Diedra Nottingham is getting ready to move into her new apartment, and she could not be more excited.
The 69-year-old lesbian will be one of the first tenants of Stonewall House, the first ever LGBT-welcoming senior housing development in New York City. This historic building will be declared officially open today, Tuesday, with the first residents expected to move into the 145-unit building near Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn before Christmas, with the rest of the residents moving in throughout January.
The Daily Beast exclusively reported on the construction of Stonewall House in March. It is the largest such development in the country, and its construction has been overseen by BFC Partners, the developer of Stonewall House, in partnership with SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older people. The stars and stripes and the rainbow flag both fly proudly at the top of Stonewall House.
“In 2019, in this 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall uprising, we couldn’t think of a better name for the first building of this kind,” Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, told The Daily Beast. “People will be able to live their lives freely and openly in this building. We see our elders as heroes and want them to be treated as such when living in their own homes. That’s what we want to accomplish with this building.”
“I’m moving in in the first week of January,” Nottingham, who presently lives in the Bronx, told The Daily Beast. “I always wanted to be in a gay-friendly environment without discrimination, and the glares and looks you can get from people. It’s a great community and area. I’m looking forward to meeting new people and joining new groups. I have been an advocate for the LGBTQ community even back when we were illegal.”
Luis Lizardi from Puerto Rico lost everything due to Hurricane Maria when it struck in September 2017. The 67-year-old gay man told The Daily Beast he had faced homophobia on the island, and had suffered a heart attack as he tried to survive there after Maria.
Lizardi has been living in shelters in New York City since June of this year, and more recently has slept on a friend’s sofa. He is finalizing his lease to move into Stonewall House.
“If I could, I wish I could move in tomorrow,” Lizardi told The Daily Beast. “I’m dying to be there, you have no idea. It means peace of mind, being able to take my clothes out of my bags, and be in a place more or less permanently. I hope to be there for the rest of my life, and find new friends.”
Stonewall House will provide affordable housing for individuals over 62 years of age who earn 60 percent or less of the area median income. The development of Stonewall House evolved alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio placing an emphasis on developing LGBT-friendly housing for elders as part his housing plan for New York City.
Units in the building include 54 studios and 91 one-bedroom apartments, with 25 percent of those occupied by formerly homeless older people, who will be among the first most in-need tenants to move into the building.
As The Daily Beast reported in March, similar developments already exist in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Minneapolis. New York City, for once, is not setting the pace, but playing catch-up.
SAGE will also operate the SAGE Center Brooklyn at Stonewall House, a 7,000 square-foot community center located on the property’s ground floor. It will open in mid-January, Adams told The Daily Beast.
The building will not house LGBT people exclusively; the split will be roughly 50-50 with straight residents. “It was never our goal to create a building exclusively for LGBT people,” said Adams, “but to create a community that was LGBT-friendly. All residents applying to live there understand the spirit and goals of the building.”
Adams said New York City and State discrimination laws meant that it would be illegal to construct a building for solely LGBT elders. “It’s one of the complicated wrinkles in a project like this,” he said. “These buildings are needed because of high levels of discrimination against LGBT people, and we also cannot discriminate when it comes to populating a building.”
A 2014 report by the Equal Rights Center found nearly half (48 percent) of same-sex LGBT older couples applying for senior housing were subjected to discrimination. Studies also show that 25 percent of transgender older adults experience housing discrimination on the basis of their gender identities.
Adams said there was a shortage of affordable housing for elders generally, and the discrimination and prejudice LGBT elders faced compounded their problems. “That is why this building is so important.”
Authorities had to cap the applications to live at Stonewall House when the number reached 2,000, Adams said. “There are more than 100,000 LGBT elders living in New York City, many facing significant housing challenges. Many, many more folks need this kind of housing. It’s important we build more of it, and provide the training and support in a mainstream senior housing context so all housing is welcoming of LGBTQ people.”
Adams said LGBT elders faced two distinct challenges when it came to accessing housing. The first is being treated fairly in the application process, and then once housed in feeling safe and secure around neighbors who can be homophobic or transphobic. LGBT elders also experience issues around isolation.
Adams said that many of the first residents moving into Stonewall House were homeless or, like Lizardi, living in shelters. “For many it will be the first permanent housing they have had in years. It’s incredibly important, and the fact that it’s the holidays makes it even more powerful.”
A second, as yet unnamed SAGE-supported LGBT-friendly elder residential facility will open in the Bronx in March or April, said Adams. It will have 83 apartments.
“The scale of the housing challenge facing LGBT older people in New York City and across the country is really dramatic,” said Adams. “Next, we will be encouraging the development of other LGBT-friendly elder housing.”
Plans for LGBT elder housing were first dreamt up by SAGE in the 1980s; Adams has a box of yellowing papers in his office with nascent plans from that time. The Brooklyn and Bronx buildings were first proposed nearly five years ago, with ground broken on both projects over two years ago.
Stonewall House has received financing from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, New York City Housing Development Corporation and Wells Fargo. It was developed under New York City’s Senior Affordable Rental Apartments (SARA) program.
“Today is a true celebration for New York City. We are proud to partner with SAGE and the de Blasio administration and deliver this truly transformative housing that is welcoming and supportive of LGBTQ seniors and their families,” Don Capoccia, principal and founder of BFC Partners, said in a statement.
“We hope that this project blazes a path forward for stakeholders across the nation to step up to the plate and further help aging members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom played key roles in the Stonewall uprising and helped change the conversation around civil rights in America.”
For Nottingham, as she gets ready to move, it’s “like coming back home,” as she was born and bred in Brooklyn. One of her sisters has cancer, and so now living near her will make caring for her easier.
Nottingham recalled the verbal and physical homophobia she had experienced in her life, and friends who were beaten “until they were unrecognizable. It’s so sad. People don’t like people who are different. But life is too short to hate people. I try and stay away from hateful people. Even some family members have sent me letters wishing I would die. I don’t understand the hate in the world. We should be nice and kind.”
At Stonewall House, Nottingham said she was “looking forward to being myself, and smile more and be happy.” She laughed heartily. “I’m so excited. I’ll be involved with the community. We’ll have groups in the building. I expect to be safe, and to meet new friends.” She is single, her partner having died of ovarian cancer “20-something years ago. I’m not on the market for anything, but if it happens it happens. I want to live a peaceful, healthy, enjoyable life.”
Lizardi, a former dancer, dance teacher and language tutor, is also looking forward to meeting new people, as well as writing a memoir and fiction. When this reporter asked what Stonewall House meant to Lizardi, he said, “Safety. Hope.” He paused, and his voice cracked. “I’m going to cry now. And dignity. I want to regain my dignity. That’s it.”