There are mornings when the hour-long commute to work feels Odyssean. Today is one of those mornings. February has unfurled a litany of winter storms that have left New York City awash in slush and my Facebook feed soaked in bemoaning. As I trudge through Brooklyn and board the D train to Manhattan, I’m stirred by the resilience of people to survive winter—huddled overnight in subway trains and housing shelters, or living miles from work to afford one’s rent, a mortgage and the accumulating costs of surviving. For generations, economic injustice has been designed into the housing realities of moderate- to low-income Americans as structurally as their home floor plans; it has concentrated wealth into the privileged few and left the rest with housing instability, enduring inequality and, at its worst, homelessness. New research confirms these realities. In this context, I am privileged to afford an apartment that offers shelter through the bitter storms let loose increasingly through climate change. And I am comforted by knowing that the closest people to me constitute a home that makes the broader storms of life more bearable.
These two notions—the physical shelter afforded through adequate and affordable housing, and the sanctity of a “home” comprising loved ones we can proudly claim as our own—form the heart of the housing debate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. As with most people, we migrate from one place to the next, uprooting ourselves in search of belonging. Yet as two recent reports demonstrate, for many LGBT people—specifically LGBT people of color and elders—this quest for home routinely comes up against a housing supply that’s dilapidated, stretched thin, too expensive and far removed from the cities and neighborhoods we deserve to inhabit. We are blocked by biased housing providers unwilling to treat us on fair, negotiable terms. We crave homes through severe economic distress and pervasive inequality. It’s an unrelenting journey, begun at birth and made more fragile in later life.
The relationship between aging and housing discrimination forms the subject of a new report from the Equal Rights Center, in partnership with SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders). Based on an investigation conducted in 10 states, the report finds that 48 percent of older adult testers in same-sex relationships experienced at least one form of differential treatment when seeking housing. Same-sex couples were provided fewer rental options, higher fees, more extensive application requirements and less information regarding financial incentives than opposite-sex couples—barriers likely faced, though insufficiently studied, among the larger, more diverse spectrum of LGBT people. For example, a 2011 national study of nearly 6,500 transgender and gender-nonconforming people found that 19 percent of respondents were denied housing and 11 percent were evicted because they were transgender or gender-nonconforming. For the same reasons, 29 percent were turned away from homeless shelters, and 25 percent and 22 percent were physically and sexually assaulted, respectively, while in a homeless shelter. Queer people too often wager with risk, danger and personal compromise to survive the night—and if achieved, the years that follow.
This hardship of finding both home and housing reverberates as a theme across LGBT-rights struggles. The federal government does not explicitly protect against discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity, though recent rules, some legal interpretations and a growing number of states and cities are moving toward more protections. Homelessness among queer youth and transgender people remains disproportionately high. Harsh immigration law keeps many queer immigrants from their loved ones abroad. Housing for low-income people with HIV receives scant attention and government support, with some exceptions. And for queer people raised in towns, states and regions that are politically hostile, or which lose their relevance as we mature and evolve, leaving home can leave psychological scars that we’re left to construe in private.
A fellow conference panelist a few years back posited that the experience of exile and the right to return home are tenets that unite us as marginalized people in an era of global migration, increasingly militarized and contested borders, and full-out political and economic exploitation. The effects of this exile bleed into our psyches. I see a humble sadness in almost anyone who has left a hometown for more options. Journeying will pair choice with sacrifice, offset the joy of unfamiliar territories with the profound ache incurred through loss. We breathe this dislocation in every new location, no matter the loves or friendships we construct. In his poem “The Sadness of Migration,” Roger Bonair-Agard writes that “you learn to love in another language / or with your arms tucked in / and all of a sudden you belong to no-one /and no-where belongs to you.”
As an advocate in the LGBT-rights and aging fields, I frequently encounter this motif of dislocation and discrimination. LGBT elders too often contend with hostile residents and staff in aging and long-term care settings, health care and the housing system. Many queer elders report hiding their sexualities and gender identities from health and aging professionals (if hiding is an option), fearing backlash when their identities are discovered. (On this front, new rules from CMS in home and community-based care did nothing to explicitly protect LGBT older people from these types of scenarios.) And when their housing situations implode, many low-income LGBT elders have little recourse and multiple challenges: smaller support systems, marginal legal protections that vary across states, reduced lifelong savings due to a lifetime of discrimination, employment instability, financial exploitation from loved ones and predatory financial professionals, and the exorbitant costs associated with elder care. (Annual costs for a nursing home or other long-term care facility averages more than $68,000, while in-home services average $18,000 per year.) A housing provider who unfairly denies housing to LGBT elders will have the effect of pummeling them one last time. The housing maze can feel virtually inescapable.
