, and they are your family,” he says. “They treat you like brothers and sisters.”
Town Hall is more than a place to live: It’s a physical hub for social and recreational services targeting LGBTQ seniors. The first floor of the building is publicly accessible and, in addition to a lobby and a community kitchen, houses Center on Addison. There, elders from all over the city participate in an array of activities including a coffee hour and subsidized lunch program (both held four times a week), weekly discussion groups, and movie afternoons. Center on Halsted, moreover, is mere steps away, down the block in a modern building constructed in 2007.
Like Center on Halsted, Town Hall was designed by the architecture, design, and planning firm Gensler. It comprises the adaptive reuse of the Town Hall police station, a Classical Revival building dating to 1907, and six stories of new construction.
The reclamation of the police station was something of a coup for the LGBTQ community, notes Britta Larson, Center on Halsted’s Director of Senior Services. Many residents remember spending the night there because of bar raids or other run-ins with law enforcement.
Town Hall residents and staff must use a key card to access the residential floors, stacked atop Center on Addison and the ground-floor retail spaces. Security was a priority for more than practical reasons, notes Larson. “For an LGBT person to know they’re safe is really important.”
The mailbox lobby opens onto a terrace overlooking Halsted Street, which the architects characterized as the building’s front porch. "It speaks to how this building is increasing the visibility of LGBT older adults,” Larson says. During the June 2015 Pride Parade, residents watched from the terrace, and “really felt like they were part of the parade.”
Town Hall’s other communal spaces include a fitness center and a lounge residents call the Rainbow Room. A spacious family dining room is the byproduct of a series of design charrettes held by Gensler prior to construction. Potential residents were selected to deliver feedback on early designs, and expressed a desire for space to entertain, given the small size of the apartments themselves. Since Town Hall opened, the dining room, in addition to hosting individual residents’ private parties, is the site of a monthly potluck dinner.
Like Genley, Town Hall resident Carla Harrigan ended up here after her life took a dramatic turn. When her mother fell ill a number of years ago, she moved from Iowa to South Chicago to become her mother’s round-the-clock caretaker. Town Hall began soliciting applications, and she put her name in. “I didn’t apply anywhere else, because this was really my heart’s desire.”
Also like Genley, Harrigan knew she wanted to live in LGBTQ-friendly housing because any other arrangement seemed to require re-closeting. While living with her mother, she recalled, she had wanted to mark World AIDS Day by flying the pride flag on their property.
“My mother said, ‘Oh, no, you're not, not in this neighborhood,’” Harrigan remembers. “It was another slap in the face to say, ‘I’m in my 60s and I still can’t be myself.’ If I can’t really be myself [now], it’s never going to happen.”
Harrigan spent her first night at Town Hall on Thanksgiving Eve of last year. Despite being a relatively late arrival, she connected quickly with her neighbors. During the first six months or so, “the people who wanted to get to know one another, we’d spend hours in the Rainbow Room, telling our stories. I feel like there is a real sense of community here.”
Both Genley and Harrigan admit that life at Town Hall has its downsides—though both are careful to put the best possible spin on them. The small size of the units requires a mental adjustment. Genley sloughed off a lot of possessions to move from a 1,650-square-foot condo to his 615-square-foot apartment. “But it taught you, you’re up in age, you don’t need this stuff.”
Not all of Town Hall’s residents identify as LGBTQ. That’s not a problem in itself, but the fact that some of the straight residents didn’t seem to know what they were getting into troubled Genley. “I felt sorry for them,” he says. “They didn’t know what ‘LGBT’ was.” “There’s been a lot of education,” Harrigan confirms.
Genley worries about the future—both his own, and that of the LGBTQ community more generally. He has heard horror stories, he says, of partners forced to separate during the transition to a nursing home. “It’s nice to have senior housing, but what about the next stage?” he asks. “If I’m going to a nursing home, I’d hope my lover could be close by.”