LGBTQIA+ Seniors Need Dedicated Affordable Housing. There Isn’t Nearly Enough Of It
Donald Capoccia was on a bike ride during a vacation in New Mexico about a decade ago when he caught a glimpse of an affordable housing complex for LGBTQIA+ seniors. Capoccia, a managing principal at New York-based affordable housing developer BFC Partners, stopped his ride to take a closer look, captivated by the idea of the development.
“I immediately thought, ‘Why in the world do we not have this in New York?’” he said.
Capoccia, who is gay, became set on building something similar back home, he told Bisnow in an interview this month. Less than two years ago, his dream became a reality. BFC Partners delivered Stonewall House, a 145-unit, 17-story affordable housing building designed to cater to LGBTQIA+ seniors, on the northwest corner of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, in December 2019.
Projects like Stonewall House provide housing for a cohort of seniors that have an especially hard time finding it. LGTBQIA+ seniors still face widespread housing discrimination, experts told Bisnow, despite the Biden administration’s updates to the Fair Housing Act, announced in February, which outlawed housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
LGBTQIA+ seniors are more likely than their straight, cisgender peers to be poor, have spotty employment histories and mental and physical ailments as a result of a life of trauma — most of which was lived while discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was legal and culturally accepted. Their vulnerability was only heightened last year, when the coronavirus pandemic put seniors at far greater risk of serious illness or death.
“Isolation has been very intense for LGBT seniors, and this is very much compounded by Covid,” SAGE National LGBT Elder Housing Initiative Director Sydney Kopp-Richardson said. “That impacts people's mental health and their cognitive health and physical health.”
A third of LGBTQIA+ seniors live at or below 200% of the poverty line, in large part due to the employment discrimination they have experienced, according to a 2017 AARP report. In New York State, 21% of trans people reported being rejected from housing applications or kicked out solely on the basis of their gender identity, according to a Citizens Housing and Planning Council study released last week.
Nearly half of LGBTQIA+ senior couples reported being discriminated against in the housing process, according to a survey from the LGBTQIA+ senior housing advocate group SAGE.
Beyond overt discrimination, the process for applying for housing put some LGBTQIA+ communities at a systemic disadvantage — especially transgender people who may have legally changed their name, or people who turned to criminalized professions such as sex work when faced with employment discrimination, Citizens Housing and Planning Council New York Executive Director Jessica Katz said.
“It can be particularly oppressive to people in LGBTQ+ communities who have been sort of marginalized by these government systems to begin with, who may not have paperwork that matches their identity,” Katz told Bisnow. “So every time you say, ‘Give me 10 years of tax returns to prove that you're poor,’ but then this one doesn't have the same name on it, or every time you have sort of a somewhat unusual situation, it can just be kind of alienating and leave people out in the cold.”
Thirty-four percent of older LGBTQ people and 54% of older transgender and gender-nonconforming people fear being compelled to go back in the closet to secure elder housing, according to a January report on LGBTQ housing by AARP and advocacy group SAGE. Capoccia said talking with SAGE CEO Michael Adams opened his eyes to that painful reality.
“This is something that really, really resonated with me a lot,” Capoccia said. “I just thought, how is this possible? Here are people who have come out of the closet, they have potentially risked employment opportunities, family relationships, in order to be themselves. For them, after a long life of activism and being open, to go back in the closet for me, was the most cruel thing I could imagine.”
When Capoccia embarked on Stonewall House 10 years ago, dedicated housing for LGBTQIA+ communities was a new concept: The first major development like it, the 104-unit Triangle Square Apartments in Los Angeles, opened in 2007. Today, there are at least a dozen in cities throughout the country, but that isn’t close to meeting the need for these projects, experts said.
Eight percent of senior housing developments offer dedicated services to LGBQTIA+ seniors, who are less likely to have children or partners to care for them, according to SAGE. Seniors in this community are more likely to sustain mental and physical health ailments as a result of trauma they’ve experienced due to being out and more social isolation.
A 2019 study by University of California, San Francisco researchers found that LGBTQIA+ adults are 29% more likely to get dementia than their straight, cisgender peers.
“It really shows the way that even cognitive decline is accelerated when you have experienced trauma and harm throughout your life,” SAGE National LGBT Elder Housing Initiative Director Sydney Kopp-Richardson said.
