Housing crisis takes toll on Bay Area LGBTQ seniors

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 31, 2021
Share this Post:
Charlie Uher sits in front of his apartment building in Walnut Creek. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Charlie Uher sits in front of his apartment building in Walnut Creek. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Charlie Uher had never expected to be living out of his car.

The 67-year-old gay man told the Bay Area Reporter he had been living in a manufactured home in the East Bay community of Bay Point until a little more than three years ago.

"I had a dispute with the people who owned the land, so they kicked me out," Uher said. "I bought the manufactured home because my mother passed and left me with some money. I thought that when I die they'd carry me out of there. ... They gave me $4,000 for it, then turned around and sold it for $20,000."

Uher, who hails from Chicago and lived for some time in San Francisco, parked on the streets in Bay Point for about two and a half years until he found housing at St. Paul's Commons in Walnut Creek through the Trinity Center, which is a non-residential nonprofit serving working-class and homeless people in Walnut Creek and central Contra Costa County.

Uher, who said he'd been on the wait list since he lost the house, said he is lucky that he found housing before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last March; he'd been able to use a gym for showers, and various bathrooms around town during the time he'd been living in his vehicle.

After Uher got two jobs and had an increase in his income, he saw a substantial rent increase in February from the Housing Authority. Formerly paying $488 for his place, Uher has been paying $1,000 since January — and doesn't know how much longer he can afford it, since he is paying most of his income in rent now that he no longer has the jobs.

"I don't know if I'm going to be able to live here anymore," Uher said. "People want to make money, and I get that, but I think that's taking advantage of people in a disadvantaged situation."

Uher is not alone — the COVID-19 pandemic has hardly eliminated the decades-long California housing crisis. For many LGBTQ seniors who'd originally resettled in the Golden State with a promise of freedom that they had been denied elsewhere, that crisis casts a dark cloud over what, for others, are the golden years.

In the South Bay, Lincoln Wong, a 77-year-old gay man, had been working at the Fairmont in downtown San Jose until the pandemic hit.

A member of the Vintage program for seniors at the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center, Wong has been living in the same apartment for almost two decades.

When asked if he was facing housing insecurity, he said "yes and no."

"Since I lost my partner, I was feeling that possibility of being pushed out because it is a place for two people," Wong said. "Because of the death, I was experiencing all sorts of things because I'd never been alone, by myself. I'm at an apartment where I could lose it because it's been very expensive for me to live by myself, but I don't want to live with anyone at the moment."

Wong said he has gotten on many wait lists, but "the wait list is always very long."

"I don't want my mind to get older," Wong said. "I don't want to slow down. Just because I'm older doesn't mean I'm not capable of being who I was. ... People are so prejudiced about people getting older. It's really terrible. People look at you different. A 26-year-old looks at me and thinks I'm over the hill. We talk about systemic prejudice, and young people think I'm over the hill, that I don't have any future and because of this systemic thinking, the seniors pick up that thought and make it happen. That's wrong."

Vince Crisostomo, a queer man who is the director of aging services with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, told the B.A.R. that several issues exacerbate the housing crisis for some senior members of the LGBTQ community. He is currently advocating San Francisco supervisors for housing subsidies for some 300 households with HIV-positive members.

"Many people live on fixed incomes and maybe didn't save money in their 30s and 40s," Crisostomo said. "Many people also age out of private disability plans at age 65, so our group experiences what a lot of other seniors experienced, but earlier. There's a stigma around being gay, around HIV and AIDS. A lot of people don't have those family ties of the general population. Their chosen family members — they lost them to AIDS."

The City by the Bay is home to Openhouse, which comprises two of 12 similar LGBTQ-affirming affordable residences throughout the United States. The Openhouse residences at 55 and 95 Laguna Street are, however, the only such residences in Northern California, according to Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders, or SAGE.

Joe Hawkins is executive director of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center. Photo: Courtesy Joe Hawkins  

Independent living
Across the bay in Oakland, The Lake Merritt — a former hotel — had been home to Barbary Lane Senior Communities about a dozen years ago. As the B.A.R. previously reported, the community was named after the home of Armistead Maupin's famed community in his classic "Tales of the City" novels — a fictionalized account of the wild and heady 1970s in San Francisco.

