Author: Samuel Maddox
This essay leverages the Anita May Rosenstein Campus—the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s forthcoming cohousing-style complex for both youth and senior members of the LGBTQ+ community—as an example of affordable, intergenerational housing that challenges the nation’s existing federal provisions for senior housing. The need for a broader, more inclusive, even queerer approach to addressing the nation’s affordable housing gap is underscored by an examination of the current projections in aging and a renegotiation of what we consider to be practices of care and caregiving by looking at informal, community-based practices.
I: Building (Even) Queerer Spaces
This past April, the Anita May Rosenstein Campus opened its doors to the public for the very first time. The 180,000-square-foot campus, spread across four acres in the middle of Hollywood, is the ambitious materialization of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s diverse suite of services. From the exterior, the building is a dynamically yet delicately stacked series of translucent boxes that serves as an architectonic anchor in the urban context and a beacon for LGBTQ+ folx seeking support. On the inside, service spaces for counseling, job training, and a youth academy weave between small courtyards and brush up against community-oriented spaces like the common kitchen and “Pride Hall,” a 50-foot-high flexible space for events and large gatherings. Altogether, the campus represents both a sense of pride and much-needed security. It is at once a billboard and a place of refuge.
However, the pièce de résistance of the $141 million expansion is yet to come. Later this year, Phase II—a 124-unit, affordable, intergenerational LGBTQ+ housing complex—will open its doors to LGBT Angelenxs both young and old. These housing blocks, though physically distinct from one another, will interface across the campus, sharing services, plazas, and other amenities with one another and with the 100-bed homeless youth drop-in center that has already been completed as part of Phase I. The intersection of queer community and intergenerational cohousing will make this complex the first of its kind in the nation. No other institution in the country has been able to turn such a vision for building a socio-spatial community, based on empathy and sustained by responsibility shared between queer youth and seniors, into a reality.
Within the world of housing, this type of socially driven, intergenerational housing arrangement is known as “cohousing.” Cohousing was pioneered in Denmark as early as the 1960s as an investigation into the “practical possibilities of realizing ‘the missing link’ between utopia and the outdated single-family house,” according to architect Jan Gudmand-Høyer. Distinct from contemporaneous communes, the Danish cohousing model puts great emphasis on the differentiation of shared and common spaces while still allowing room for “interplay between common and private spaces.” This meant that individuals and families owned relatively conventional private domestic spaces—though usually more modest in size—while also owning a share of amenity spaces consisting of outdoor areas and a “common house” with areas and resources for cooking and sharing meals, gathering socially, and collective self-governance. In the 1980s, Danish cohousing experienced a massive building boom—nearly doubling over the decade—when changes in national legislation created the opportunity for collective tenure on newly built housing projects. This, along with the introduction of quota-based, interest-free federal loans covering up to 80 percent of construction costs, created opportunities for cash-strapped housing cooperatives and the Danish construction industry until 2004, when the law was changed and the subsidies revoked. Though initially successful, the Danish cohousing model has struggled to transcend economic boundaries, remaining mostly an occupant-owned system.
What the Rosenstein Campus at the LA LGBT Center offers within the legacy of cohousing experiments is a chance to move to a more stakeholder-based system that is not incongruous with public housing aims of promoting equity. What this project does, in effect, is queer our current understanding of public housing and modalities of care. The term queer is one that I want to reclaim within this piece for the dual purposes of empowerment—the term having taken a 180 as it was reclaimed, like so many other slurs, by the community subject to its derision—as well as its semantic utility as a theoretical lens. Queer theorist Michael Halperin describes the utility of the term queer in its “ability […] to define (homo)sexual identity oppositionally and relationally but not necessarily substantively, not as a thing, but as a resistance to the norm.” The positional fluidity of queer theoretics is its greatest asset, affording a multitude of highly critical perspectives without need or want of staking any one claim too particularly. It is discursive and dialectical, interested in the asking of questions as much as, if not more than, the pursuit of their answers. Thus, what I mean by queering our understanding of housing and care is taking the time to challenge assumptions based on normative, majority-led practices in these fields as well as assumptions around how we should delineate housing and health, family and community, public and private, young and old.
