It’s Taco Night in the community room at A Place for Us, an apartment building on Cleveland’s West Side.
Darryl Fore, a resident of the building, organized the event. He chats with neighbors as he hands out goodie bags and plates of tacos.
Fore is 62 and retired, and — in his words — “I just happen to be a gay Black man.”
The building itself also happens to be gay. Or, to quote its website, “The first LGBTQ-friendly Senior Housing Community in the state of Ohio.”
That’s not necessarily apparent from a quick look around. There are no rainbow flags on the wall. No flyers about gay organizations. It’s just a taco night — a chance for neighbors to gather.
Fore said that’s exactly the way he likes it.
“I am always about inclusion,” Fore said. “I don’t want to do anything where I’m going to exclude anybody for any reason from anything that happens here.”
A decades-long effort
But as the building approaches its sixth anniversary, some former residents and the building’s founder and co-developer say it’s not fulfilling its promise to be a space that proactively supports older LGBTQ people.
“The mission is to build community,” said Linda Krasienko, a pastor and activist who founded A Place for Us as a nonprofit initiative. “And the way you build community is you have amenities inside the facility which bring people together and you have focused programing and intentional services.”
Krasienko worked for more than 20 years to build a residential building in Cleveland for older LGBTQ adults. Over that time, she explored partnerships with many developers, but she said most were only interested because they saw a potential for profit.
“What they wanted to do was just build apartments,” Krasienko said. “And I said, ‘No, I have a mission. The mission is to build community.’”
She eventually partnered with NRP Group, an apartment developer based in Cleveland. She says NRP understood her mission, and they worked together to win low-income housing tax credits from the State of Ohio to help finance the project.
The $10 million, 55-unit building opened in 2016, near the border of Cleveland and Lakewood. There were plentiful news reports at the time about it being the first LGBTQ-friendly senior housing in Ohio.
Because of the public funding the building got, it’s not legal to ask about someone’s sexual orientation when they apply for housing, something meant to protect people from discrimination. But that has also meant that a building catering to the LGBTQ population can’t ask prospective tenants if they identify as LGBTQ.
Instead, NRP and Krasienko planned to offer programming that would attract older LGBTQ adults to move in and stay. A supportive services plan submitted as part of the tax credit application said there’d be activities like a women’s social group, talks by local LGBTQ experts and senior lunches coordinated by the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
Krasienko, who never moved into the building herself, said she was able to offer some of that programming initially. But she said it didn’t last, because building management stopped including her in meetings and planning sessions.
What’s gay enough?
Some residents, too, were disappointed in what they saw as a lack of LGBTQ events and sense of community.
“I wanted to have a place that was safe and I could be myself,” said Ken Atkins, a retired machine operator who moved into the building shortly after it opened. “I thought it was going to be all gay and lesbian.”
Atkins eventually moved out, along with some of his gay neighbors, in part because they didn’t find the community they sought.
“A lot of them said that it just wasn’t what they thought it was going to be,” Atkins said. “You know, ‘I don’t even see that many gay people there.'”
The question of exactly how many LGBTQ people live in the building is impossible to answer given that questions about sexual orientation are off-limits to building managers.
But Fore, the resident who organized the taco party, estimates about 25 percent of current residents are LGBTQ. That compares to about 4.5 percent nationally.
“My question is, how gay do you need it to be?” Fore said. “People come to this property with expectations, and it’s just not what they expected it or wanted it to be. And I’ve approached those people and asked them, ‘Well, what do you want this to be?’ And most of the time, they can’t tell me.”
Fore said he gets the feeling some LGBTQ residents want services or events that exclude non-gay people, which would go against his preference for including everyone.
NRP Group declined to be interviewed for this story, They provided a statement that said they believe the building is doing just what it set out to do. The statement read, in part, “There is a long waitlist of individuals who have applied to live at A Place For Us which we believe is a testament to the inclusive and safe culture we’ve cultivated here.”
Figuring out just how visibly gay or proactive in its programming a building needs to be to feel safe for LGBTQ people is complex work, according to Aaron Tax of SAGE, a nonprofit that provides services for older gay people. But he said it’s still very much work worth doing, because older LGBTQ people are more likely to be single and less likely to have kids than straight older people.
“And because of that, they generally don’t have that same support network in place,” Tax said.
And contrary to the “affluent, double-income-no-kids” stereotype of same-sex couples, LGBTQ people actually face higher rates of poverty than their straight counterparts, which can make life in general more difficult, Tax says.
“One challenge that it highlights is as much as it’s great to have one building, it’s an issue that we can’t build our way out of,” Tax said. “We have to make sure that the larger housing stock all across the country is welcoming to LGBT older folks.”
Krasienko, meanwhile, said she’s working with a different local developer to build a new project for older LGBTQ adults.
The big difference this time, she said, is that she’ll insist on being a paid employee so she has more direct say in how the building is programmed and marketed.
A Place For Us is located at 11610 Madison Ave. in Cleveland. More info at https://www.apfuhousing.com or 844/329-9215.