Seniors Lack Affordable Housing Options

by Matthew S. Bajko
Wednesday Apr 23, 2014

LGBT seniors in cities across the country are facing a lack of affordable housing options as they age.

Demographers estimate there are at least 3 million LGBT seniors aged 65 or older currently living in the U.S., with the population projected to double by 2030. As their numbers increase, LGBT seniors' access to housing, whether it be in retirement communities or assisted living facilities, will become "increasingly critical" noted the Equal Rights Center in a special report it issued in February.

"As the number of older adults increases, as well as the number of LGBT seniors living openly, many with their spouse or partners, the need for more housing options that allow older LGBT people to live in a safe and comfortable environment becomes increasingly important," stated the report, titled "Opening Doors: An Investigation of Barriers to Senior Housing for Same-Sex Couples."

Nonprofit agencies in a number of major U.S. cities are working to address the shortfall by building designated housing for low-income LGBT seniors. Projects are currently under way or have opened in such places as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C.

But the buildings, ranging in size from nine units to more than 100, are nowhere near enough to address what is needed, according to agency executives, housing activists, and LGBT aging experts.

"Housing is the number one need for our clients. When they come in and meet with one of my team managers, absolutely the bottom line need is housing," said Kathleen Sullivan, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center's director of senior services.

The L.A. center recently announced it was merging with Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing, which built the 104-unit Triangle Square LGBT senior housing project in Hollywood. When it opened in 2007 it was the nation's first affordable housing development of private, individual apartments for LGBT elders.

Seven years later it is readying to open a 39-unit building dubbed the Argyle in collaboration with AMCAL Multi-Housing Inc. Built for low-income families of all ages, a portion of the units are expected to be occupied by LGBT seniors.

An estimated 65,000 LGBT seniors 65 and older live in Los Angeles and 68 percent of them live alone, according to the local agencies. More than 70 percent of Triangle residents are living at or near poverty level and struggle to cover expenses for housing, food and medication.

Among the 3,000 clients age 50 and older who access the L.A. center's senior services program, 46 percent live on less than $2,500 a month and 20 percent make do on less than $1,000 each month.

"While I am sure L.A. looks like a bargain to people in San Francisco, it is not an inexpensive place to live," said Sullivan, 48, an out lesbian whose thesis for her gerontology Ph.D. from Portland State University in Oregon focused on LGBT senior housing developments.

Her interviews of residents at the complexes, including in Santa Fe and the short-lived Barbary Lane in Oakland, found that living in LGBT supportive housing was "incredibly important" to the seniors' health and mental outlook.

"In these communities the seniors noted it was the first time they ever felt comfortable and at ease. They didn't have to look over their shoulder or be worried about talking about their partner," said Sullivan.

There are more than 300 people on the waiting list for a unit at Triangle Square. The average wait for an opening is between two and three years.

"It tells me we certainly don't have enough housing," said Sullivan.

Recognizing that need for more affordable housing options for its senior clients, the L.A. center in February acquired a property across the street from its Village complex where it plans to construct a mixed-use housing project for both LGBT seniors and homeless youth.

The plan for the three-acre site fronting McCadden Place i class=st>s to build up to 80 units for seniors, 40 apartments for youth, a senior center, and space for intergenerational programing.

"We would like to have a quick timeline, a year to a year-and-a-half. The goal is to raise $25 million, maybe a little bit more," said Sullivan.

San Francisco Project

In San Francisco the long-awaited Openhouse LGBT-welcoming senior affordable housing project is expected to break ground later this year. The agency's 55 Laguna development of 110 rental apartments for low-income seniors, which it is building in partnership with Mercy Housing, will be split between two buildings.

The renovation of the existing historic building at the corner of Laguna and Hermann, known as Richardson Hall, is slated to begin in October and take a year to be completed. It will have 40 units of housing, mostly one-bedrooms and a few studios, on the top two floors with ground level retail space.

The building will also set aside 2,700 square feet for Openhouse's staff offices in addition to client meeting rooms and a community space.

"We hope, and our goal is, to have the place pretty much filled by December of 2015," said Openhouse Executive Director Seth Kilbourn.

Marketed as the city's first LGBT senior housing complex, in reality any senior regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity who meets the financial eligibility requirements will be able to apply to live at the 55 Laguna housing. The rooms will be assigned based on a lottery system.

"We are not allowed to ask if they identify as LGBT," noted Kilbourn. "What we have been doing, and will be doing more of over the next year, is making sure LGBT folks who are interested in 55 Laguna get our newsletter and updates."

The second building, which will be brand new construction, will consist of 70 units of housing, all one-bedrooms, on five floors. The ground floor will feature activity space, an exercise room, and a large social space for community events and programs.

