Despite the institutionalization of hard-earned progress, the challenges of being LGBTQ+ don’t necessarily get easier with age. In a city where affordable, well-designed housing is an increasingly scarce resource for the entire population, marginalized groups such as the elderly and LGBTQ+ have an even harder time accessing it than others. David Clark Smith and Isaac Telio-Bejar take a close look at two new residential projects that attempt to address these interconnected difficulties directly through design. In Brooklyn, the Ingersoll Senior Residences will soon be the largest LGBTQ+-welcoming senior housing venture in the nation, ambitiously confronting legal and programmatic challenges from the ground up. And on the West Coast, a new campus for the Los Angeles LGBT Center is working to address the seemingly disparate needs of seniors and youth simultaneously. While they are crucial interventions for now, one can hope that these designs might soon be obsolete. – JM
The LGBTQ+ generation who rioted at Stonewall and pioneered the Gay Rights Movement are still fighting to assert their presence in the city. As young people filling the streets in the summer of 1969, to be “here and queer” meant coming together powerfully against ranks of police. But today, the youngest pioneers — 16 or 17 years old then — are on the brink of senior citizenship, while others are deeper into old age. The first generation to be open about their sexuality faces new challenges and vulnerabilities: elderliness and isolation.
Typically, aging people may call on close relatives or children to return care meted out over the years. But compared to their straight counterparts, LGBTQ+ seniors today are half as likely to have relatives and four times less likely to have children who can help care for them. And it’s not only biological family that is missing from the picture — many current LGBTQ+ seniors lost friends and partners to HIV/AIDS during the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They are twice as likely as straight people of the same age to live alone. And they face old age with fewer financial resources as well: A legacy of discrimination has resulted in fewer savings and lower incomes for LGBTQ+ seniors.
For low- and fixed-income LGBTQ+ seniors in cities like New York, where affordable housing is already scarce and getting scarcer, searching for a place to live compounds the challenges of the past. In a recent audit, 48 percent of LGBTQ+ seniors who applied to affordable housing said they faced housing discrimination because of their sexual orientation. Without the luxury of purpose-built spaces, vulnerable groups must make do with the city’s existing built environment, subjecting themselves to the whims of the housing market to meet their needs. In some ways affordable housing for LGBTQ+ seniors is as precarious as affordable housing in the city generally: LGBTQ+ seniors may live in subsidized units created through tax breaks that later revert to market rate rents, or in once-affordable neighborhoods overtaken by development. LGBTQ+ seniors may be literally marginalized, as private developments in Manhattan’s top real-estate markets move their affordable units off-site to less expensive outer-borough neighborhoods (while receiving the same tax breaks they would if the units were built in top market sites), and low- or fixed-income seniors in Manhattan must relocate to subsidized units far from the neighborhoods where they may have lived for decades. Ironically, in many cases the aging residents who contributed to the development of fashionable “gayborhoods” like the West Village and Chelsea can no longer afford to live there.
The New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) supports senior and supportive housing construction through the “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (ZQA) initiative and the “Mandatory Affordable Housing” (MAH) requirement, which allows for greater floor area and a larger building footprint for senior housing developments. DCP has also eliminated the parking requirement for senior and supportive housing, which, according to a DCP official, “further reduces the cost of construction and allows for greater design flexibility and more occupiable square footage for seniors.” But there are no policies to address the specific needs of LGBTQ+ seniors. Though perhaps urgently needed, “positive” discrimination is a legal thicket. As a second irony in the quest to affordably house LGBTQ+ seniors, the 2003 New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), intended to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination in employment and housing, also prevents the formation of LGBTQ+-specific housing. While project developments can be LGBTQ-welcoming, developments cannot be exclusively LGBTQ+, and anyone who meets the set low-income requirement for subsidized housing can apply through a lottery, regardless of their sexual orientation. No preferential treatment can be given to LGBTQ+ applicants.
At the intersection of these two ironies works an organization known as Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), the country’s largest and oldest group dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ elderly adults. In February of 2015, SAGE launched the National LGBT Elder Housing Initiative to engage consumers, providers, and policymakers to increase access to and create understanding and welcoming environments in housing for LGBT older people. According to its director, Kelly Kent, the initiative refocuses the conversation on housing that is “LGBTQ+-affirming.” Kent says SAGE’s approach works toward four goals: to train senior housing providers in fair and welcoming treatment of LGBTQ+ older people, to change public policy to end housing discrimination against LGBTQ+ older people, to expand federal support for LGBTQ+-inclusive elder housing, and to equip older people with the resources they need to find — and advocate for — LGBTQ+-friendly housing in all its forms.
