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Gay and gray: New housing opportunities for gay seniors

Retirement communities are a common option for seniors who are seeking activities, health care and a like-minded community. For gay seniors, though, finding a community that meets their needs can be challenging. And the recession and housing disaster have made it even more difficult.

Living in a retirement community with mostly straight seniors might not appeal to the gay community because they could face being ostracized by other seniors who don't accept them, says Walter Meyer, a writer and gay activist in San Diego, who has worked as a liaison between the gay community and housing developers.

"There clearly is a need, but it was right at the time of the real estate collapse," says Meyer of a project he worked on in San Diego, which failed to be completed.

About six years ago, Marilyn Grey and her partner from Edmonds, Wash., put $50,000 down for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in a Palm Springs retirement community that catered to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community. At that time, the tough economy made it difficult to secure construction loans, says Joy Silver, CEO of RainbowVision Properties, Inc., a developer of GLBT housing communities based in Santa Fe, N.M. Unfortunately, Grey and her partner only got about half of their deposit back after the community failed to get off the ground.

Other gay retirement communities in Austin, Texas, Boston and Phoenix were halted due to a lack of financing, and communities in Sarasota, Fla., and Santa Fe, N.M., have filed for bankruptcy.

However, the market is slowly starting to grow again, with a few companies starting projects, such as BOOM near Palm Springs.

The BOOM difference

The problem that too many communities aimed at the GLBT community have is that their construction and livability is banal, says Matthew Hoffman, the project manager for BOOM.

"They're really not doing anything different than the traditional retirement community," says Hoffman, who calls them "age ghettos."

Architects working on the BOOM project are creating eight different designs throughout the 40-acre Palm Springs community of 310 housing units, Hoffman says. Some of the housing units, for example, have multiple master bedrooms, and each resident has a large bedroom, bathroom and separate entrance. The community center will include such amenities as a gym, hotel and a health-care facility that offers "stealthcare"--in-home health care that is offered when needed and disappears when it's not.

Prices for units at BOOM, which is set to break ground in fall 2012 and open in 2014, haven't been set but will be at the higher end of the market, Hoffman says, most likely ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars for a studio to $2 million for a four-bedroom unit.

The need for gay senior living

Gay senior housing is needed in part because of the problems some gay seniors have dealt with at traditional retirement communities. Some officials at traditional senior living centers have told gay members that they couldn't share a room with someone of the same sex, or that their partner wouldn't be allowed in an intensive care unit, Meyer says. "Often people end up going back in the closet at that age," because it's easier to find senior housing, says Meyer.

Having a sense of community is just as important to the gay community as anyone else, he says, and it can be especially important for older members if the GLBT community who don't have children to take care of them.

"It makes the socialization and being able to find companionship later in life more possible," Silver says.

For Grey, now 72, the prospect of buying a $250,000 condo in Palm Springs sounded like a great idea because she and her partner could live in a retirement community with people who shared their same views. The couple looked at a few retirement facilities in Washington State, and while they weren't anti-gay, they were pretty conservative and didn't have the relatively liberal political views that gay people often have, Grey says.

"I'm really disappointed but not angry that it happened," she says of the developer pulling the plug on the project. "They didn't try to cheat us."

Senior living is changing

Since many people have had to delay retirement because of the financial crash, the senior housing market is changing from a "wants" model--where people want golf courses and other amenities--to a "needs" model that deals with the chronic needs of the aged, Silver says. Whether for gay or straight seniors, it's causing the retirement housing industry to retool itself.

The definition of senior living is changing, and developers are finding that such gay senior living communities offer a great deal of appeal to people starting, as some say, the greatest years of their lives.

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