“I Can Go In As I Am”

“I Can Go In As I Am”

Latisha Millard-Bethe, the Director of Resident Services at the advocacy group known as SAGE, listened in as more than more than two hundred older LGBTQ New Yorkers nervously waited for their tenant application interviews in early September. If their interviews went well, they knew, they might be able to grow old in a place where they felt accepted, some for the first time.

They were, she said, “apprehensive” but “excited.” Millard-Bethe recalls hearing phrases that reflected the nerves in the room: “I put on my best suit for today.” “I wore my best tie.” “You never know, anything helps.” This group of New Yorkers is accustomed to wearing disguises, many of them expecting to be scrutinized with every new interaction. But Millard-Bethe recalls the same excited words repeated by each individual as they left their interviews, “I can go in as I am.”

These New Yorkers, ages 65-and-older, are part of a historic moment for the LGBTQ community. They were interviewing for the opportunity to live in the largest LGBTQ senior residence in the United States. A residence of this size, 17 stories and 145 units, and with this focus, the older LGBTQ population, has not existed before this in the U.S. Located in Fort Greene, the Raymond V. Ingersoll Senior Residences aims to cultivate an accepting and safe space where older members of the LGBTQ community can age with dignity. The Residences plan to open their doors to the tenants and the Fort Greene community on December 1.

An aging vulnerable population  

An estimated 2.4 million LGBTQs, ages 65-and older, live in the United States, 100,000 of them in New York City, and 3,555 in Fort Greene. These numbers are expected to double over the next 15 years. A large part of this growth is due to the aging of baby boomers, individuals born in the United States between 1946 and 1964, who make up a quarter of the country’s population, according to the United States Census Bureau.

This population is at a higher risk than their heterosexual counterparts of stroke, heart attacks, asmtha, arthiritis, and HIV, according to the New York City Department of Aging. This population’s increased health risks are driven by a historic lack of access to healthcare, inequality in the workplace and health insurance sectors, and negligible LGBTQ health training in medical schools, according to the Center for American Progress.

Struggling to keep up with these mounting medical bills is the reason why one-third of this population is living under the poverty line. The LGBTQ population is four times less likely than their same-sex counterpart to have the financial means to age comfortably, according to SAGE.

Zenovia Earle, the Director of Public Affairs at the New York City Department of Aging, said that it is difficult to gauge the number of LGBTQ elders in Fort Greene because, “older residents grew up during a time when identifying as anything other than heterosexual could pose a threat to their livelihood and social network.”

Almost half of LGBTQ couples aged 62-and-older report experience discrimination in senior housing by their property managers or other residences, cultivating an uncomfortable, and at times life-threatening living environment, according to SAGE. More than half of this older LGBT American population lives in states that do not prohibit housing discrimination against them, according to SAGE.

Robert Montano, spokesperson for BFC Partners, Ingersoll Senior Residences’ developer, says this population makes painful sacrificies, “some go back in the closet in order to get housing or avoid facing discrimination from their neighbors.” Older LGBTQ couples, more than 30 percent, fear that they have to go back into the closet for their safety. According to SAGE, some seniors hide any indication that they identify as an LGBTQ, like photographs of their partners or their personal belongings from their intolerant neighbors or property managers.

BFC Partners’ interest in Ingersoll Senior Residences was piqued not only because of their work on affordable housing developments, but also because Principal of BFC Partners, Donald Capoccia, identifies as an LGBTQ elder. Montano shares that this project “was near and dear to our hearts. Don knows the unique struggles that face the community. It all made sense.”

Honoring the old and new Fort Greene

A combined effort by BFC Partners, Marvel Architects, and SAGE, the Ingersoll Senior Residences aim provide a haven for the LGBTQ elders.

Marvel Architects Founding Partner Guido Hartray and Associate Danielle Haynay Cerone designed Ingersoll Senior Residences with both old and new Fort Greene in mind. Hartray explains, “we tried to make something that feels tied to the community, what’s already there. At the same time, providing the scale to serve the future community.”

A rendering of the Ingersoll Senior Residences | Photo courtesy of Marvel Architects

Hartray and Cerone designed a large bottom base for the building, with two entrances, serving distinct purposes. One entrance, on Monument Walk, is private and residential, encouraging elders of Ingersoll Senior Residences to bond with their Ingersoll Housing Complex neighbors.

The second entrance, opening onto the bustling St. Edward’s street, provides Fort Greene community members with easy access to the community center.

The sprawling, 65,000 square-foot community center, to be operated by SAGE, will have on-site counsellors offering on-site training in technology accessibility, cultural and art activities, health and wellness workshops. The Center will have a kitchen equipped to cater meals and offer cooking and nutrition classes. There will be a fitness room and an urban garden to promote physical health and wellbeing. A floor up from the center, are social spaces exclusively for residents, which include a laundry facility, cyber center, reading and card room, roof deck, and two landscaped terraces.

A rendering of the Ingersoll Senior Residences | Photo courtesy of Marvel Architects

Cerone shares the rationale for designing a hallway with eight to 12 apartments, rather than the typical, economical, 30-unit hallway. “We want to create more of a neighborhood, tight-knit community in the building,” Cerone said.

The towering 17-stories was intentionally designed to be seen, Cerone exclaims, “all the way from the Fort Greene monument.” This view is a metaphorical image of Cerone and Hartray’s aim: penetrating the Fort Greene skyline is a confident signal that the Ingersoll Senior Residences, and a new welcoming era, has arrived in Fort Greene.

Inclusive application process from interview to lease agreement

Before residents can move in, they have to apply. And every aspect of the application process is tailored to be inclusive, said Christina Da Costa, senior director of communications at SAGE. The application, which opened on May 29th, is on first-come first-serve basis. Couples or individuals with at least one applicant over the age of 62 can apply for a studio or one-bedroom. Although the residences were heavily marketed as welcome to the LGBTQ community, fair housing laws require the buildings to be open to anyone who meets the age and income qualifications. The income requirement is that tenants pay 30 percent of their income, which can range from $0 to $42,700.

The Ingersoll Residences will set aside 25 percent of the residences for formerly homeless population. This percent may include LGBTQ elders served by SAGE, Millard-Bethea, explains. “SAGE has worked with them for years. Now we have housing we can refer them to,” she said.

The first batch of 250 applicants were contacted in July. There are 73 LGBTQ elders within this group.

They have completed their tenant interviews and credit checks. “Fingers crossed,” says Da Costa. Next week, she said, applicants should start to receive their lease agreements, the last step before the doors open on December 1st.

A model for the city and country

The Ingersoll Residences in Fort Greene | Photo courtesy of Marvel Architects

The residences are going to “serve as a tremendous model for the city,” Montano says. Millard-Bethea adds that neighborhoods and cities can learn from this housing model, “it is important to showcase that creative housing models work. This is the first for Brooklyn and New York City.” 

One prospective resident stands out to Millard-Bethea, an activist from the Stonewall Inn riots. Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village, was the site of the LGBTQ community demonstrations against violent police raids in 1969. These riots were widely considered one of the most important events leading to the gay liberation movement in the United States.

The Stonewall activist—Millard-Bethea did not provide his name, out of concern for his privacy—hesitantly applied to Ingersoll Residences after many phone calls and in-person conversations from Millard-Bethea and her SAGE colleagues.

Millard-Bethea’s voice grows hoarse and catches as she described the Stonewall activist walking out of the interview. He had an incredulous look on his face, fervently thanking her and her SAGE team, saying, “‘I was not afraid of sharing who I was.’”

“It’s what we fought for, what we wanted, what I have been working for most of my life,” he said.

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