The booming business of LGBT retirement communities

By Mickey Rapkin


When David Webb, a real estate investor from the San Francisco Bay Area, and his longtime partner, Lynn McLaughlin, were looking to retire, they thought they’d give Naples, Fla., a try. “We were the token gay couple,” says Webb, 62. Invitations to dinner parties were frequent. But when a local country club refused them admission — not an isolated incident in the conservative enclave — it felt like discrimination. Webb finally said to his partner, “Enough already. Let’s live with our own.” The couple put a deposit down on a 2,000-square-foot home at Fountaingrove Lodge, an LGBT-friendly retirement community set to open this fall in Sonoma County, Calif.

The first of the 77 million baby boomers reached retirement age last year, in what’s being called the gray tsunami. According to Serena Worthington of the nonprofit Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), there are currently between 1.75 million and 4 million gays and lesbians over age 65. By 2030 their number is expected to nearly double.

Just as there are niche “affinity” communities popping up to serve tai chi enthusiasts, Catholics, and even Harvard grads, an increasing number of options now exist for LGBT seniors. Birds of a Feather Resort Community in Pecos, N.M., founded in 2004, announced plans to double in size, from 8 to 16 units, this year. In Los Angeles, management at Triangle Square, a 96-unit low-income facility with a nearly decade-long waiting list, recently broke ground on a second site, a $17.5 million project with 40 units, set to open in 2014. Similar gay-friendly retirement projects are under way in cities across the country — Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Minneapolis — joining Rose Villa and Rainbow Vista, both in Portland, Ore.; Carefree Cove, near Boone, N.C.; and The Resort on Carefree Boulevard in Fort Myers, Fla.

Although the gay rights movement has made serious strides in recent years, a 2011 study by the National Senior Citizens Law Center showed frequent mistreatment toward aging gays and lesbians at long-term care centers. “The biggest fear is being forced back into the closet,” says Eric Harrison, executive director of Triangle Square. After a lifetime of fighting for civil rights, the Stonewall Generation would like their golden years to be pink, too. Triangle Square offers yoga and acupuncture, plus amenities that come with its Hollywood location. “We’re across the street from the Pantages Theater. When Wicked was playing, the cast came over before the show and put on a show for us,” says Triangle resident Donald Dale Foley, 82, a retired carpenter.

Fountaingrove Lodge is the most high-end LGBT retirement project to date. After scoring with an over-60 community for Asian-Americans in Northern California, Bill and Cindy Gallaher, founders of Oakmont Senior Living, a retirement community development company, decided to target wealthy gays. Fountaingrove’s 10-acre grounds in Santa Rosa, Calif., feature a swimming pool, wine cages, and an upscale restaurant. The complex will be a licensed continuing care retirement community (CCRC), meaning everything from knee-replacement rehab to bathing assistance will be available from the comfort of one’s own home.

These services don’t come cheap: At a CCRC, residents pay an entrance fee ranging from $100,000 to $1 million, partially refundable to the resident’s estate upon death. One-bedroom apartments with luxury finishes at Fountaingrove begin at $189,500; the most expensive property is a free-standing, two-bedroom home for $925,000. Monthly dues ranging from $3,395 to upward of $6,000 also cover utilities, some dining credits, and transportation within a 10-mile radius. “I thought we’d struggle with selling the more expensive homes, but it’s been the opposite.

We have more higher-end homes reserved,” says Gena Jacobs, the senior marketing director at Fountaingrove. When asked what he’s looking forward to most about moving to Fountaingrove, besides being in the majority, Webb says, “I’m a good cook, but the fact that I’m not going to have to cook sounds wonderful to me.” Oakmont is exploring plans for a second LGBT community in Palm Springs.

Fountaingrove expects to be nearly half-sold by opening day, but other projects have been affected by the global economic crisis. New Mexico’s RainbowVision, founded in 2006, filed for Chapter 11 two years ago. Plans for LGBT retirement communities in Delaware and Boston were also put on hold. For some, the credit crunch provided a chance for innovation. Bonnie McGowan, the founder of Birds of a Feather, near Santa Fe, recently put an additional 18 lots up for sale, starting at $45,000 for a quarter-acre plot with mountain views and access to 100 wooded acres with trails. She tweaked the designs to reflect a post-bubble world, offering for the first time a smaller, 900-square-foot cottage which can be built for $299,000. “What makes a community are the people. And the people here can relate to each other, they can tell stories. And they can have an outrageous Halloween,” she says.

About 49 percent of Americans older than 65 are considered poor or low-income, according to 2011 U.S. Census data, and it’s no different in the LGBT population. “The image of the gay community was rich, white gay men with double incomes, but the No. 1 issue we found was affordable housing,” says Mark Segal, the developer behind a sleek, $19.5 million LGBT senior housing project set to open in 2014 in the heart of downtown Philadelphia’s so-called gayborhood. A recent MetLife Market Study echoes that sentiment, showing that one in five LGBT boomers are unsure of who would care for them if they got sick. This issue hasn’t gone unnoticed in Washington, with the White House holding two conferences on LGBT aging in the last year. Openhouse, a San Francisco-based non-profit advocacy group, is developing 55 Laguna — a $60 million, 110-unit project due to open in 2015 in the Hayes Valley neighborhood, adjacent to the Castro.

Segal’s building in Philadelphia will have the works. “When the architect laid out the blueprints he was concerned about four proposed apartments where the closets were bigger than the bedrooms,” he says. “I told him those will be our four drag queen suites!” He expects to offer free condoms on top of all of the other social services. “Giving safe-sex lessons to an 80-year-old? Who would have thought?”

On a recent tour of Triangle Square in Hollywood, the word “community” was mentioned more than once. One of the residents, Alice Herman, 77, a retired social worker, lost her partner of 45 years in 2009 and never expected to need low-income housing; if she’d been eligible to claim her late partner’s Social Security benefits, she might have kept their home. Like most facilities for an aging population, Triangle Square offers Saturday night bingo, except here the numbers are called by a Korean War vet in drag. Or at least they used to be, before a knee-replacement surgery made getting dolled up too difficult. Rosie del Mar (birth name: Wayne Blohm) is the self-described bingo queen here. She’s also a “transie,” she says. The first time she dressed as a woman was during a military talent show overseas. Her wig was a mop, her dress a bed sheet. She sang Sad Movies (Make Me Cry) and easily won first prize.

Life hasn’t always felt as victorious. “At the building where I was living before Triangle Square, every time I walked down the hall to the elevator I got looked at and slurred at, and I just didn’t like it,” Del Mar says. Whether intentional or not, she then paraphrases La Cages aux Folles: “Here, I am who I am.”


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