PHILADELPHIA – Jerry Zeft was so excited to move into his new apartment that he slept on an air mattress for nearly a week while he waited for his bed and other belongings to catch up with him. No matter that he’s 70 years old.
Zeft had landed a coveted spot in a new affordable housing complex for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. Only two other U.S. cities have similar developments.
“I wanted to get into a community that I’m more comfortable in,” Zeft said shortly after picking up the keys to his unit.
This month’s opening of the John C. Anderson Apartments vindicates years of work by supporters who felt gay elders have been marginalized by youth culture, even within LGBT circles.
Experts say gay seniors are less likely than their straight peers to have the financial and family resources to age in homes of their own. Many fear discrimination at traditional elder housing facilities, leading them back into the closet after years of being open.
Philadelphia now joins Los Angeles and Minneapolis as locations with designated gay-friendly, affordable senior housing, collectively offering about 200 units.
Yet advocates say that’s nowhere near enough. Research indicates the number of gay seniors in the U.S. is expected to double to 3 million by 2030.
“It’s quite amazing that we have done so little for seniors to have a place that they can afford and that offers them respect and safety,” said Barbara Satin, an LGBT activist who worked on the 46-unit Minneapolis project.
Although anti-discrimination laws prohibit gay-only housing, buildings can be made LGBT-friendly through marketing and location. The $19.5 million Anderson project, named for a city councilman who fought for gay rights, sits in the affectionately nicknamed Gayborhood. When the leasing office opened last fall, hopeful tenants sat in a block-long line to drop off applications.
Those seniors belong to the generation that blazed a trail for gay rights, said Mark Segal, chairman of the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund, which spearheaded the development. Yet their activism and openness often cost them both family ties and the opportunity for traditional jobs with retirement benefits, he said.
“Why should people, who were the pioneers of the community, not live with dignity? It’s outrageous,” Segal said. “We have to take care of our own – nobody else is.”
At the 56-unit Philadelphia building, monthly rents range from $192 to $786 based on income, which can’t exceed $33,000 per year. There is a waiting list for lower-tier units, though about a dozen remain at the upper end. Nearly all the residents identify as LGBT.
Two more complexes are under construction in Chicago and San Francisco. The Hirschfeld fund is interested in building units in New York, Segal said.
The housing problem may ease for future generations as legalized gay marriage allows same-sex spouses to inherit a partner’s property and benefits, said Catherine Thurston, senior program director at New York-based Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. However, she said many current seniors aren’t married and don’t own their homes.
Thurston also noted that it’s important to offer seniors more than just a place to live – they need activities and social services “to connect them to their community.”
The Anderson apartments has partnered with the nearby William Way LGBT Community Center to provide residents with counseling, programs and events. That’s another reason Jerry Zeft decided to sell his house in the city’s Oxford Circle section and move downtown.
“I don’t like staying home. I enjoy getting out,” Zeft said. “And this is the perfect place to get out in this area.”