55 LAGUNA: San Francisco’s growing community

In March 2017 San Francisco officially celebrated the opening of 55 Laguna, the city’s first affordable, LGBT-welcoming housing for residents over 55. The idea for the project was born nearly 20 years ago, in 1998, as Rainbow Adult Community Housing.  

55 Laguna was developed through a strong partnership between Openhouse (formerly Rainbow Adult Community Housing) and Mercy Housing who acts as the developer and property manager.  Openhouse’s mission is to provide services to San Francisco Bay Area LGBT seniors as they age such as housing, direct services and community programs.  They have been successful in reducing isolation and providing LGBT seniors with tools to improve their overall health, well-being and economic security.  Mercy Housing California specializes in affordable low-income housing programs and has developed 128 rental properties across 36 California counties serving low- and very-low-income working poor families, seniors and individuals.

The scheme is made up of 40 units which include 10 studios, 26 one-bedroom and 4 two-bedroom accommodations. Allocation for these units was decided by a lottery in which there appear to have been over 1,800 entrants for the 40 units.   Although it has been open for less than a year, they have already embarked on a expanding to a “new and much larger building at 95 Laguna slated to break ground this fall, will provide a total of 119 affordable senior apartments and a community center with almost 8000 square feet of activity space. Together, this hub of LGBT-welcoming housing and services will be the largest LGBT affordable senior housing project in the [USA].” It is also home to the Bob Ross LGBT Senior Center at 65 Laguna.

Sixty-seven percent of the residents are LGBT identified, six percent are transgender and fifty-seven percent are people of color. “This place is a gift,” resident Robin Rheult, a transwoman, recently told the scheme’s co-founder Marcy Adelman. “To be able to wake up and feel safe and know you have a community that supports you … know I have a safe place to live that I can afford for the rest of my life … To walk out my apartment door and know I have likeminded people around me is a comfort.”

Lebensort Vielfalt: Berlin's Place of Living Diversity

Located on a quiet side street just a short underground ride away from Berlin city centre is Lebensort Vielfalt, which translates as ‘Diverse Living Space’. This multi-generational, LGBT-majority complex lives up to its name. While 60% of the apartments are reserved for gay men over 55, the remaining 40% is made up of women and younger gay men. 

The complex was opened in 2012 by the city’s former mayor, after six years of campaigning and planning. Once a primary school, the building now offers a range of living spaces over four floors, including a specialised apartment with 24-hour care. I was particularly interested in the specialised apartment (known as “Living Society”) as it enables the residents to remain in their home as they become too ill to live by themselves. The walls are pink “not because we are gay” we are told by our guide Dr. Marco Pulver, but because “pink is a calming colour for those with dementia.” 

However, as a multi-generational space and with an emphasis on community-living, Lebensort Vielfalt is more than just a care home. It has a library, a popular restaurant, and a communal garden with raised beds to enable older green-fingered folk to contribute without bending down. The community space also hosts a range of events from live music and discussion groups to theatrical productions and young mum meet-ups. Residents have had input at all stages from the design of the building to accepting new tenants. Through this ethos, a thriving community hub has been created.

The architectural design is also magnificent; it is light and spacious and every apartment has its individual balcony. A kind resident showed me his top floor maisonette which had fantastic views over the city. Despite these advantages, Dr. Marco Pulver explained how living in Lebensort Vielfalt was not simply a privilege bestowed to the wealthy. While rent prices in Berlin are staggeringly cheap in comparison to London, some of the apartments priced at market-value are used to cross-subsidise others to make them more affordable.

These are some of the many reasons residents come from far and wide to live in a place that is not on offer in many countries. However, the push factors behind such a relocation should not be forgotten. As Stonewall’s 2011 Later Life Care survey revealed, gay and bisexual men are more likely to require care services compared with their straight counterparts, a result of the fact they are more likely to be single, live alone, not have children, or experience estrangement from their family. Prejudice and discrimination in the social services is also a big issue. Indeed, Londoner Peter Sibley, who now lives in Lebensort Vielfalt often had carers assume his partner was his grandson, “I said: ‘he’s not my grandson he’s my fucking boyfriend’. That’s what you have to go through. So, it is a great privilege to live in such a multi-generational gay facility.” 

It was fascinating to experience and learn from both Lebensort Vielfalt’s design and initiatives, which appear to have created a tight-knit multi-generational community, giving us inspirational ideas to consider for Tonic’s future homes.

With thanks to Attitude magazine for allowing us to reproduce some quotes and images for this article

Openhouse founder Dr. Marcy Adelman, Mayor Ed Lee, Thomas E. Horn, Former Senator Mark Leno, Senator Scott Wiener and Marcy Housing California President Doug Shoemaker at the opening of 55 Laguna. (Photo:Senator Scott Wiener’s website)

Openhouse founder Dr. Marcy Adelman, Mayor Ed Lee, Thomas E. Horn, Former Senator Mark Leno, Senator Scott Wiener and Marcy Housing California President Doug Shoemaker at the opening of 55 Laguna. (Photo:Senator Scott Wiener’s website)