Maupin, who has since relocated to London, had teamed up with developers to start what was the first independent-living LGBTQ senior community in the Bay Area.

"They spent about $4 million to renovate the hotel and update it to [the Americans with Disabilities Act]," Tim Johnson, the current executive director of The Lake Merritt Independent Senior Living, the successor of Barbary located at the former hotel, which is at Madison and 17th streets, told the B.A.R.

Johnson had been with Barbary when it was the only senior living community at the former hotel.

"We moved in two residents in June 2008, and the next resident didn't come in till the spring of the following year. In between those, what happened? The banks went down. That was the end of Barbary," he said, referring to the financial crisis and recession.

Of the three people who'd moved to become part of the senior community, only one still lives at the site (another moved to San Francisco and a third has died). The B.A.R. was unable to contact this resident for comment.

But Johnson, a gay man, thinks that Barbary Lane fell victim to more than the financial crisis. 2008 was, of course, also the year that a majority of Californians voted to strip marriage rights away from same-sex couples. (Those rights were later restored and same-sex marriage became legal in the state in 2013.)

"It was labeled as 'the gay hotel' for seniors" Johnson said. "They narrowed it down to a gay, senior community. Eighty-year-old men in 2008 were not ready to live under a big rainbow flag. The fact that it was so labeled kept people away. Several years later, it'd probably fly, but we had two strikes against us."

Johnson stressed that The Lake Merritt is still very LGBTQ-friendly, and had been working with the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center on a Pride event scheduled for June 2020, which didn't happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (The center confirmed this.)

Oakland center fundraising for housing subsidies
In the past dozen years, as headlines have bemoaned the rising cost of living and gentrification in San Francisco, Oakland has often been in the city's shadow, but it has certainly not been immune to the same forces.

As a matter of fact, a 2019 San Francisco Chronicle report states that Oakland that year, for the first time ever, was slated to have more housing units constructed than San Francisco. But new housing doesn't always mean more affordable housing.

Oakland does not per se require developers to keep a certain number of new units market-rate or below market-rate, at-large Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan told the B.A.R.

"The builder has to include affordable units or can pay the city to build affordable housing elsewhere," Kaplan, a lesbian who is also the vice mayor, said. But for those who choose to pay the city "there have been problems in the ways it has been implemented. There has not been data tracking for the money, and it hasn't been done quickly enough," she explained.

Joe Hawkins, a gay man who is the executive director of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, told the B.A.R. he sees the consequences of how the housing crisis is impacting the East Bay city.

"At the center we raised $250,000 to keep LGBTQ people in need of rental assistance housed," Hawkins said. "About 15% of the 400 people we have helped with the fund have been elders."

There are no talks, as far as Hawkins knows, about opening LGBTQ-affirming affordable residences in Oakland like Openhouse. Hawkins noted that sites like Openhouse have limits and "the needs of the East Bay residents" are sometimes different.

"Even the housing at The Lake Merritt had income limitations," Hawkins said, referring to the former Barbary Lane. "It was a very expensive program.

"Unless we could come up with something more affordable for East Bay residents, we are going to be more focused on keeping people in the homes they have with our rental assistance program," he added.

Still even that program has its limitations; the fund — which was launched in March 2020 with seed money from Citigroup — was almost out of money when Hawkins was interviewed a year later. And while about 400 people received some assistance, over 800 applied.

Citigroup confirmed it provided $30,000 in 2019 and an additional $25,000 in 2020 and this year.

"Providing housing assistance and solutions for marginalized communities is one of Citi's long-standing priorities," Shawnee Keck, Northern California Community Relations Officer at Citi, stated to the B.A.R. "Oakland and Alameda County have historically high rates of homelessness. Black residents make up 47% of the population and 40% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ. Citi's decision to support Black community leaders like the Oakland LGBTQ center aligned directly with our work, mission, and values."

"People are applying every day," Hawkins said. "The range of people who've applied are people on Social Security, people in shared housing, people on Section 8, and people renting apartments; so, it's been pretty diverse but all of them were very low income, on fixed income."

The center was able to raise the rest of the money for the program.

