Local real estate developer gauging needs, looking for property

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Faced with a demographic with a unique set of circumstances, LGBT-friendly senior housing communities are sprouting up in several cities around the country. And an Atlanta real estate developer, emboldened by years of research and an ongoing survey of the marketplace, is on the hunt for property to build on.

“This is the first time we’ve had out gay people as seniors, so we haven’t had a population that was out that we can emulate as far as how to have an active life,” says Cloud 9 Global’s gay developer Karl Gustafson. Cloud 9 Global seeks to provide “urban living for inclusive healthy aging,” according to its website.

And housing is a topic that cannot be avoided when discussing LGBT seniors.

“In every conversation that we have in every town hall meeting or focus group or survey that we have ever done of LGBT seniors, the issues of housing come up,” says Health Initiative Executive Director Linda Ellis. The Health Initiative also oversees Atlanta’s SAGE affiliate which serves LGBT elders.

Now that that segment is “coming of age,” more and more evidence is appearing that shows LGBT seniors are facing discrimination from senior housing residents and staff and are sometimes forced back into the closet.

As a result, LGBT-friendly senior housing communities have opened in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, with another one opening up in Philadelphia in February and plans in the works for communities in San Francisco and Chicago.

Questions remain as to what such a community would look like in Atlanta, how it would be funded and how long before it can become a reality.

‘People are having to go back into the closet’

The idea of an LGBT-friendly senior housing complex came to Gustafson several years ago when his parents were looking for affordable senior living. After seeing the hoops they had to jump through just to find one or two good communities, it got him thinking about the additional challenges LGBT seniors must face.

“People not just in Atlanta but around the country can get into senior housing and people are cordial to them, but no one is making any friends with gay folks,” Gustafson tells GA Voice. “People are having to go back in the closet, hide their pictures, because they feel they’ll get abused and ostracized.”

He also stresses the unique circumstances LGBTs face, as they are less likely to have children they can live with, and families are less supportive.

He ran an initial survey six years ago after his parents’ experience, then last summer he created a new, expanded survey, partnered with Atlanta’s SAGE affiliate, a program managed by The Health Initiative, and started putting it out to the community last fall via promotion at Atlanta Pride and getting organizations to send it through their email lists.

He has nearly 400 responses so far, and among the findings, he discovered that only about 10 percent of respondents are interested in LGBT-only senior housing. So it’s not so much about all-gay all the time, and more about inclusivity, he found.

Ellis has found less consistent answers in her dealings with the community.

“In every conversation that I have, someone there will want it to be LGBT-specific housing, someone there will want it to be LGBT-friendly but mixed with heterosexual senior housing, someone will want to live in a community that combines seniors with multi-generations within the LGBT community,” she says.

“As many individuals that are raising the questions, there are that many answers,” she continues. “We don’t know yet what is the best or most sustainable here in Atlanta.”

‘You must have a united front in the LGBT community’

Come February, the ribbon will be cut at Philadelphia’s John C. Anderson Apartments, a gay-friendly 56-unit complex that is unique in that it’s financed entirely with public money.

Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, led the push to bring this idea to life almost 10 years ago.

“You must have a united front in the LGBT community and you must understand political clout,” he tells GA Voice.

Ideas were floated to organizations both inside and outside the LGBT community, including senior organizations in the area, government leaders, neighborhood organizations and more.

The group stuck to a guiding principle throughout: don’t settle for anything less than equal.

“We wanted to be treated by HUD and every other city, state and federal agency in equal form just like any other organization or community interest,” he says. “We had a good proposal and we expected it to be funded. We finished the building in record time and on budget.”

As for the end result of the journey, Segal opens up about a recent day giving a tour of the building to a group of senior non-profit agencies.

“I walked into one of the apartments and a woman was inside who turned and said to the whole group, ‘Welcome to my apartment!’” Segal says. “Which was weird because we hadn’t opened the building to residents yet. But she said, ‘Well it will be mine in two weeks.’”

“Then she asked me if she could have her girlfriend there,” he continues. “I said, ‘Of course, why wouldn’t you be able to?’ And she said, ‘Because the other senior housing project I lived in wouldn’t let me bring my girlfriend in.”

Turnaround and workarounds

Aside from what the community should look like, things always turn back to money. Gustafson estimates that for a 150-200 unit intown community, it would cost roughly $40 million, and he expects it to be privately funded.

Ellis agrees that public funds will be harder to come by in Georgia.

“One of the problems we have to deal with in this state, being a predominantly red state, is we don’t have the opportunity for a combined public/private partnership that others do in Chicago or Philadelphia,” she says.

Meanwhile, Atlanta LGBT seniors have figured out workarounds.

“There are people who are figuring out their own solutions while we’re having these conversations,” Ellis says. “There are seniors that are intentionally moving into condominium complexes or cooperative housing arrangements or neighborhoods where they know they’ll be surrounded by other LGBT seniors or LGBT individuals and they’re creating communities. So while we’re having these larger conversations, people are forming their own sense of housing and intentional community.”

She sees some sort of LGBT-friendly senior housing community ― whatever it may look like ― arriving within the next 10 years.

Gustafson is more optimistic.

“I would certainly hope within five years from now that that’s a real option for us in Atlanta,” he says.

People of all ages and sexual orientations are invited to complete the SAGE LGBT senior housing survey: www.surveymonkey.com/s/SAGEAtlantaHousing

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