II: Finding Value in Difference
Just as there is tension in the architectural formalization of visibility and refuge in the design of the Rosenstein Campus, so too is there a kind of tension at the heart of the project within this cohousing-style arrangement of LGBTQ+ seniors and youth: namely, ageism. A variety of factors likely contribute to ageist attitudes in and amongst some segments of the LGBTQ+ community. There is the emphasis on sexual attraction, all too often culturally conflated with ideas and images of youth. There is the legacy of underground social spaces—both literally and metaphorically speaking—which are often physically ill-suited for seniors and otherly-abled LGBTQ+ people. And, perhaps most significantly, there is the lack of intergenerational familial structures because queer people are not necessarily begotten of queer or same-sex parents but are, more often than not, born into otherwise heteronormative households. This often leads to the construction of what has been called “families of choice” (i.e., close ties and relational bonds that are not predetermined and thus are not inherently fixed but are instead selected, often preferential, commitments of time, care, and support). These chosen families act as a support network for many LGBTQ+ people in lieu of or in addition to their families of origin (i.e., birth or adoptive parents and their familial networks). Given the intentionality of these communities, families of choice are easily formed along the bases of shared experiences and interests, including socially bracketed age groups and logistically defined stages of life. While these communities may be a vibrant source of joy and support during earlier years, they can leave LGBTQ+ people with fewer “intergenerational levels of support” than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts later in life, making the process of receiving care a more formal, expensive, and isolating experience.
It is this tense social space—that of relatively rare intergenerational queerness—that the Los Angeles LGBT Center aims to challenge with the Rosenstein Campus. While some might see difference and discord at the coming together of the often party-hearty, technology-glued queer youth with older, possibly slower, and perhaps even relatively more conservative LGBTQ+ people, Lorri L. Jean, the Center’s CEO, sees opportunity for mutual education, informal care, and novel support networks at the intersection of young and old constituents of this particular affinity group. The literature available supports her; studies have shown that multigenerational communities bridge knowledge and “need gaps” for the generational “bookends” as older residents teach and mentor while younger residents provide varied social connectivity and a sense of purpose. In addition to the usual gap between generations, there is also within the LGBTQ+ community the pronounced variety of formative inflection points, including living in fear of sodomy laws, coping with loss during the AIDS crisis, and eventually watching the tides turn in favor of civil unions and same-sex marriage. Without building LGBTQ+ community that transcends generations, these and other substantive experiences are easily relegated to the sphere of textbook knowledge for younger members of the community.
The Anita May Rosenstein Campus can then be thought of as a test. It is a test of whether cohousing-style, intergenerational, affordable housing has a viable future more broadly in the United States. If it can work to build a productive tension that moves its residents toward a more empathetic culture, then perhaps, in time, it could not only challenge the predominance of the single-family home but also queer our understanding of care, particularly end-of-life care, and the current cultural norm of turning a blind eye to the aged.
III: Visioning Housing as a Form of Care
As uncomfortable as it may be, America has an undeniable age problem. Its population is aging, and it is aging fast. In the next 10 years (by 2030), all baby boomers will become senior citizens, having aged 65 years or more. Thirty years after that (2060), the United States senior population is expected to have more than doubled from 46 to 98 million, meaning that this particular share of the national population will jump from 15 percent to nearly 25 percent. Further, this generation is also expected to live longer than its parents by 10 to 25 years, putting significant pressure on social services such as Social Security, healthcare, and housing. Undoubtedly, policy mechanisms will be required to contend with the encroaching “Silver Tsunami”—a collapse in health care service provision, combined with a housing crash from the predicted “great senior sell-off” when baby boomers sell their single-family homes en masse. Given the tangled web of socio-spatial, vested economic, and health/care-related circumstances that constitutes America’s age bubble, the best approach to addressing it is a holistic one that addresses the spatial, economic, and social aspects simultaneously. One such possible response is senior housing.
Currently, affordable senior housing is provided under Section 202, Supportive Housing for the Elderly, under the Housing Act of 1959. Section 202 offers two paths to federal funding for the development and support of very-low-income senior housing: capital advances and Project Rental Assistance Contracts (PRAC). Capital advances are interest-free advances that can be used for acquisition, construction, or rehabilitation of structures to be used for elder housing. These advances need not be paid back as long as the unit remains available to persons aged 62 years or more with an income no greater than 50 percent of the area median income for 40 years following the initial advance. PRACs, however, are contracts entered into between the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and landlords, wherein eligible senior renters pay 30 percent of their monthly income toward the rent and the remainder is subsidized by HUD.
Each route offers a small degree of flexibility. Capital advance projects can be mixed with other income streams, including Section 811, Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, while PRACs can be used to hire elderly support services and service coordinators. However, Section 202 funding is prohibited from financing the development of shared spaces like kitchens and game rooms—the kinds of spaces that enable the cross-generational relationship building that makes the Anita May Rosenstein Campus such a uniquely rich space for its LGBTQ+ stakeholders. It is time that the unit-by-qualifying-unit financing approach to Section 202 be reconsidered in order to move future developments away from senior-only housing. Resident diversity has already been established by HUD as having value through programs like its HOPE VI, which, in 1996, began encouraging mixed-income development in response to decades of low-income-only developments that led to pockets of poverty and declarations of “urban blight.”
