Judith Davidoff (August 20, 2013)

Compared to a lot of places, Madison is a pretty easy place to be openly gay. But that sense of freedom can be fleeting, especially for seniors who move to retirement communities only to find that they are the only out gay or lesbian resident around.

“They have to go back in the closet,” says Caroline Werner, who works part-time as the LGBT senior advocate at OutReach, an educational and advocacy center for Madison’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Those who do try to be themselves often feel judged and ostracized by residents and staff, adds Werner, who conducts sensitivity trainings for agencies in Madison that serve seniors.

That’s why Werner and John Steines would love to see senior housing included in the mix at Union Corners, the large lot at the corner of East Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street that is now being developed by Gorman & Co. after a decade of delays. “We are seeking an integrated setting, but a place that is intentionally welcoming,” says Steines, who has been a key player in developing a neighborhood wish list for how Union Corners would get built out.

“There has to be someplace where we can be healthy and happy,” adds Werner.

On Wednesday, Aug. 21, Werner and Steines will host a brainstorming meeting (5:30-7:30 p.m., Bunky’s Cafe, 2425 Atwood Ave.) for people interested in helping make LGBT-friendly housing at Union Corners a reality.

Werner says there is a real need for affordable housing for gay and lesbian seniors.

“Our society seems to think that LGBT [individuals] are affluent,” she says. Yet studies show, she says, that discrimination has limited or ended careers — including in military service — and resulted in the denial of benefits that straight people receive as they head into retirement.

“We are twice as likely to enter retirement single and are less likely to have relatives care for us in our senior years. We’re also less likely to have access to aging services than the heterosexual population. That’s why we’re such a vulnerable population.”

While these concerns are longstanding, the solution is not easy. “We don’t have the funding or the resources to build our own housing,” says Werner.

The development of Union Corners, which spans more than 11 acres, offers a rare chance in a normally landlocked city to plan housing with seniors in mind, says Rita Giovannoni, CEO of Independent Living Inc.

“Whenever there is an opportunity with land, at least one leg of the stool hopefully could be attending to the needs of seniors in the immediate neighborhood,” she says. “This is a real opportunity to respond to some if not all of the senior housing needs of the neighborhood,” adds Giovannoni, whose agency helps people stay in their homes and also operates three senior living communities in Dane County.

Giovannoni says there are high concentrations of residents over 70 in the older neighborhoods surrounding the Union Corner development. Very few, she says, will be able to “age in place” in their homes, which are often two-story single-family houses with bedroom and bath upstairs.

“Having more reasonably designed and supported housing for older adults but still being able to stay in the neighborhood is really a gift,” she says.

On March 28, Werner and Steve Starkey, executive director of Outreach, hosted a meeting to determine whether there was sufficient interest in pursuing LGBT senior housing as part of the mix at Union Corners. Among those attending was Joe Schwenker from Gorman & Co. Schwenker could not be reached for comment, but Steines and Werner say the developer is open to some kind of senior housing or cohousing model on the site.

“We have a friendly neighborhood and developer,” says Steines.

Building housing that is affordable is a challenge, says Steines. “There are no federal, state or local dollars for affordability,” he says. “One of the things we want to strategize is how do we, with new construction, build in some framework for having smaller units affordable for some. Is there a donor base we can seek out to help with this process?”

Giovannoni currently has her hands full building a fourth senior housing development on Madison’s north side, but is open to looking at options for Union Corners.

“If Joe and the folks at Gorman want to talk more seriously, they know where I live.”