LGBTQ Seniors Seek Community in Capitol Hill

Community members shared their vision of the city’s first LGBTQ-affirming senior housing project at Tuesday’s workshop.

When Ty Nolan moved back to Seattle from Tempe, Arizona a few months ago, he found a friend in need. It was a surprise. This friend was in his late 80s and had moved to nearby Port Townsend a few years ago when he was priced out of the Ballard neighborhood he’d lived in for nearly four decades. Moreover, like many LGBTQ seniors, Nolan’s friend is low-income with medical needs such as dental work that he couldn’t afford. His friend wants to move back to Seattle in the near future, but keeps finding a three-year waiting period for most low-income housing programs.

“And when you’re 87,” Nolan began, chortling, “a three year waiting period may not be very practical.” In general, Nolan, a New York Times bestselling author of romantic novels, was astonished to find such a great need for housing among the older LGBTQ population. A Taos Pueblo Native American, Nolan wears his long, dark ponytails wrapped in black leather and holds a cane decorated with goose feathers dyed to resemble an eagle’s. Nolan says that because he has trouble with his vision he often drops his cane and “wouldn’t want to disgrace” the eagle feathers that are sacred to indigenous people.

Although Nolan can currently afford his own rent, the dearth of housing for his peers provoked him to advocate for other LGBTQ elders who aren’t as fortunate. He has devoted the past few months to addressing affordable housing and homelessness issues as a neighborhood action coalition member. He was trained to be an affordable housing advocate at an LGBTQ Housing Leadership Equity Institute program this summer and was recently invited by affordable housing developer Capitol Hill Housing to join the advisory board of the city’s first LGBTQ-affirming affordable senior housing project.

“Sometimes you don’t choose your destiny, your destiny chooses you,” Nolan said about his newfound commitment to affordable housing.

On Tuesday evening, Nolan spoke on behalf of the older LGBTQ community at a visioning workshop for the project held at the Summit on Pike Avenue. About 60 people in attendance shared their hopes for the new seven-story building, which will contain up to 66 apartments. The units will be designed for seniors who make less than 30 to 50 percent of the area median income, or between $20,000 and $33,000. According to a 2015 report funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging, LGTBQ seniors in the Seattle area are at a disproportionately high risk of isolation, poor health and disability compared to their heterosexual counterparts. Moreover, a need for support and housing is expected to increase as the senior LGBTQ population doubles within the next two decades, the study added. Capitol Hill Housing is seeking to address some of the community’s needs through visioning workshops like the one held Tuesday.

“Recently as rents have been going up, we’ve also been hearing more and more from the community about the challenges LGBTQ elders with long histories in our community face to age in place,” Capitol Hill Housing communications manager Ashwin Warrior said in an email to Seattle Weekly.

Capitol Hill Housing plans to develop the building on land currently used as a parking lot adjacent to the Helen V Apartments on 14th and Union in Capitol Hill. The project’s timeline is unknown since it didn’t receive money from the Office of Housing’s latest funding round, but Warrior clarified that “it’s not a question of if the project will happen, but when.”

In the meantime, Capitol Hill Housing has drawn upon the advice from an informal advisory committee that includes Nolan and Seattle-based nonprofit Generations Aging with Pride. Ruben Rivera-Jackman, Generations Aging with Pride co-chair, said that the project is a long-time coming since it will be the state’s first LGBTQ-affirming senior housing project. “With Seattle being the second largest LGBT population in the country, we’re kind of behind the eight ball here,” he said, noting similar housing projects in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Generations Aging with Pride plans to offer socialization opportunities for tenants such as rainbow-themed bingo and zumba classes to counteract isolation when the building opens. According to a 2017 LGBTQ Allyship housing report, nearly 40 percent of LGBTQ survey respondents reported that they felt more socially isolated because Capitol Hill, a historically LGBTQ neighborhood, is less of a hub than it once was. Rising rent has also pushed some participants out of the city, preventing them from joining community events.

“We also want to create safes spaces, because for a lot of older LGBTQ adults, they don’t feel like there’s a place in the community for them currently as in terms of bars, because bars tend to cater to the younger, more physically attractive population,” Rivera-Jackman said. Thumper’s was the only bar that catered to the older LGBTQ population, but even that closed down in 2006.

Rivera-Jackman’s concerns were echoed during Tuesday night’s discussion.

The prompt,“What are your best ideas for this LGBTQ Senior Housing & Community Space?” was projected onto a screen at the head of the room. After convening in silence to scribble down their answers, participants shared their ideas surrounding ways to mitigate isolation, increase safety, health and wellbeing for potential tenants. When the group’s microphone temporarily ran out of batteries, people continued to shout out suggestions. Among them, that the project help preserve the area’s LGBTQ history with an archival library.

One person requested that the commercial space on the building’s ground floor not go to chain stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Others recommended that the development include shared spaces such as a community garden and kitchen. One 75-year-old man with a long white beard and green hat said that he wanted a guarantee that the floors would be slip-proof, since he had fallen a couple of times in his own apartment.

Some participants also made suggestions that drew upon their own life experiences and careers. A mechanical engineer piped up, saying that he wanted to see individually-controlled gas heating and air conditioning in each unit to reduce expenses. A physician said he hoped that the development would provide transportation to clinics.

In a nod to his native upbringing, Nolan recommended that the new development include intergenerational spaces like a Head Start or daycare center where seniors could interact with youth. In his Native American community, it was common for grandparents to care for youth as parents worked. While he was growing up, Nolan said, he appreciated the older generations’ teachings of traditions and ceremonies. “I see a lot of that being lost now,” Nolan told Seattle Weekly during the workshop’s break, his coyote fur hat resting beside him on the table.

The next visioning workshop will be held early next year with the aim of continuing to suss out community input before committing to plans. For Nolan, it’s essential that the plans include social gathering spaces, since the building might become his new home in the future.

“I have no idea what my situation may be like by the time this opens up. Perhaps I’ll be in another financial situation, [or] health situation where I would appreciate it even more,” he said.