Survey spotlights LGBT senior housing needs



The first-ever survey of LGBTQ-identifying older New Yorkers revealed a growing need for comfortable, affordable housing. Graphic: Stonewall Community Development Corporation.

When 68-year-old Harvey Helfand’s bad hip forced him to retire nine years ago, the rent for his Chelsea apartment began to eat away at his savings. He scoured daily papers for listings, and two years ago, finally won a lottery that got him into a rent-stabilized building in Hell’s Kitchen, cutting his rent from $2,600 to under $600 per month.

“I got to tell you, it wasn’t easy, you really have to have patience, and a lot of it,” he said. “I can’t begin to tell you how many forms I had to fill out and sign.”

After 25 years in Chelsea, a new neighborhood was hard to navigate on the two wooden canes he uses to get around, but he still busses down to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community center on W. 13th St. a few times a week, and he considers himself lucky to have been able to stay in Manhattan.

“I’m very happy there, and I hope to God it’s the last time I ever have to move in my lifetime, because the move up town was extremely stressful,” he said.

Harvey Helfand takes the bus from his Hell’s Kitchen apartment to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community center on W. 13th St. a few times a week. Photo: Robert Tokanel.

The Stonewall Community Development Corporation recently released a first-of-its-kind survey of nearly 1,000 New Yorkers over 50 who identify as LGBTQ. The data revealed that while about two-thirds would prefer to age in place, most expect they will be forced to move due to health or monetary concerns in the next six to ten years. The number of LGBT seniors like Helfand is growing rapidly along with the rest of the baby boomer generation, and the over-65 population in New York City is expected to increase by 40% by 2040, according to a 2013 projection by the Department of City Planning.

The community faces a unique set of challenges, said Paul Nagle, executive director of the LGBT senior housing advocacy group, which commissioned the survey in search of citywide solutions. Nagle said LGBT seniors are less likely to have children who can act as caretakers, are poorer and face worse health problems than the general population, and are not receiving equal treatment in senior care.

“There’s rampant discrimination in the senior system against gay people, especially by other clients,” he said. “People are going back into the closet to be able to fit in.” A 2014 report by the Equal Rights Center found that 48 percent of older LGBT people faced discrimination in applying for senior housing nationally, and though numbers specific to New York are not available, Nagle said senior centers in New York often ignore the needs of LGBT seniors.

Midtown-based SAGE, Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders, is a national non-profit founded in 1978 which serves thousands across New York City. The group helped to administer the survey along with government agencies, community groups, and other service providers.

Diosdado Gica, chief program officer for SAGE, pointed to two new housing projects in development in the Bronx and Brooklyn as innovative solutions to address the specific needs of LGBT seniors. Funded by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Housing New York, which is a 10-year project to create or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units throughout out the city, the buildings will provide a combined 230 units of LGBT-friendly senior housing, with on-site health services, activities, and some meals provided by SAGE.

“People want to age in place and live independently and not end up in nursing homes, and if they have services and a sense of community so they don’t feel isolated, those are the things people are weighing as they age,” Gica said.

The new units will open in 2019, and there are already more than 4,000 people on a waiting list that will give priority to lower income and homeless applicants. Helfand said it had been a hard road for his generation of LGBT people. If given the opportunity before he settled in Hell’s Kitchen, he says he may have considered leaving Manhattan in order to live in an LGBT community.

“I don’t like being around straight people, because I still feel to a degree there’s a measure of turning your nose down at gay men and women,” he said. “If you think the problems have evaporated, you’re crazy.”

An illustration of the Crotona Senior Residences, an 82-unit, LGBT-friendly, low-income housing project opening summer 2019 in the Bronx. Graphic: SAGE.

The survey showed that the LGBT senior community is a highly-educated group compared to the general population, despite its worse health and income statistics, which Nagle said could be key to providing solutions beyond the low-income options currently in the works.

“You have people at both ends of the economic spectrum with similar educational attainment and an affinity for living with other gay folks, so there is a sort of unprecedented potential for very successful mixed-income models,” he said.

Miguel Acevedo, president of the Fulton Houses Resident Association, said the issue of LGBT elder housing never came up in discussions about the new 160-unit, mixed-income, affordable housing building currently under construction at the nearly 1,000-unit Robert Fulton Houses in Chelsea. According to a release by the New York City Housing Authority, the units will be available to individuals making $33,400 to $110,220, and applicants will be selected by a lottery system. Acevedo said the application process would not start for at least another six months.

“Maybe it’s a conversation that should be brought up with the community board and the developer and the New York City Housing Authority,” he said, emphasizing that one of his favorite things about living in Chelsea is its inclusivity. “Many LGBT seniors are being driven out, and they’re going to be put in confines where they’re not comfortable at all.”