By Tanni Deb
Lamar Jackson always worried that people in his senior-living community were staring at him or gossiping about the fact that he was gay. The 64-year-old Chicagoan felt that weight lift last week when he moved into Town Hall Apartments, Chicago’s first LGBT-friendly affordable housing for low-income seniors.
“I have experienced living in senior housing that wasn’t LGBT [friendly] and they were very homophobic,” he said. “You couldn’t be free to express who you really are.”
Jackson is one of many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors who has faced hurdles finding housing that is both welcoming and affordable. Research conducted last year by the Equal Rights Center found that 48 percent of same-sex couples reported experiencing some type of adverse treatment compared with heterosexual pairs. That adverse treatment included being quoted higher rents, being shown fewer options for units and not being provided with information about available financial incentives.
There are approximately 3 million LGBT seniors aged 65 and older in the U.S. and the number is expected to double by 2030, according to the center. To help meet that need, the Center on Halsted, a LGBT community center, and Heartland Housing, an anti-poverty organization, received permission to build Town Hall Apartments eight years ago and opened the facility in September.
Despite its billing as LGBT-friendly, Town Hall Apartments at 3600 N. Halsted St. welcomes all seniors aged 55 and older regardless of their sexual orientation. The building received more than 400 applicants for 30 studios and 49 one-bedroom units, said Peter Johnson, a spokesman for the Center on Halsted. Rooms were available on a first come, first served basis for those who were eligible. In order to qualify, applicants had to pass standard credit and criminal background checks, have a household size of no more than two people and have their income verified.
The residential units were limited to people earning less than $30,000 annually and couples earning less than $35,000. The city of Chicago is contributing subsidies so that rent will not exceed 30 percent of a tenant’s income. The city also donated the property.
The project cost $23.7 million, which came from several private sources including the National Equity Fund, a nonprofit organization creating affordable housing options, and Citi Community Capital, an organization that works with low-income individuals and families. On the public side, the Chicago Housing Authority, the largest owner of rental housing in Chicago, and the Illinois Department of Human Services contributed.
There are an estimated 50,000 LGBT seniors living in the city, according to Modesto Tico Valle, chief executive officer of the Center on Halsted.
“These [LGBT seniors who] embraced their identity before marriage equality, before civil unions and before protection from discrimination under the law, are now experiencing new hurdles,” he told a large crowd at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 10. “This generation is falling through the cracks.”
Town Hall is a mixture of “modern architecture with historical preservation,” said Michael Goldberg, the executive director of Heartland Housing. Adjacent to the building is the former Town Hall Police Station that was built in 1907 and remained open until 2010.
Known as a symbol of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the building became a designated landmark in Chicago. The station was renovated and will serve as a social space for seniors. Both of the structures are “a testament to the changing time, the softening hearts, the popular opinions and our supportive partnership with the city of Chicago,” Valle said.
Goldberg believes and hopes that Town Hall has “everything that seniors need to end their period of isolation and improve their quality of life.”
Heartland Housing worked with seniors to anticipate the needs of potential residents. Seniors told the group that outdoor and common spaces were important to them because they wanted to meet community members and build new social relationships. They also wanted a fitness center to maintain their health. To accommodate residents, Town Hall includes a fitness center, a community and family dining room and a terrace. To allay safety concerns, the building has security cameras and key fob access controls at the building’s main entrance.
In the month that Jackson has called Town Hall his home, he couldn’t be happier. “I love [the apartment],” he says. “I absolutely love it.”