"We are always fundraising," Hawkins said. "Our city has got to get prepared, because a lot more of us are going to be on the streets as we get out of this pandemic. We need LGBTQ-specific housing so that as people recover, they won't have to deal with homophobia and transphobia. We all know that older people have to deal with all of those phobias when integrated with members of their generation. We need a place for people to be welcomed, understood, and accepted."

Hawkins had a suggestion for Kaplan — a location at Harrison Street and Grand Avenue in Oakland that'd been student housing in the past would be a good location for new, LGBTQ senior housing.

"It's an area many LGBTQ people already live," Hawkins said.

Kaplan agreed.

"I do think that would be great for LGBTQ senior housing," Kaplan said. "It's a place with community, history, and events."

Kaplan pushes rapidly-built affordable units
Kaplan said that while many people are residing in vacant hotel rooms right now, that cannot be a long-term solution.

"The city of Oakland owns a significant amount of publicly-owned land," Kaplan explained. "A bunch of entities have popped up in the last few years that could put up thousands of units in a few months if we put our minds to it."

At the council's March 22 life enrichment subcommittee meeting, members forwarded an item to the whole council, which will be discussed in May, tasking each council member with finding an appropriate area in their district for modular housing.

"It would depend on the structure of the units and what needs to be done to the land," Kaplan said before the subcommittee meeting. "It's kind of a cliché that people say: the most important solution to homelessness is housing, but it's true. It's a big part of what needs to happen, and also LGBTQ-specific programs.

"There was a group that did LGBTQ senior housing at a hotel by the lake, but that didn't work out," she said, referring to the former Barbary Lane. "We need to fight for more of that as we discuss more housing, and that's something I'm going to uplift."

Kaplan said that rapidly-built units could be constructed cost-effectively. While affordable housing units are typically $500,000-$700,000 per unit, Kaplan claims that "these could be done for under $100,000 per unit. And that's not a special price for Oakland."

$600M program helps municipalities purchase residences
Mayor Libby Schaaf declined to be interviewed for this article, but the B.A.R. emailed questions to a spokesman, Justin Berton.

"Providing support and services to LGBTQ residents who may be housing insecure is precisely the vulnerable population we prioritize through programs such as Keep Oakland Housed," Berton stated. "Our City of Oakland, and particularly the mayor's office, has deep connections with LGBTQ organizations, and we are always looking to support any specialized needs for residents."

Keep Oakland Housed is a program that provides supportive services to keep Oaklanders in their homes.

The city announced last December that it had purchased 17 homes in conjunction with Bay Area Community Services to shelter formerly unhoused people, using about $10 million from the state's Project Homekey program.

Project Homekey is a spinoff of Project Roomkey, a way of providing state funding so that unhoused people can be sheltered in hotel rooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Local entities will partner with the state to acquire and rehabilitate a variety of housing types, including (but not limited to) hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings, and residential care facilities in order to serve people experiencing homelessness or who are also at risk of serious illness from COVID-19," Homekey's website states of the program, which comes with a $600 million price tag.

Berton stated that the program is "going well," but did not provide a clear answer to how the effort to expand to 25 homes is going, saying "nothing to report just yet."

"Purchasing homes and providing the proper services for individual clients to move in rapidly can sometimes get bogged down in bureaucratic delays, but BACS has moved swiftly," Berton stated. "It was about 90 days from the time the funds were awarded to the time the properties were purchased, improved, and repaired, and residents started moving in. That's light-speed for government work."

Nora Daly, the director of development at BACS, said the group is committed to diversity and inclusion of LGBTQs and seniors.

"BACS is extremely supportive and welcoming to people of all orientations, gender identities, backgrounds, ages, and needs, and we work with hundreds of LGBTQ community members each year (1,761 people in 2020), as well as older adults (more than 4,000 people in 2020)," Daly stated. "BACS partnered with the City of Oakland to submit our application for funding to the state of California, and it was reviewed through the same process as all the other applications.

"Our project, Project Reclamation, focuses on single-family homes as property held in public trust that uplift and reclaim local neighborhoods for community benefit," Daly added. "We proposed purchasing 20 homes, and have now acquired every single home, and have nearly finished identifying and moving in all the new residents."

(Berton has not responded to a request for comment about if the city has purchased three subsequent homes in conjunction with BACS.)