Openhouse expects to break ground on the project in October 2016. With an 18-month construction schedule, residents would not begin moving in until at least January 2018. The rooms will again be assigned by lottery to any senior who qualifies, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, although 14 of the units are to be set aside specifically for seniors living with HIV or AIDS.

"Obviously, the need is greater than the housing availability at 55 Laguna," acknowledged Kilbourn.

Bartholomew T. Casimir, 73, and his spouse, Edward Rulief Kelley, who is in his 60s, have seen many of their older gay male friends decamp from San Francisco to Palm Springs in search of cheaper housing and more social connections. But the couple, renters in the Richmond district, would prefer to live out their remaining years in the city.

"We have a wonderful cottage apartment. Hopefully, we will be able to stay there," said Casimir, who was born and raised in San Francisco. "All my friends from the 1970s and 1980s are living in Palm Springs. I don't want to live there."

The couple has discussed moving into the Openhouse project as a possibility but is uncertain if it would fit their needs.

"We like having our own house," said Casimir, who is hopeful that once 55 Laguna opens its doors it will foster more activism among the city's LGBT senior community. "I just think that communities are so important, especially in the LGBT elder community. That doesn't exist, and hopefully, this Openhouse project will change that."

It is estimated there are upwards of 20,000 LGBT seniors age 60 and older living in San Francisco, with the number expected to reach 50,000 by 2030. How many of them need affordable housing is unknown, according to the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, which finished its work last month.

The panel noted in its report, titled "LGBT Aging at the Golden Gate: San Francisco Policy Issues and Recommendations," that few affordable housing agencies track their clients by sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Therefore, it is impossible to know how many LGBT seniors need affordable housing, how many are already on waiting lists, how many utilize rental assistance programs, how many are victims of no-fault evictions, and so on," states the report.

A survey of 616 LGBT San Francisco residents aged 60 to 92 years old, conducted in 2013 on behalf of the task force, found less than 7 percent of the respondents were living in senior housing, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, or in an age-restricted community. The majority, at 88 percent, resided in a house, apartment, or condominium.

Judging by the California Elder Economic Security Index, 40 percent of the seniors did not have the "minimum income necessary to meet their basic needs," according to the report based on the survey results.

Titled "Addressing the Needs of LGBT Older Adults in San Francisco: Recommendations for the Future," the report also noted that 30 percent of the seniors who took part had incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Two-thirds of the survey participants were concerned they would not be able to remain in their current housing and could be forced to relocate.

The LGBT Aging Policy Task Force is calling on San Francisco officials to build more affordable housing for LGBT seniors. It has proposed that the city work with the SF Land Trust to set up "at least one" LGBT senior housing co-op and to build 200 very low-income units in the Castro area for LGBT seniors with incomes less than 30 percent of the area median income.

But building enough affordable housing for LGBT seniors to meet the expected needs in coming years in a city as constrained land-wise as San Francisco is "isn't very realistic," said Bill Ambrunn, a gay attorney who chaired the task force.

Therefore, the task force has also recommended that city officials focus on protecting LGBT seniors from being evicted from their current rent-controlled units. Another of its recommendations calls for funding to improve the housing conditions in apartment buildings and single-room-occupancy hotels where many LGBT seniors who are low-income and/or living with HIV and AIDS currently reside.

"Whatever is necessary to prevent a senior from being evicted is what the city should be doing," said Ambrunn.

The L.A. center's Sullivan, echoing the San Francisco task force's report, stressed that it is also unrealistic to expect LGBT-focused agencies to shoulder all of the work to house LGBT seniors.

"As people age and are looking for safe places, we need to provide that. But I don't know if the LGBT community can provide all of those places," she said. "We have to train other providers and developers on how to also provide those places."

In its just completed five-year plan, Openhouse has prioritized working with mainstream developers of senior housing in San Francisco to ensure they are providing safe environments for LGBT residents.

"There is no reason we can't help LGBT folks form communities at these other developments," said Kilbourn.

In 2016 the agency will begin drafting its next five-year plan, and those discussions will include if Openhouse should take on building additional LGBT senior housing. For now, said Kilbourn, a main focus will be on helping LGBT seniors remain in their current homes.

"We need more units for sure, but we also need policies and protections for seniors to live where they live now," he said. "If we can do that it will allow more people to stay in the city with some sense of economic security."

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit


  • , 2014-06-06 15:57:30

    Philadelphia has been having the exact same problem! EverSafe Moving Company in Philadelphia just released a report about how elderly fixed income seniors are not being allowed admittance into some of the apartment complexs in center city and are being forced to look into subsidizing housing and it’s really stupid I hope people get their act together - these are our grand parents for pete’s sake!

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