During the last decade, the LGBTQ community has made important strides in its effort to tear down the walls of discrimination in this country. The crowning achievement occurred when the Supreme Court declared that the right to marry extends to same sex couples. The court stated, “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.” After the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015, according to Gallup Daily tracking, about half of the people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender indicated they were living with a same sex partner and married. These couples were finally able to enjoy the practical benefits of marriage associated with tax exemptions, health insurance, Medicare, inheritance rights and Social Security survivor benefits.
While older Americans in the LGBTQ community have made great advancements in equality, more work is still needed. There are about 1.1 million LGBTQ seniors in this country, who often face their own unique set of challenges. One of those hurdles is around affordable housing.
Unfortunately, there are senior housing facilities which have been hostile to LGBTQ older Americans. The Equal Right Center studied housing discrimination facing LGBTQ seniors in 10 states and reported that 48 percent of same sex couples were victims of discrimination during the application process. Sadly, discrimination does not stop once LGBTQ older Americans move into a building. Often, they are victims of verbal and physical abuse by their fellow residents. Look no further than Marsha Wetzel who moved into a low-income senior building in Chicago, Illinois. When her fellow residents learned she is gay, she was emotionally and physically abused. Consequently, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against her building, Glen St. Andrew Living Community, claiming the defendant did not adequately protect Wetzel from the harassment, discrimination and violence that she encountered from other residents due to her sexual orientation. The federal appeals court further ruled that a landlord could be liable when he or she is aware of tenant-on-tenant harassment based on a protected class and didn’t take reasonable steps to stop the behavior.
Unfortunately, many LGBTQ seniors who want to age in place, don’t seek out assistance for fear of being treated poorly. Making life more complicated is that according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, this group is not as likely to have children, or a partner to help with caregiving.
Fortunately, cities around the country are taking positive steps to create affordable housing welcoming to LGBTQ seniors. These buildings advertise themselves as being LGBTQ friendly and often coordinate meetings and support groups that benefit this particular aging community. In addition, like many senior buildings, they go out of their way to create common areas that foster a sense of community and provide a space for educational programing and reduced cost meals. Carla Harrigan, a resident of Town Hall Apartments in Chicago told AARP, “Here, there's a sense of camaraderie. We have all lived through the difficult times of being gay or bi or trans, and now that we're seniors, we look out for one another.”
Funding for these communities has originated from local, state and federal resources and in some cases developers have been able to secure rental subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These rental subsidies ensure that residents of the building are only obligated to pay 30 percent of their income on rent. Given the fact in 2016, 80 percent of residents at Town Hall Apartments had incomes below $15,000 a year, clearly these rental subsidies are badly needed.
Currently, 2.7 million adults 50 and over are part of the LGBTQ community, with that number expected to double by 2060. Everyone should be able to participate in society free of discrimination, especially in their home. We should applaud cities and nonprofit developers across America for creating housing that meets the needs of LGBTQ seniors. Hopefully, by fostering a sense of tolerance, LGBTQ older Americans will be better able to thrive in their homes and community.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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