Strolling through the residential sections of Hollywood, Calif., one apartment building can be as plain and common as the next.  As is typical with Los Angeles generally, one must dig deep to locate the architectural gems that dot a city that is otherwise blanketed with strip malls and novelty architecture.

Peel back the layers of paint and pollen, however, and you are likely to find organizations and residents as colorful and varied as the foliage growing in the meticulously manicured gardens. One such organization is Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing (GLEH) located in the heart of Hollywood. Recently, I paid a visit to the GLEH property known as Triangle Square. This is no ordinary multifamily property as suggested by the organization’s name. Developed in partnership with McCormack Baron Salazar, this particular multifamily rental property serves the low-income, elderly GLBT community.

While the GLBT community at large continues to make tremendous progress in civil rights, the GLBT elderly population in this country faces unique challenges and has specialized needs that cannot always be addressed adequately in traditional housing environments. These challenges and needs create special opportunities for mission-oriented developers—and there are already developers out there who are going for it.

The Need for Specialized Housing. Specialized housing of this nature is not about segregating a particular population. Much has already been studied and written on the fundamentals demonstrating the need for GLBT-friendly housing that not only provides a safe living environment, but also fosters healthy and happy aging-in-place with a network of personal and social support and services that address important needs.

Caring and Aging with Pride was the first national federally-funded study on health and aging in the GLBT community. The study cited a variety of socially-embedded factors affecting elderly GLBT people including “disability, physical and mental distress, victimization, discrimination and lack of access to supportive aging and health services.” Other important observations from the study include:

  • Approximately half have a disability and about one-third report depression.
  • Most GLBT elderly adults participate in wellness activities.
  • Nearly two-thirds have been victimized three or more times.
  • About 13 percent have been denied healthcare or received inferior care.
  • More than 20 percent do not disclose their sexual or gender identity to their doctor.
  • About one-third do not have a will or durable power of attorney for healthcare.

The study found that about 9 percent of all elderly GLBT people live with HIV, more than 20 percent of bisexual elderly men and about one in seven elderly gay men have HIV. Against that backdrop, by 2015 more than half of the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV are projected to be age 50 or older. Clearly, this segment of the aging population has special needs. But what about housing and, in particular, low-income housing?

The Need for Low-Income Housing. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration on Aging cites reports claiming that somewhere between 1.75 and 4 million Americans aged 60 and over are GLBT. However, as noted by Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE), these figures are probably inaccurate due to under-reporting. HHS and a UCLA study by the Williams Institute conclude that poverty among GLBT people is likely higher than the general population, with approximately 24 percent of lesbians and 15 percent of gay and bisexual men living in poverty. Against this backdrop, there exists a pressing need for safe, decent affordable housing for the GLBT community.

Why are elderly GLBT people frequently faced with housing challenges? A variety of factors over the past fifty years have contributed to this reality. For example, one factor worth highlighting is lack of access to marriage. Until June of 2013 when the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), in most jurisdictions around the country same-sex couples were denied fundamental legal protections and rights with respect to inheritance and survivor benefits. The cumulative effects of such disparate treatment profoundly impacted a GLBT person’s ability to accumulate wealth. Heterosexual individuals and couples never faced such impediments.

For example, imagine the lost Social Security benefits that heterosexual couples could inherit that were unavailable to same-sex couples. Similarly, gifts to spouses without major tax events were unavailable, along with estate inheritance to a surviving spouse. In short, the punitive tax treatment of GLBT property and estates passing to a surviving partner frequently crippled economically the surviving partners in ways unimaginable to their heterosexual counterparts.

Unfortunately, unfair tax treatment has been only one of several factors creating a disadvantaged economic class of the GLBT community. In 2009, Michigan’s Fair Housing Centers performed a study concluding that about 30 percent of same-sex couples experienced disparate treatment when attempting to lease or purchase a home.

How is this possible in today’s evolving society? Housing discrimination is not prohibited in all jurisdictions. Only about 20 states and the District of Columbia protect against sexual orientation discrimination with respect to housing. Even the Fair Housing Act provides no protection from discrimination. Thankfully, however, HUD recently adopted rules stating that FHA-insured or HUD-assisted housing must be “made available without regard to actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.” HUD adopted this rule after acknowledging that the Fair Housing Act does not cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These rules only apply to FHA-insured and HUD-assisted housing. Therefore, if a property is simply a property financed with low-income housing tax credits, the HUD rules would not necessarily prevent a landlord or seller from engaging in discriminatory practices.

At the end of the day, the cumulative effect of decades of social and economic discrimination is undeniable. Affordable housing for elderly GLBT people must be a major component in addressing this sad legacy of discrimination.

Today’s Creative Solutions. GLEH’s Triangle Square Apartments is a fabulous example of what is possible. GLEH’s mission is “to be the leader in affordable housing developments for low-income seniors with a focus on providing services to special needs populations.”  Triangle Square accomplishes this mission by providing over 100 residential units for low-income seniors. A full 34 percent of the units are designated for seniors living with HIV/AIDS, homeless or those at risk of homelessness.

Supportive services are a critical component at Triangle Square. Programs include individual counseling, support groups, HIV/AIDS-related services, food and nutrition, financial planning, caregiver support, public benefits eligibility, recreational activities, and arts and culture.

More housing of this kind has opened or will open over the next couple years in cities around the country including Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Additional low-income housing properties similar to Triangle Square will follow. Both the opportunities and needs are tremendous.

Randall Kelly is a partner with Nixon Peabody LLP. Resident in the Washington, D.C. office, Mr. Kelly concentrates his practice in affordable housing.