Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Elderly LGBT individuals often have trouble finding affordable housing. Two new buildings in New York City could change that.
Two new affordable housing complexes are slated for construction in New York City, each designed to cater to the needs of the aging LGBT population. The 227 studios and one-bedroom units spread across two buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx constitute the first housing in the city flagged specifically for low-income LGBT seniors age 62 and older.
Advocates contend that the needs of the graying LGBT population are given short shrift, despite that demographic’s central place in the decades-long process of agitating for recognition and rights. “[They are] our pioneers, the people who created the LGBT communities we have, [and] paved the way for the equality that we have been able to win,” said Michael Adams, the CEO of Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE), at a press conference Thursday. But Adams added that some elderly members of the LGBT community feel persecuted or afraid to be “out” in their later years. “Many feel compelled to go back into the closet later in life in order to avoid mistreatment,” he said.
Even as LGBT activists have racked up victories toward parity on many fronts, activists say that housing access and discrimination remains a pressing concern, especially for the elderly. Affordable housing options are squeezed in many densely packed metros—and when it comes to finding a place to live, LGBT seniors may be at a particular disadvantage. For one, they cannot invoke protections under federal law. The Fair Housing Act does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. (In certain cases, though, someone could seek recourse under the umbrella of sex-based discrimination—for instance, if they claimed that they were denied housing because their manner of dress didn’t conform to gendered stereotypes.) Though 22 states and many more cities and counties do have bans on this type of discrimination, the patchwork of policies is far from uniform.
Perhaps due to these varying levels of legal protection, a disproportionate number of LGBT tenants report discrimination in the housing market compared to heterosexual couples. A 2014 study conducted by the Equal Rights Center pitted testers posing as a same-sex couple against testers posing as an opposite-sex one. All applicants held comparable occupations, incomes, and credit scores. But in 200 tests across 10 states, researchers found that the “heterosexual” couples received vastly preferential treatment. In 48 percent of the surveys, gay and lesbian testers encountered at least one form of discrimination. In some cases, real estate agents quoted higher rents to the gay and lesbian apartment-seekers than to the heterosexual ones. In others, the gay and lesbian applicants were offered fewer apartments to choose from. The result was that these fictitious same-sex couples were subtly or explicitly steered away from the apartments that might have best suited their needs.
Standing before the mic at the press conference, Donald Capoccia, the principal at BFC Partners, which is developing the complex in Brooklyn, smiled and said that he was a newlywed. He hopes, he said, that he and his husband will support each other “for years to come.” But Capoccia noted that many members of the LGBT community lack stable support systems. “Their later years will be defined by isolation, loneliness, or worse—with little or no support in their lives,” he said. To combat the ills associated with isolation, both buildings will house SAGE Centers that will offer support services and programming.
The housing is a result of collaboration across various city agencies, including the New York City Housing Authority and the Department for the Aging. City council member Ritchie Torres, who represents the Central Bronx, earmarked capital investments for the efforts. Torres, a gay man who grew up in public housing, said that seeing those two causes converge felt like “a moment of serendipity.”
Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia are all home to residences for LGBT seniors. In each case, interest has far exceeded the available units. The complex in the Bronx will be the largest to date. Speaking at the conference, Adams expressed his hope that the buildings will be places that LGBT seniors “can really call home.”