Housing project for aging LGBT community finally a go

Mark Segal , publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, stands at the project site on South 13th Street. RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff Photographer
Mark Segal , publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, stands at the project site on South 13th Street. RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 16, 2012

Mark Segal had been biting his nails, waiting for the call. Thursday morning, he was drinking a mug of sweet vanilla coffee in his den above the offices of the Philadelphia Gay News when the phone finally rang.

His dream project, an affordable housing complex welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors, had won a competitive bid for an $11 million state tax credit.

"I've been trying not to cry," Segal said Sunday, barely succeeding in holding back the kvell.

For more than three years, the 61-year-old founder and publisher of PGN has been planning, lobbying, negotiating, collaborating, and cajoling every social-service agency, activist group, and political leader he knows to make Philadelphia one of the first cities in the nation to meet the needs of the aging LGBT community.

On Monday afternoon, Segal will appear with Mayor Nutter and many of the others who have supported the project to share the good news about the tax credit, which makes it possible now to announce the project's official launch.

He's been invited to talk later in the week, he said, about it in Washington at a White House conference on housing. Segal shares credit for the project with dozens of agencies that have supported the proposal openly and behind the scenes, calling it a true team effort.

"In their golden years, LGBT seniors need a safe and loving place to grow old," Segal said. "This is going to change the lives of so many people."

He has a list of stories to explain why.

The gay man, for example, who called Segal from a senior housing community in the Philadelphia suburbs and described how fellow residents regularly formed a prayer circle around him, trying to enlist God's help in removing the "gay" from his soul.

Or partners who have lived together for decades telling him how they had been prevented from staying with each other in nursing homes. Others who live isolated in boarding rooms because they have no spouses or children. And couples who, because they were never allowed to wed, do not receive the financial and social benefits that help long-married heterosexual seniors, widows, and widowers enjoy a more secure retirement.

"And then there are people who have lived closeted their whole lives," Segal said. "For them to be able to move into the gayborhood where they can be surrounded by their community for the first time, do you know what kind of freedom that will give them? The impact that will have?"

The new complex, a six-story building with 56 one-bedroom units, will be built on South 13th Street between Locust and Spruce. If all goes according to plan, it will be ready for occupancy in late 2013. Residents must be at least 62 - but not necessarily lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender - to live there.

A previous proposal would have placed the residences above the William Way Center, a hub for LGBT services nearby. Community members objected, fearing the logistics of adding on to the aging building and complicated bureaucratic fallout would cause problems for William Way. So, with help from city officials and advice from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the new site was chosen.

"It would be nice when one is approaching one's dotage to have the comfort factor" of living in a nonjudgmental community, said Donald Carter, who cofounded Philadelphia's chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans.

Carter, 62, a longtime mentor for Action AIDS, said he had watched men who had been openly gay for most of their lives have to return to the closet, hiding their sexuality, when they move into assisted-living facilities where they believe they will face prejudice.

"It does make for a very difficult adjustment," said Carter, who is living on a fixed income and who rents a third-floor walk-up in University City. "I'm at the point where, with my neuropathy and arthritis, I won't be able to do the three flights of stairs after a while."

The New York nonprofit Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) has estimated there are 1.5 million LGBT elders in the United States. Because they grew up in an era when homosexuality was classified as both a mental illness and a crime, this population approaches old age with more financial and mental-health problems than the general population and less support from families and community.

And because most states have no laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, LGBT seniors may have no legal recourse when landlords evict them.

Jacob Fisher, senior developer for Pennrose Properties L.L.C., the company that will build the Philadelphia project, said the structure will include 2,500 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.

It will have a community center, garden, and areas where social-service agencies will provide medical care and other assistance.

The $19 million project will be funded with $8 million in public funding and the $11 million tax credit announced last week. That sum, Fisher said, which originated with the federal low-income tax-credit program, will be sold to private investors and then applied to building.

"When I first started on this, I called it the Pie in the Sky project," Segal said. "Now I'm saying it's LGBT seniors getting a piece of the American pie."


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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