When Kaye Crawford spoke at the wake of friend Darrin Heiden in 2014, she talked about the fact that Heiden was “another statistic of a gay man who found himself without a home as he grew older.”
For people like Heiden and other members of the LGBTQ community, aging can not only be isolating, it can be dangerous — Heiden found himself homeless while struggling with health issues, vulnerable and afraid that his sexual orientation would keep him from receiving care and acquiring housing, says Crawford. After months of searching and finally finding an apartment that would rent to him, he died.
For some LGBTQ seniors, aging can mean having to hide their identity in order to avoid discrimination when it comes time to find senior housing. According to a 2014 national study, 1 in 6 LGBTQ seniors is very or extremely concerned that he/she will be discriminated against if others in an assisted-living community know about his/her sexual orientation or gender identity — 80 percent hide their orientation after transitioning into long-term care.
“Since these seniors grew up in an era when homosexuality was classified as both a mental illness and a crime, this population approaches old age with more financial and mental health problems than the general population and less support from families and community,” says Crawford, founder and executive director of Sacramento Rainbow Village.
In 2012, Crawford’s nonprofit had the initial vision in Sacramento for a housing complex that would include services, meeting space and a community living concept for the aging LGBTQ population. (Other cities across the country, including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale, have already built communities of this kind.)
Crawford’s vision helped pave the way for Sacramento to become the first city in the Central Valley to offer LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing for seniors with the construction of Lavender Courtyard, an $18.8-million, 53-unit housing community at 16th and F Streets on track to break ground this summer.
‘Special Need’ in this Community
Designed by local architect David Mogavero, Lavender Courtyard will be a 32,200-square-foot, Zero Net Energy building on a vacant infill lot in Midtown and will cater to residents ages 62 and older. The project is being developed by Mutual Housing California, a nonprofit in Sacramento dedicated to improving housing opportunities for lower-income families. The housing complex will partner with service providers including Servant Heart, the Sacramento LGBT Community Center and One Community Health to ensure seniors have access to health care and social services.
In 2013, Sacramento Rainbow Village signed an MOU with the former CEO of Mutual Housing, Rachel Iskow, to bring the project to fruition. But because funding sources were few and far between at the time, the agreement fell through. Sacramento Rainbow Village eventually became inactive in 2016, but out of its ashes rose Lavender Courtyard, which is now envisioned as a low-income (instead of mixed-income) project in order to better access funding available through Mutual Housing of California.
“There are three major areas of disparity faced by LGBTQ seniors that make affordable housing like this vital,” says Roberto Jiménez, CEO of Mutual Housing California. “First is discrimination. Cumulative discrimination faced by LGBTQ people leads to increased economic insecurity. Second, LGBTQ elders have largely relied on chosen family — not birth family — during their lives, so maintaining their personal networks is very important as they age. Third, there’s a lack of competent health care for older LGBTQ adults. Many are not comfortable coming out to their doctors and they face higher risk of mental and physical abuse.”
Over the past three years, community members like Iskow, Jiménez and David Heitstuman — executive director of the Sacramento LGBT Community Center — have met with city officials including Vice Mayor Steve Hansen to discuss location and funding options for Lavender Courtyard with an eye toward creating a welcoming living space where LGBTQ seniors can age in peace and proximity to identity-affirming services.
“This is a special need that exists in the community,” says Hansen, Sacramento’s first openly gay city councilmember. “LGBTQ seniors have had to deal with so much adversity during their lives. To then be forced back into the closet when they need communal housing — after all the progress they’ve made — is so sad.”
Getting the Finances Secured
The property selected for the proposed project is a “blighted site,” according to Hansen, that hasn’t hosted a building since the 1980s. As part of the City’s push to “fill in the gaps of the urban quilt,” in Hansen’s words, vacant parcels are being turned back into housing.
But no ground can be broken until the funding is in place. In 2016, the Sacramento City Council approved the use of $2.78 million in locally administered federal funds for this project (with the November 2018 passage of state Propositions 1 and 2, as well as local Measure U adding to the availability of those funds). In November, Mutual Housing announced that it had signed an agreement with the Maryland-based Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation for a $2.5 million grant.
The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency is also set to reauthorize Mutual Housing’s application to the California Debt Limit Allocation Committee, which would allow the City to issue $11.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to be used for construction financing. At press time, Mutual Housing hadn’t yet heard if their application had been approved, but if it is, Jiménez says the project will be almost 95 percent funded and will break ground by summer.
While there is no restriction on who can apply to live in Lavender Courtyard other than age and income — the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits other restrictions — its proponents believe that LGBTQ seniors will choose to be part of this inclusive community.
“LGBTQ seniors need the same things other older people need,” Heitstuman says. “Health care, community support, activities and social services. But they need those things in an environment where they know confidently that their identity will be affirmed.”