In essence, Section 202 should be revised to remove the barriers to cohousing-style arrangements, including the restrictions on “amenity” financing and at least some age-based requirements in order to pave the way for more varied and variegated conceptions of elder housing—queerer conceptions, one might say—that reflect familial-like structures of informal care and mutual support. HUD could consider setting requirements for an average age across a complex as opposed to a minimum, allowing for some younger heads of household, possibly with children, to join the community, provided they also qualify as very low income. The primary goal of these revisions would be to encourage intergenerational unit mixes and the construction of common spaces, particularly kitchens, dining areas, and other social mixing spaces, as primary sites of engagement. Furthermore, with the addition of such spaces, it is possible that senior units could become slightly more modest in both size and unit-based amenities (e.g., laundry units, guest rooms, home offices), resulting in upfront cost savings. It is also possible that certain PRAC-funded support services (e.g., meal provisions) could see reductions in light of these changes, leading to modest savings at the federal level. That said, such savings would probably be put to better use through a complex-wide community coordinator with some training in geriatrics that could help foster community building through the coordination of weekly or biweekly common meals and community-led events, much like those offered within traditional cohousing arrangements, while also meeting the more formal care-based needs of the elderly constituents of the community.
Since the Budget Control Act of 2011 set restrictions on new buildings, HUD has been mostly renewing existing contracts. Between 2011 and 2017, no new project was financed. However, with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019, the spending caps that once held back development have been lifted, and HUD has $90 million to spend on new capital advances and contracts for fiscal year 2020. Though it seems that the country lacks the political bandwidth to debate such changes to the future of affordable senior housing, with this small financial windfall on the table and with the clock ticking for America’s seniors, it is time to reconsider what aging in America should look like. Instead of spatializing the aging process through age-based segregation contained in increasingly clinical environments, aging could be defined as a more collective and democratic life, one rife with self-determination and underpinned by daily opportunities for mutual learning and support.
Furthermore, it is possible that the addition of intergenerational cohousing to America’s state-sponsored affordable housing strategies could end up queering more than perceptions of age, community, and care. By the nature of its propensity toward resource sharing, densification, and collective land tenure, the historic cohousing model continues queering our assumptions around housing, capital, and land use by offering challenges and alternatives. As a queering spatial condition, cohousing posits questions unburdened at their outset by the need for answers and instead driven by the open-ended pursuit of a more pluralistic and inclusive future framework. It is this propensity toward nonlinear, discursive growth that makes queer spatiality such a powerful agent of change, particularly in more technocratic spheres. Although the Rosenstein Campus is poised to lead this experiment in housing from a mostly privately funded basis, if the campus can prove its worth by fostering novel dimensions of dignity, community, and care—as unmeasurable as these may be—then perhaps there is hope for not only a better housing policy in the United States but also for a queerer approach to arriving at that point.
Samuel Maddox is an architect, public artist, and design educator from the Deep South. After working for several years in architecture and historic rehabilitation in Atlanta and becoming licensed in Georgia, Samuel returned to school to examine the capacity of design to create, promote, and sustain socio-spatial justice. He holds a master’s degree in design studies, focusing on urbanism, landscape, and ecology, from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He received his bachelor of architecture and bachelor of interior architecture degrees at Auburn University, where he studied at the Rural Studio, a satellite program of the School of Architecture located deep within Alabama’s historically impoverished Black Belt region. While there, he designed and built his thesis project: 20K House v15, an affordable, fully accessible single-family home and part of the Rural Studio’s ongoing research initiative to fill the gap in affordable rural housing. Samuel is currently a faculty member in the Architecture Department at Wentworth Institute of Technology as well as the Boston Architectural College, where he teaches in the Master of Architecture and Master of Design Studies in Design for Human Health programs. Samuel has built projects in Alabama and Florida and exhibited his work at Harvard, in Italy, and through the Museum of Design Atlanta. He has lectured on his independent research at University of California, Berkeley, and Tu Wien in Vienna, Austria. He is also currently authoring a chapter on the urbanizing effects of aging Americans’ migrations into Mexico in the forthcoming book CARE: Cities, Action, Research and Education: New Perspectives in Urban Studies and Planning Theory (Routledge Press, 2021). Samuel’s work focuses on the social-environmental consequences of urbanizing processes with particular interest in rural-urban disparities.
Photo from Los Angeles Development Fund
 A spelling variant of the word folks intended to signal inclusion in the LGBTQ+ community via the use of the gender-neutral and gender non-binary inclusive –x, similar to words like Latinx, Chicanx, Filipinx, Womnx, and Mx.
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