LGBT Seniors Camp Out for One-of-a-Kind Housing in Philadelphia

More than 100 seniors lined up outside the city's LGBT center to find a new, affordable home

In a light jacket and baseball cap, Ellis Sacks sat patiently outside the William Way Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Philadelphia early Monday, hoping to find a new place to call home.

“I pay a lot now for my condo, and I’m ready to downsize,” he said.

The 73-year-old wasn't alone.

A line of more than 100 like-minded seniors stretched down the 1300 block of Spruce Street in the morning hours, waiting to fill out an application to move into a first-of-its kind living community.

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The John C. Anderson Apartments, just off of 12th and Spruce Streets in the heart of the Gayborhood, stands to become the region’s first haven for aging LGBT seniors. Currently under construction, the community features 56 one-bedroom units for those 62 years and over who make $33,000 or less a year.

Sacks, who lives solely on Social Security, says he will save more than $1,200 a month should he win a spot in Anderson. But more than the money, he says the move will also help him foster relationships – old and new – within the community.

“It’ll enhance the sense of community,” Sacks said. “A place to hang out that’s not a bar, that’s not sexually charged. It’ll just be a place for friends to be.”

A sentiment that was echoed many times by others standing in line.

“It would be nice to be moving back into the city to be moving into that community of people,” said a 63-year-old man who’s getting ready to retire and asked that his name not be used.

“We would hang out and think, ‘What’s it going to be like when we’re old?’” said lifetime activist Susan Silverman. A New York City resident, she plans to move south should she get a spot in the complex. “This [the LGBT housing] is one of the things we fantasized about.”

It’s estimated that there are at least 1.75 million LGBT seniors living in the United States, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging — a number that’s expected only to grow. However, affordable housing remains a key issue for that segment of the community.

“We owe the pioneers of our community a place to live in dignity within their community. They earned it, they deserve it and that’s what we’re doing,” said Mark Segal of The Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund, the organization that’s spearheading the project.

The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging says several studies have found LGBT seniors face housing discrimination. A 2009 study in Michigan found 30 percent of same-sex couples were treated differently when buying or renting a home, while 33 percent said they would hide their orientation if they moved into a retirement home.

“We’ve had women who haven’t been allowed to bring their partners into the building after 23 years of being together. We have people who live in buildings where the staff pray around them, trying to pray the gay out of them,” Segal said. “We have people who aren’t out to their families and for the first time want to live in their community.”

Financial insecurity and a lack of cheap housing inventory is also more prevalent among the 65 and over LGBT community, according to the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.

“People who came out in 1969… you would have been one-tenth of one percent of America who was out. And those people who were out, in those days, who are now in their 60s and 70s, well, they didn’t get 401ks. If you were out in those days, you couldn’t get a good job, and this building will serve people like that,” Segal says.

The Anderson Apartments will also allow the city’s LGBT organizations to hold events on site in the complex’s community room and offer health services tailored for gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals.

“It’s just terrific that after so many years we can take the housing needs of our seniors seriously and provide them the most beautiful apartments that you can get,” said William Way LGBT Community Center Executive Director Chris Bartlett.

While the Anderson Apartments are tailored for the LGBT community, you don’t have to identify as a member of the community to live there.

Jerry Bradford, a 67-year-old retiree who stood last in Monday morning’s line, said while he’s not a member of the LGBT community, the apartment building’s location and price are too good to pass up.

“I’m looking for better housing at a better rate, and I just wanted to apply,” he said. “Plus, it’s near my mother’s place.”

Applicants will be notified in 60 to 90 days as to whether they're chosen, and move-in will begin in January.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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