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Gay Couples Dream of Equal Housing for Seniors 

By Diane C. Lade, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

May 8, 2004

Like many longtime residents of the Big Apple, Dino Georgiou and Louis Malkin decided they wanted a more tropical lifestyle as they neared retirement.

Fort Lauderdale, where they bought an oceanfront apartment eight years ago, turned out to be perfect. It was warm year-round. It was urban enough without New York City's frantic pace. And there were plenty of other gay couples like themselves.

But will South Florida be a good place for them to grow old together?

Georgiou, 67, lately worries the answer might be no, because there is no retirement community or assisted-living center here specifically for Georgiou and Malkin, 86.

"We've been taking care of our own for so long. We're each other's family," says Georgiou, his voice filled with emotion.

But he wonders if he and Malkin, his partner of 43 years, would feel comfortable or accepted surrounded by couples celebrating their 60th wedding anniversaries and talking about their great-grandchildren.

A safe place to age has been the dream of same-sex partners almost since the gay-rights movement began. The first reference to gay retirement housing found by Gerard Koskovich, a gay-rights historian and an editor with the American Society on Aging in San Francisco, was dated 1954.

"Since the 1980s, there's been serious efforts to develop housing like this," said Koskovich, the society's gay-and-lesbian staff liaison. "There's about 30 to 40 serious efforts going on around the world now."

Yet only a handful of gay-focused active-retirement or care facilities have been built or are in the final planning stages. None is in South Florida, home to what many believe is one of the largest gay senior populations in the country -- and whose numbers are growing, as midlife gay men and lesbians who have been vacationing here contemplate relocating permanently.

Those in the housing industry say high land prices and an untested market are stalling projects here and in other parts of the country.

"I think [gay retirement housing] eventually will happen. It's just getting the financial resources now to do it," said Peter Lundberg, the real estate consultant and planner behind Our Town, an older-adult gay complex planned for San Francisco.

John DeLeo, a former healthcare administrator turned developer, has made several unsuccessful runs at Broward County sites since 1999. As a partner in the now-disbanded The Arbours group, DeLeo looked at land in downtown Fort Lauderdale, then later considered converting an existing high-rise into independent apartments and assisted-living units.

With costs projected at $100 million and limited market research available, DeLeo said, investors were reluctant to back the concept. Now he's trying again, as president of Shaman Development Corp., still concentrating on Fort Lauderdale.

John Castelli, a real estate agent and senior partner with ReMax on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, said he recently was contacted by another group of gay businessmen on the other side of the country. "They were asking me to locate acreage, waterfront or beachfront, in the south end of Fort Lauderdale or north end of Pompano Beach," Castelli said. "They saw it as an obvious place for retirees.

The world may be a more accepting place than 50 years ago, but housing discrimination remains a reality for many older gays and lesbians, said attorney Karen Doering of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

She is representing a female couple, a Florida State University professor and a librarian who have been together since 1979, who were denied admittance into a church-sponsored extended-care community in Tallahassee. Doering said the administration told them there was a policy prohibiting nonrelated, unmarried couples from living together, but hinted they could get around the rules if they pretended to be cousins.

"This isn't to say there aren't lots of gays and lesbians in retirement communities now. They are just having to live as cousins, brothers or sisters," Doering said.

Sheer numbers may change that. There are 53 million Baby Boom Americans about to come of retirement age, and those working with gay seniors estimate 3 million to 4 million of them are gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual.

Florida has 45,456 same-sex households, according to the 2000 Census, putting it fourth behind California, New York and Texas. Communities catering to older or retired gays and lesbians already exist near St. Petersburg and Fort Myers.

Joy Silver, president and chief executive officer of RainbowVision Properties Inc., looked seriously at Fort Lauderdale several years ago.

"But the price tag of the land was prohibitive. We are not deep-pocket developers," Silver said.

She ended up outside Santa Fe, N.M., when she was ready to build what she hopes will be her first of several gay retirement communities. Instead of the $120 million she would have had to spend here, Silver's Santa Fe complex of 40 condos, 80 apartments and 26 assisted-living units will cost her about $31 million. Construction will begin in July.

Retirees Connie Kurtz and Ruth Berman of West Palm Beach were so taken with the concept they invested in Silver's project and plan to eventually live there themselves.

The lesbian couple, who live in the Century Village retirement community built more than 30 years ago, don't hide that they are life partners from their neighbors. Not that they could. Their 29 years together was the subject of a documentary film, Ruthie and Connie: Every Room In the House, which has been shown at film festivals and on public television.

They've formed what they call their Gay Gang of about 30 gay and lesbian seniors, who meet for theater trips and parties. Lately, the pair has being doing the condo club and senior-center circuit, talking about gay marriage.

"We are well, we are healthy and we do have a space in Florida that we're happy with," said Kurtz, 68. "But if the time comes when Ruthie and I are not well and healthy, we want it easy. We want it familiar."

Stephen Golant, a retirement-housing expert and professor at the University of Florida, thinks social changes and demographics soon will combine to make gay housing the next targeted retirement product. Today's older gays and lesbians are more likely than previous generations to be out of the closet. And niche markets only exist, Golant said, when people openly admit they are part of the group being marketed to.

"People always have seen advantages in living within a group that shares your history and lifestyle, and are less sympathetic to the youth culture," Golant said. Golant thinks the nation as a whole, and Florida in particular, could be ripe for a gay-retirement building boom targeting gays and lesbians, just as the Sunshine State's developers trolled New York and New Jersey neighborhoods for potential customers years ago.

Michael Kenny, the cultural tourism director for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Tourism Bureau, constantly is meeting gay retirees who recently relocated from Key West and Miami's South Beach. Key West has grown too crowded with tourists, they tell Kenny. South Beach is too young. And housing in both cities is too expensive.

"You get older, your interests change. Everyday convenience becomes more important than nightclubs that stay open past midnight," Kenny said. "Five years ago, [gay retirement housing] was a radical idea and financing was a challenge. But I'm confident we'll see it in the not-so-distant future."

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