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Dignity for Philadelphia’s Aging LGBT Pioneers

Photograph taken at street level from across the street, showing the front façade of the building. The first floor exterior is finished with marble and includes a series of glass doors. Floors two through four, covered in wood paneling, protrude from the building except for an indented accent feature above the building entrance. The top floor of the flat-roofed building is set back from the lower floors and covered in corrugated metal.
The John C. Anderson Apartments sleek exterior complements the vibrancy and residential character of Washington Square West neighborhood. Image courtesy of Pennrose Properties.
Philadelphia recently welcomed the John C. Anderson Apartments, an affordable housing development friendly to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) seniors. In an environment of dignity and support, the 56-unit development provides housing to low-income residents over age 62 in the thriving Washington Square West community, dubbed the “Gayborhood” by local residents. The project is a collaboration between Pennrose Properties, a multistate housing developer, and the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund (dmhFund), a nonprofit organization that provides LGBT-related programming for youth, seniors, and other groups in the Philadelphia region.

Creating a Safe Space

LGBT seniors face a number of challenges (see “Housing Summit Highlights Challenges Facing LGBT Elders”): limited access to healthcare, uncertain legal rights for partners or caregivers, and unequal treatment under state and federal law. The Anderson Apartments addresses these difficulties by creating an LGBT-friendly environment, a place that does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, celebrates diversity, and allows members of the LGBT community to feel safe and secure. Mark Segal, president of the dmh Fund, describes the development as a place that will provide dignity for seniors who in their youth were among the first generation of LGBT activists. He saw that many of these civil rights pioneers — LGBT individuals who cut their political teeth following the Stonewall Riots — were not being cared for in their old age, and he felt moved to address this need. The goal of the Anderson Apartments is to create an environment where LGBT seniors are free to express their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The $19.5 million development is named in honor of gay Philadelphia City Councilman John C. Anderson, who was instrumental in passing an LGBT civil rights law in the 1980s. Political and community leaders in Philadelphia, recently rated one of the most LGBT friendly cities in America, continue to support LGBT rights. According to Jacob Fisher, a senior developer with Penrose Properties who worked on the Anderson Apartments, help from the city navigating the approval process allowed the development to move forward quickly, which was necessary to secure federal financing. Funding sources include $2 million in HOME Investment Partnerships funds, $11.5 million in low-income housing tax credit equity, and $6 million from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

Photograph taken at ground level of a corner of the courtyard, showing two sides of a six-story building wrapping around the courtyard. The courtyard is hardscaped with planting beds having a tree, small bushes, and low light standards. The first level of the building has floor- to-ceiling windows and glass doors for access to the courtyard.
The courtyard of the John C. Anderson Apartments provides community space for residents and serves as one of the building’s green elements. Image courtesy of Pennrose Properties.
The funding allows for rents affordable to a mix of income levels: 27 units for low-income, 23 for very low-income, and 6 for extremely low-income households. Each of the 56 units is 635 square feet and includes one bedroom, a fully equipped kitchen, and oversized windows. The units are designed for residents to age in place; six are fully accessible, and all have an open floor plan that allows them to be visited by or adaptable for people in wheelchairs.

The development includes 1,800 square feet of retail space, a community room, onsite laundry facilities, and a large courtyard for residents. The building was designed to meet ENERGY STAR® standards for mid- and high-rise developments; it also boasts solar thermal water heaters as well as a green roof to aid in stormwater management. The development is also designed to improve the overall security of the neighborhood, with lights and cameras around the building and a newly instituted town watch program.

Besides the building’s physical amenities, the Anderson Apartments development fills service needs both specific to LGBT individuals and common to all seniors. Although many of the programs being offered are still evolving, three local community organizations provide services to residents. A staff member from the nearby William Way LGBT Community Center, an early advocate for the project, coordinates activities onsite. Mazzoni Center leases space in the building to provide residents with counseling and medical care. In addition, ActionAIDS offers AIDS screening for residents. Programs include computer literacy classes, sex education, and legal assistance — a necessity for lifelong partners who lack the legal benefits of marriage.

It Takes a Village

Segal stresses that one of the larger goals of the Anderson Apartments is to improve on an existing LGBT community that fosters a safe, secure, and dignified environment for individuals at all stages of life. Such an endeavor “takes a village” and builds on the past efforts of LGBT activists, including the development’s namesake. Through political backing and various partnerships, Pennrose and the dmhFund are providing safe, affordable housing and necessary supportive services to the residents of the Anderson Apartments.

 
 
 


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