Affinity Housing: A Model for Affordable LGBT Senior Housing

On February 10, I will join housing advocates and professionals from around the country as part of the National LGBT Elder House Summit at the White House. The summit will focus on the significant affordable housing challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors.

Currently there are an estimated 2 million LGBT seniors in the United States; by 2030, that number will more than double. For those of us working to meet the needs of this growing and vulnerable population, the future is now. We must address the glaring need for housing that is inclusive, accepting and affordable for older LGBT adults.

As Director of Senior Services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, I witness the housing challenges and hardships faced by our seniors every day. LGBT seniors are more likely to live alone and experience isolation and loneliness. They also face higher rates of poverty: 52 percent of the Center's older clients live on less than $2,000 per month. Perhaps most insidiously, many LGBT seniors feel compelled to go back into the closet once they move into a retirement community, assisted living facility, or nursing home. Fears of being abused, ostracized, or re-traumatized are very real for this community. One can only imagine, after a lifetime of discrimination and marginalization, just how painful this can be.

Five years ago, I began to study the benefits of a model for affordable housing that could meet the unique challenges faced by LGBT seniors. Affinity housing provides this growing population with an affordable housing option and gives our seniors something they need just as much: a community.

Located in Los Angeles, the Center's Triangle Square was the first affordable housing development in the country for LGBT seniors. More than 60 percent of Triangle Square residents live on less than $800 per month and struggle to meet their basic needs, such as housing, food, and medication expenses.

More than just an affordable option, Triangle Square provides an accepting environment where LGBT seniors can live fully integrated lives. For instance, the opportunity to openly talk about one's partner, and connect with people who either have a similar history or understand your history is uniquely beneficial to LGBT seniors. As one resident put it, "This is the first residence I've had as an adult where I have been comfortable with my environment, because heretofore, it has always been, you know, the homophobes. So, you just ignore them and walk with pride. I have been more comfortable here than any other environment."

Residents can also access a comprehensive set of specialized services and activities, including health and wellness activities, enrichment classes, cultural excursions and other social outings, and educational seminars and workshops. Additionally they can take part in support groups focused on specialized issues and specific populations related to seniors, including grief and loss, LGBT caregivers, people with HIV, and the transgender community. Our Senior Services staff helps clients navigate Social Security, Medicare, Veteran's Administration benefits, and more. And clients can access other Center services, including medical care, legal services, and mental health counseling.

Today Triangle Square is a bustling example of how good planning and wraparound intergenerational services and programming can be successful--and more is on the way. Last year the Center announced plans for a landmark mixed-use development that will cover more than a full city block in the center of Hollywood. The project's residential component will include more than 100 units of affordable apartments for seniors and will become the new home of our Senior Services Department, which is the largest direct service program for LGBT seniors in the nation.

Even before breaking ground on this new project, we know that it will not fully address the need that exists: Our department has seen a 450 percent increase in clients over the past five years and there are more than 400 individuals on the Triangle Square wait list. Still, it is our hope that this new development will highlight the need for affordable LGBT senior housing and demonstrate how affinity housing communities can help our seniors not just survive, but thrive. In this way we believe it can serve as a beacon of respect and dignity -- not just for LGBT people, but for all older Americans.