So far, SAGE has established seven LGBTQ+ senior centers throughout New York City, with at least one in every borough. In some cases, SAGE continues the traditional practice of claiming space at the margins — in Harlem, one section of a modest 1950s community center has been recently re-appropriated by SAGE as an LGBTQ+ senior center. But SAGE’s most ambitious projects for LGBTQ+ seniors are two all-new facilities specifically tailored to the needs of this demographic, Crotona Senior Residences in the Bronx, and Ingersoll Senior Residences, in Brooklyn. Ingersoll, designed by Marvel Architects and currently under construction in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, will be the largest LGBTQ+-welcoming senior housing venture in the nation.
On Fort Greene’s Myrtle Avenue, with a SAGE Senior Community Center on the ground floor and 145 residential units above, the entry from the residential lobby into the community center must do the work of establishing that this is a welcoming space for all. Danielle Cerone, an associate with Marvel Architects, describes how on the ground floor, a rerouted central walkway becomes a monumental thoroughfare: an entire landscaped plaza, to “activate the streetscape and encourage people to engage in what’s happening here.” A cantilevered canopy marks the entrance and establishes a secure zone for tenants. According to Cerone, SAGE envisioned benches where people could sit outside in the sun, in a protected area that reads as safe. “It doesn’t feel like a barrier, but a special place, not just an entryway,” said Cerone. “It’s a celebration of this plaza.” The residential entrance is a more private area, elevated off the side street. “It’s not a barrier, but a clear line that this is someone else’s realm, someone else’s front door. While all are welcome, this space has its own identity; it’s not completely public,” Cerone said.
At Ingersoll, like at other senior-oriented housing, circulation will be of paramount importance; residents must be able to age in place despite changes in health or level of independence. The architects eliminated thresholds and widened hallways for people using walkers or wheelchairs. Active Design was a central principle: Staircases will also be wider and more pleasant than the minimums established by code, encouraging residents to opt for the stairs over the elevator. Social circulation matters too; growing older in NYC can be a lonely experience. Marvel placed shared programmatic spaces to encourage the intersection of paths that might not otherwise meet. Positioned between common areas and roof terraces, the laundry room becomes socially active, and laundry-doers engaged with their neighbors. On the set-back seventh floor, a roof garden will flower; raised planters that meet ADA requirements allow residents at different stages of mobility to grow their own produce and interact out-of-doors with fellow residents.
Isolation from society at large is not the only challenge for LGBTQ+ seniors. Even within the queer community, older adults might feel marginalized by their younger peers: subjected to paternalistic treatment, prejudice about their abilities and limitations, or focus on their shortcomings and illnesses over their strengths and contributions. These stereotypes may become self-fulfilling prophecies, affecting the mental and physical health of older adults. Meanwhile, seniors are not the only LGBTQ+ people to struggle with isolation. On any given night there are approximately 320 unaccompanied youth in New York City who are homeless or unstably housed, 44 percent of whom identify as LGBTQ+. As LGBTQ+ centers and advocacy groups explore new ways to deal with the challenges specific to different age groups within the community, intergenerational housing promises to engage and connect LGBTQ+ seniors with homeless or unstably housed youth. New York City has yet to see such a facility, but one is under construction in Los Angeles, which hopefully can serve as a model for future development in cities throughout the country.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center, along with developer Thomas Safran & Associates, is currently building the Anita May Rosenstein Campus in Hollywood. An LGBTQ+-welcoming intergenerational housing complex designed by New York City-based architecture firm LEONG LEONG, the new campus will serve as the Center’s headquarters, and will contain 100 units of below-market-rate housing for seniors, 100 beds for at-risk homeless youth, 35 units of subsidized permanent housing for younger adults, a new senior center, a new youth center, and a kitchen to feed homeless youth and seniors. Bringing two of the LGBTQ+ community’s more marginalized demographics together will ideally benefit both: Seniors can serve as mentors, while at-risk youth, in turn, can provide a sense of purpose for the seniors and a sensitizing force against ageism. According to Dominic Leong, the campus’s design intends to create “a sanctuary and a home.” Balancing the “porous and private,” the design creates both a residential and a civic space that embraces a spectrum of identities. The architects focused on creating meeting points for the multiple users of the project, with spaces for intersection including a public plaza, a cultural events space, and a senior center that overlooks the public realm of the street. But the design seeks only to dissuade, not prohibit, solitude, Leong said. “The architecture is trying to offer choice rather than forced connections.”
Both Ingersoll Senior Residences and the Los Angeles LGBT Center stand, in the present moment, as symbolic objects as well as functional spaces. Architecture has become a medium for LGBTQ+ people to assert their presence in cities’ built environments — not in pre-existing buildings but rather on their own terms. However, to some, the ultimate goal would be that spaces created for marginalized communities are no longer needed. Smart supportive design and planning strategies for seniors can also ultimately represent smart and supportive design for people of other ages, classes, races, and abilities. Lorri Jean, CEO of Los Angeles LGBT Center, hopes that the site might be “the first and last project of its kind.” If the LGBTQ+-affirming world that these projects model comes to pass, the youth who frequent the Center may, when they themselves are old, be spared the vulnerabilities and isolation seniors confront today.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.