The bias of housing providers should be contextualized within the broader housing implosion, foreclosure crisis and expanding wealth gap—all critical to addressing the housing dilemma for LGBT people of color. A February 2013 policy brief from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy found that home ownership serves as the most significant driver of the wealth gap between white and African-American families, accounting for 27 percent of the difference. According to the report, whites are more able to pass down inheritances and support with larger down payments (which lowers interest rates and lending costs), and they are less likely to have dealt with the historic challenges facing many black people in this country, including diminished access to credit, lower lifelong incomes and inequitable resources tied to residential segregation. Additionally, people of color are more vulnerable to losing their homes and their wealth. Of the 10.9 million homes that went into foreclosure since 2007, borrowers of color were twice as likely as whites to lose their homes to foreclosure. The report also explains that as the housing market collapsed between 2007 and 2009, African Americans lost half of their collective wealth, and Latino people lost two thirds. Thus, LGBT elders of color are adversely impacted by the prejudice of housing providers in a political and economic system that has stripped them repeatedly of their wealth since birth.
The housing challenges facing LGBT older people are growing. Statistics show that 10,000 people will turn 65 every day between now and 2050, which will boost the over-65 population to 89 million, according to U.S. Census estimates. The economic recovery has been slow and quick-tempered. Home-ownership rates have dropped from 70 to 65 percent since the early 2000s, and according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, roughly 12 million households pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. And while a general though not evenly shared increase in social acceptance of LGBT issues has made it easier for some elements of that population to age—deservedly heightening the visibility of LGBT elders in long-term care settings, as one example—too many LGBT elders continually face discrimination in all aspects of their lives. Anti-LGBT hate crimes, violence, stigma, discrimination, bullying and elder abuse remain rampant in private and public life.
Are there solutions? Economists and policy analysts propose an array of fixes to stabilize the housing market, reduce inequality and make it easier for low-income people to obtain housing. In cities around the country, developers steadily build affordable housing complexes that cater primarily to LGBT elders—from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to Minneapolis, and more. Further, local and state advocates are increasingly training housing providers on the needs and rights of LGBT people, while others are devising innovations to improve housing options for more isolated, low-income people. Yet despite their tremendous value and the profound impact on the LGBT people they serve, these approaches also contain limitations that expose the magnitude of the housing problem. In a turbulent economy, any policy experiment will have unintended consequences largely shouldered by poor and low-income people. Constructing affordable LGBT senior housing currently covers only a few hundred units—a fraction of the millions entering retirement in the years ahead. (It might also be that many LGBT people will base their retirement aspirations on other affinities, ideals or circumstances, not simply being surrounded by other LGBT people.) Finally, structural racism theorists have described how discrimination most often occurs in ways that are undetectable, seemingly “neutral” and nearly impossible to spot, prove and rectify. Many of us never find reprieve from the aggressions we deal with on a daily basis, even from those who have been formally trained on our realities and legal rights.
Questions abound—and the biggest is: What more? Should the Older Americans Act—as the largest vehicle in the country for funding and delivering elder services—incentivize federal agencies and the public-private sector to develop senior housing communities that offer safe, affordable and skilled supports and services to all older people, including LGBT people—as well as integrated senior communities that promote independence and allow older people to properly age in place? Is the solution then to bring the various approaches outlined above to a larger scale, while testing new ones? Does the LGBT housing field have sufficient resources, people power and ingenuity to tackle this complex system? And is the notion of a secure “home” ultimately ephemeral? Can one ever fully belong and feel emotionally and financially stable?
I weigh this final question on a train home midweek. The snow has shifted to rain, and a palpable sense of relief has enkindled my fellow commuters—their scarves are gone, and the occasional grin offsets the metronomic rumble beneath the subway train. I want to share their comfort and connect. I want to break through the persistent anxiety of knowing that what we cherish today will depart tomorrow. Storms are always in formation. I recognize that neither my home nor my housing can be read as permanent. I’ve learned too much about aging and the concomitant costs. I am too fascinated by death and poverty, and how they fester and strike. Friendship circles often disintegrate and reconstitute, relationships can collapse and a life transition will destabilize even the most seemingly stable foundation—something else looms around the corner. Perhaps then our longing for home is a longing for stability in its broadest sense. Storms remind us of how we’re all weathered into submission by the elements. How else can we test what should endure and what should be built to help us all withstand the ensuing tempest?
I cannot predict how or when poverty, illness and disability will affect me. I don’t assume my home will hold still. But I will persist in fighting for high-quality, affordable housing, no matter where I live or how I define my home. And I will hold steady through this populated ride, meandering from stop to stop, until I reach it.
Robert Espinoza is Senior Director for Public Policy and Communications at Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.