by Grace Birnstengel. This article originally appeared on Next Avenue.
Imani Woody’s father left her his home in Washington, D.C. — the one she grew up in — when he died in 2010. Faced with the decision of what to do with the house, Woody, a lifelong activist for women, people of color and the LGBGQ community, chose to renovate the house and turn it into the first of hopefully many locations of Mary’s House (named for her late mother). It’s an affordable independent living community for older adults targeting the cultural and relational needs of LGBTQ older adults.
Mary’s House renovations began in 2012, ground will break in January 2020 and residents will move in by November 2020.
Next Avenue: Why did you decide to turn your childhood home into an independent living community for LGBTQ older adults of color?
Imani Woody: I’d been working in aging and LGBTQ aging for more than twenty years, and I know the sense of isolation that comes with being older and the housing discrimination if people perceive you’re gay.
Older people are going back into the closet because it’s too hard to be old and gay at the same time. Sometimes if you have more than one oppression, you have to kick out the one that you can’t deal with.
I did qualitative research, and people were saying ‘I don’t even do that anymore,’ regarding their sexuality. One woman lived with her daughter and said she just wanted to take her granddaughter to school and didn’t want her to be embarrassed by her. She had to ignore part of herself so she could live with her daughter.
There was a woman whose brother-in-law put her out because she was a lesbian. These stories abound.
I was working with the mayor’s office on LGBTQ affairs trying to identify homeless LGBTQ people for services and what we found is yes, they’re homeless, but they’re not sleeping under the bridge — they’re couch surfing. The need is so, so great.
So, I thought, ‘What to do with this house?’ Let’s make an LGBTQ-friendly house in [Washington] D.C. More than a house, it’s communal living. There are nine to ten of these in the U.S. that cater to LGBTQ people, but they’re big apartment buildings. I wanted to create family in a communal residence.
How did you get started in this field?
I always worked for the underdog — for women, for people of color, for children. I worked for the Mautner Project for lesbians with cancer in the ‘90s. I ended up working with AARP in the 2000s, bringing my sensitivity about LGBT people along with me.
What are the cultural and relational needs of LGBTQ older adults that you will address at Mary’s House?
One of the things we are doing that other organizations are doing is creating culturally sensitive curriculum. Sensitive to age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race and class. We’re going to do cultural-competency training for people pre-renting the space. It’s an LGBTQ welcoming and affirming space. If you don’t think you can do that, it might not be the place for you.
We also have that kind of training for any kind of vendors — like a resident manager, grass cutters — anyone who deals with our people will go through this training.
How will you select residents?
We’ll have a lot of applications, and we’ll do it by lottery after people fit the criteria. You have to be over sixty-two. It’s affordable housing, so there is an income range you must meet. You have to pass our curriculum. Then you’ll be put into a lottery. We have fifteen units, so we have interest letters right now of people who say in 2020 they’ll be ready to move in.
How did you decide on fifteen individual suites?
When I first started this, I thought I could do it in two years. What an idiot I was. The house has four bedrooms, and we thought we could turn it into an eight-room house with minor renovations. We found out that we could not rent and have doors locked in that zone. We were fortunate enough to find a law firm that gave us a pro bono zoning lawyer, and we came out on top of the zoning hearing.
We were told we could build as many rooms as we wanted, but we didn’t want to go too far beyond the communal level. So that’s where fifteen rooms came from. We could have built an apartment building with twenty-plus, but we decided to do it this way to have a garden on the roof. We’re having a place to garden on the side and a front porch. It’s like an expansion of the house I grew up in.
Can you say more about services provided at Mary’s House?
We’re working with other organizations and individuals to provide day activities. We’re hoping to get a bus to take constituents to and from their homes or space to city hall. We want to be able to take residents on day trips to the market, the theater, those kinds of things.
This is independent living, so I’m sure many of our people will have their own lives. We hope to enhance their lives and decrease social isolation.
There will be a hydrotherapy tub in our space, a community room, a library and computers. One big thing about [Mary’s House] is that when you come, you bring your whole self.
My stepmom was in this place that was OK. She could bring herself, but the people were younger than her, so there was a culture of condescending baby talk. We are teaching against that culture of ageism. You can feel your age; in some places, people feel like they have to hide their age.
Bring your old self. Bring your fat self. Bring your trans self. Bring your lesbian and gay self. You can bring your gray hair and your arthritis. You can bring your whole self, as long as you’re independent. It doesn’t mean without disability. It just means you have some sort of adaptive technology or an aide or something.
The vision of the board is that this is our first one: independent living. The next one will be assisted living, and the next one will be hospice. That’s what we’re hoping to do, so there’s a continuum of Mary’s House across the abilities spectrum.
Horizontally, we are hoping to do houses in every state. We’d like another in D.C. since this is our home base. If someone donated a home to us, we could transform that into a Mary’s House. That would be simpler and better, but we wanted to come out with a bang with this one. We are looking into Baltimore, New Jersey and the state of Florida.
What has the community response been in D.C.?
Absolutely wonderful from community grassroots organizations to our mayor and councilwoman. People know that this is a project that needs to happen and needs to happen all over.
Building a house is like having kids. It’s not smooth. It will all be worth it. My Ph.D is in human services, not construction of housing for older people. I thank goodness for the grant we have from the city.
Grace Birnstengel is a writer and editor for Next Avenue, currently leading an editorial initiative on age-friendly health care — what it means and how people can identify and access care that meets their unique needs. Her other areas of focus include LGBTQ issues, mental health, the arts and ageism. Grace holds a bachelor of arts in journalism and gender, women and sexuality studies from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. You can find her Next Avenue work here.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.