"LGBTQ elders face heightened isolation, oftentimes being forced to hide their sexual orientation and/or gender identity inside nursing homes or care facilities, which our Project Reclamation homes enthusiastically welcome and uplift," Daly continued. "Older adults themselves face stigma, and those living with severe behavioral health challenges have even deeper incidences of stigma. Across our programs, BACS uses our behavioral health and homelessness expertise to meet the unique needs of each person we serve."

SAGE's Sydney Kopp-Richardson. Photo: Courtesy Sydney Kopp-Richardson  

National housing initiative makes headway in NY
The challenges of LGBTQ senior housing are not unique to San Francisco and Oakland, of course, which is why SAGE has spearheaded a National LGBT Housing Initiative, specifically geared for seniors.

The New York City-based nonprofit began this initiative in 2015. According to its website it is focused on "Building LGBT-friendly housing in New York City; advocating nationally against housing discrimination; training eldercare providers to be LGBT culturally competent; educating you about your housing rights; and helping builders across the U.S. replicate LGBT-friendly housing."

"One of the most important decisions we make as older adults is where we're going to live during our senior years," SAGE's website states. "For all older adults, affordability is often a challenge. For LGBT older adults, so is finding a place that's welcoming —where we can feel free to be ourselves and be treated respectfully and compassionately."

Sydney Kopp-Richardson is a queer woman who has been with SAGE for over two years and is the director of the initiative.

"It was in response to an urgent need for affordable housing for our community," Kopp-Richardson said.

The initiative has succeeded in its first stated goal of building LGBTQ-friendly housing in New York City. Ingersoll Senior Residences in Brooklyn, which opened early last year, is billed by SAGE as "the nation's largest LGBT-welcoming elder housing community," with 145 units in 17 stories, and featuring a 6,500 square-foot senior center. (Openhouse has 119 units, according to information made available by SAGE and Openhouse.)

Eighty-four units in the Bronx opened earlier this year, Kopp-Richardson said.

"The reason we say LGBTQ-affirming is because under fair housing laws, you can't build housing for LGBTQ people exclusively," Kopp-Richardson said. "So we have some units that get set aside for people formerly homeless, and people relocating from the New York City Housing Authority, to get as many LGBTQ-identified elders as possible."

That's also true with Openhouse, which held lotteries for the residents of its two complexes and ended up with many of the residents identifying as LGBTQ.

The Ingersoll Senior Residences used a lottery system to see who could get in.

"When the lottery system opened that day, we did outreach to get people in the lottery," Kopp-Richardson said. "It's the same model ... as Openhouse in San Francisco. If you can get more than 50% of the general population units as LGBTQ, that's pretty good. The real determining factor is intentional community outreach, using rainbow and trans flags, marketing."

Kopp-Richardson said that LGBTQ-affirming housing communities for seniors are "growing exponentially" across the U.S. There are currently 12 open residences nationwide, according to information made available by SAGE. Five have opened in the past four years.

"This is a population with very intensive needs, disparate rates of poverty, disparate health outcomes because of discrimination, and different needs from their heterosexual counterparts," Kopp-Richardson said.

Kopp-Richardson said that she is working with groups across the country to expand the model. In San Francisco, the city last year spent $12 million to purchase the building and parcel at 1939 Market Street in the Castro district to construct affordable senior housing. Mere blocks away from Openhouse's project, the new development is also aimed at LGBTQ seniors, and the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development is expected to announce the developer for the project sometime this year.

"A lot of the work I do nationally is with resources and technical assistance for people looking to build housing for LGBTQ elders," she said. "Community organizations, housing developers [and] service providers."

SAGE has also gone to the work of putting together a 56-page primer, "Understanding the Affordable Housing Development Process: A Primer for LGBT Aging Providers," to help people interested in its mission.

"Estimates predict that the LGBT elder population will surge to more than 7 million by 2030," the primer states. "With this surge comes an increased need for safe, affordable LGBT-affirming housing communities. The options for such housing differ in approach and cost, but each provides a sense of dignity and safety for LGBT community members. How communities choose to respond to this growth will determine a great deal around how LGBT aging older people live, access services, and develop community supports for generations to come."

For more on LGBTQ senior housing — focusing on the state of affairs in San Francisco — pick up the April 29 edition of the Bay Area Reporter.

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations, and the RRF Foundation for Aging.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.