In order to meet the niche needs of this cohort, trauma-informed design drives these projects, Kopp-Richardson said.
“[This means] going beyond the legal requirements and the physical requirements to say, ‘How do we create a space to create safety and well being and healing?’” she said.
Trauma-informed design includes principles like putting spaces in neighborhoods that are safe and welcoming to LGBTQIA+ communities, buildings large enough to bring in support staff and factoring in the health needs of the community, Kopp-Richardson said. The spaces should also allow for a lot of natural light, space for artwork and be painted in cool, calming colors, she said.
“It's also helpful to think about how do people congregate and how do you cultivate community? So will a community room bring people out of their individual apartments?” Kopp-Richardson said.
Stonewall House, at 112 St. Edwards St. in Brooklyn, was built after BFC ground leased the land, a piece of New York City Housing Authority property, for $1 a year. The development was financed largely by public funds, including single-issue bonds and tax credit subsidies, and the residents can use Section 8 housing vouchers to pay rent.
It has a spacious lobby with a mural painted the colors of the rainbow. On the ground floor, the building features a 6,800 SF Sage Senior Center located at the base of its building, which provides programming and resources.
The building contains studios and one-bedroom apartments with rents that range from $1,200 to $1,400 before vouchers, BFC Partners Executive Director of Development Win Wharton said. The average rent for a studio in Fort Greene is around $2,500, while the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood is around $3,300, according to Apartments.com.
There is a communal chef’s kitchen and a dining room with a long table, which is connected to a laundry room and a furnished outdoor space. Several floors up on the 14th floor is an outdoor terrace that overlooks much of Brooklyn and Manhattan, with the Empire State Building visible behind Fort Greene Park and the East River.
The furniture is a pandemic-era addition, brought in after the indoor community spaces were closed for the safety of the residents when the coronavirus pandemic took hold last year, just a few months after the building opened, Capoccia said.
“That way they could go outdoors and at least enjoy that part of the building,” he said.
In Hyde Park, Boston, designers are underway planning to transform a former middle school at 15 Everett St. into the city’s first LGBTQIA+ affordable housing building and community center.
“So much of our identities as gay people, we realize that when we’re in school, so it is a queer way to reclaim the school, actually,” DiMella Shaffer Senior Associate Jovi Cruces said in a video the architecture firm made about the project.
Pennrose is developing the $33M, 74-unit building, which has been dubbed The Pryde, to include community spaces that will be accessible to both residents and the larger Boston community. There will be separate entrances, one for residents and one for the public.
The space had unique community design elements to begin with; since it is in a former school, it has an auditorium that will be used to create a building that echoes historically safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQIA+ communities, such as nightclubs and drag bars.
“With flexibility in mind, we've designed spaces that would allow for dance parties, because we know in a gay community, there's going to be those parties,” said DiMella Shaffer principal Philippe Saad, who is leading the design of the project. “There's going to be drag, there's going to be drag shows. So, the building comes in with an auditorium with a stage, we’re refurbishing the stage and sprucing it up, we know we're going to have great performances.”
After Covid hit, Pennrose decided to add a pantry-like convenience store to the building in Boston in case there is ever a time where residents are unable to leave to get food, Pennrose Regional Vice President Charlie Adams told Bisnow. It also added a community wellness space, where residents can go to telehealth visits, he said.
“What Covid taught us is that we need to design with flexibility in mind so things could shift,” Saad said.
“It’s become more of an imperative … rather than an option,” Adams added.
Town Hall Apartments, an LGBTQIA+ senior housing building converted from a former police station in Chicago, also was forced to close its community space during the pandemic. Its operator, Center on Halsted, repurposed it when food insecurity ran rampant through the community, quickly transforming the kitchen into a pantry stocked with staple food items, Center on Halsted Senior Services Director Britta Larson said.
More than 100 seniors, in and outside the residences, made regular use of the pantry during the peak of the pandemic, according to Center on Halsted Senior Services Manager Todd Williams.
While the space in Town Hall is expected to one day be turned back into a senior center, the community still needs it more as a pantry than a gathering spot.
“I still think that we will always keep that as a small component,” Larson said. “I envision a small emergency pantry, by which seniors who are having a food crisis can access that if needed, because even though the pandemic is waning, food insecurity and economic insecurity continue.”