Like many elderly U.S. couples, Herb Parker and Herb Horowitz chose to spend their golden years in Florida, drawn by its year-round sunshine, outdoor activities and relaxed atmosphere.
“The Herbs”, as they are known to their friends, bought an apartment two decades ago near the beach in Hollywood, which sits between Miami and Wilton Manors, a city with one of the largest gay populations in the eastern United States.
“This is where we love to be because we are so comfortable here. We couldn’t imagine living in a home,” said 89-year-old Parker, who used to work in Wall Street, gesturing from his balcony to the lush greenery, lake and golf course outside.
“If at some point we can’t ambulate and need assistance, we will hire home care services to come to us,” added Horowitz, 77, who used to own an interior design business in New York.
South Florida is a magnet for retirees – gay and straight – with its top-rated beaches, endless entertainment choices and diverse population. Luxury apartment complexes, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes generally welcome pink dollars.
While The Herbs are confident that they will never have to move into a retirement home, many gay seniors are less financially secure, with high poverty rates among a community that has faced decades of discrimination.
Builders are preparing to break ground on Florida’s first affordable housing project for elderly LGBT+ residents, one of several specialist homes emerging nationwide, from Los Angeles to Chicago, with the backing of gay community centers.
The notion that the LGBT+ population in the United States is wealthy and can afford to retire to beachfront condos or facilities with farm-to-table cuisine is a myth, experts said.
“We’ve noticed a growing number of gay seniors who are struggling financially, and are looking for affordable housing solutions,” said Bruce Williams, a coordinator at The Pride Center, which is behind the housing project in Wilton Manors.
The population of the United States is ageing. By 2035, the country will have more seniors aged 65 and over – 78 million – than minors under the age of 18, according to the Census Bureau.
It predicts the number of LGBT+ adults over the age of 50 will more than double to 7 million by 2030 from 3 million today.
Wilton Manors, with about 12,000 residents, is Florida’s most famous gaybourhood. It elected its first openly gay official in 1988 and the United States’ second gay-majority local government in 2000, including the mayor and vice mayor.
The Pride Center, which is 25 years old, already runs one of the country’s largest LGBT+ seniors health and social services programmes, offering everything from bingo to counselling for hundreds of elderly residents.
It was only natural that Florida’s first LGBT+ affordable housing project should be built in Wilton Manors, said Kristofer Fegenbush, The Pride Center’s chief operations officer.
The Residences – a four-storey apartment building – will have 48 units, 34 of which are designed for seniors living with disabilities, he said.
“What we have accomplished is truly unique: a building with 48 units that are all affordable, supported by services that are specifically tailored to LGBT seniors who will be able to live independently,” Fegenbush said, squinting in the midday sun.
The project is a joint venture with Carrfour Supportive Housing, a nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing solutions in Florida.
Barring gay-friendly bubbles like Wilton Manors and San Francisco, LGBT+ elders routinely face discrimination when looking for a home, according to SAGE, the country’s largest advocacy group for elderly gay people.
LGBT elders are twice as likely to be single and live alone, and four times less likely to have children, which increases financial strain, said Kelly Kent, director of SAGE’s National Housing Initiative.
“LGBT older adults have usually faced a lifetime of discrimination and inequalities,” said Kent, adding that this increases their risk of poverty and poor health.
“When they reach retirement age, they are usually less financially stable than their straight counterparts.”
About ten LGBT+ community centers are partnering with developers nationwide to build gay-friendly affordable housing projects, with a dozen others under consideration, he said, often part-funded by Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
SAGE has collaborated with a non-profit and a developer to build two affordable housing projects in the New York area totaling 230 units.
The group also trains mainstream retirement communities and service providers to be more sensitive to gay people.
The success of six-year-old Emerald Elite Senior Home Care – which offers services ranging from bathing to cooking and pet care to Wilton Manors residents – shows that the market is growing for businesses catering to older gay people.
“When I first opened the business here, people knocked on my door on the very first day to say, ‘We’ve been waiting for you – we need a gay-friendly caregiver’,” said Ernest Olivas, founder of the LGBT+ specialist company.