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Group Seeks Housing Help for Elderly Gays

The Hollywood retirement complex, expected to open in 2005, is intended to provide a comfortable environment.

October 13, 2003|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

Harry Bartron toured the country with his one-man pantomime show. He worked as an extra in more than 100 movies. Now at 85, his working days are over and he's forced to make ends meet on $798 per month. He likes that his subsidized senior housing is in the historic Knickerbocker Hotel, and he's grateful that his rent is only $223 per month.

But Bartron, who is gay, isn't openly so at the Knickerbocker, where he's not sure that all his neighbors would be accepting.

"I'm very hesitant to let it be known here that I'm gay because I think it might just change their view, you know," he said. Gays and lesbians sometimes are forced back into the closet when they move into retirement homes, said Brian Neimark, executive director of the nonprofit Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing Corp. He hopes that a new 103-unit affordable housing project in Hollywood will begin to change that.

Next spring, organizers hope to break ground on the four-story complex, to be built on the northeast corner of Selma and Ivar avenues. The project, expected to open in 2005, will be built on city-owned land, on what is now a parking lot, and will include a parking structure to replace the lot parking. Designed to provide a safe and comfortable environment for elderly people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, the building will include a public community center offering social services and referrals. In the building's apartments, partners will be able to share rooms, which is rarely allowed in retirement homes.

The $18-million project, designed by Santa Monica architects Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh, is a joint effort of Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing Corp. and McCormack Baron Salazar, a St. Louis-based developer that has built more than 10,000 affordable housing units in 22 cities. The former has committed to raising $1 million. The city has also pledged support--with $1.6 million from the Department of Housing and $3.8 million from the Community Redevelopment Agency. Additional funding will come from state grant and bond money, said Mercedes Marquez, vice president of McCormack Baron Salazar.

Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing Corp. was formed in 2001 to address the needs of a growing elderly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population, which the organization estimated at more than 75,000 in the greater Los Angeles area. Younger gays and lesbians don't always pay enough attention to the fate of older people in their community, said Neimark, who is 34.

"These are the people who fought so that I can walk down the street holding hands with someone. But nobody's helping them," he said. "They get pushed to the fringe of the community and put out to pasture."

Ivy Bottini, now 77, is a board member, who has tried for two decades to draw attention to the needs of elderly gays and lesbians. Soon after the nonprofit organization formed, it used state grant money to conduct a survey in the Los Angeles area. Of those surveyed, 72% of elderly gay men and 37% of elderly lesbians said they had no one to take care of them.

"With this project, there will be a whole bunch of older lesbian and gay people who will not have to live alone. Unless you have a social circle that's aging with you, it can be so hard. There's a lot of isolation in growing old alone, without other people like yourself around you," she said. "We want to send this project out as a model and take it across the country."

She said she was thrilled by plans for the complex, which will be two buildings connected by walkways, with an interior courtyard between them. One meal a day will be served at the complex, which will also provide staff to help elderly residents find the services they need and transportation.

Organizers hope to have offer activities from yoga classes to bereavement counseling.

"This will be an energetic place, with music and art and performance and all the things our community is so well known for. I see it as a very happy place," Bottini said.

City Councilman Eric Garcetti said city officials are thrilled about the project, which will give the city more of the affordable housing it desperately needs. He said the project will not discriminate and will be open to any low-income elderly person.

"It will be targeted toward a segment of the population that's never had affordable housing targeted to it," he said.

He also emphasized the development's central location, next to the Hollywood Farmer's Market, held each Sunday, and walking distance from numerous social service organizations and from bus stops and subway stations.

At the Knickerbocker, Harry Bartron said he thinks the idea is "marvelous."

"If this were a building where all the people were gay, it would be so much nicer," he said. "It's a good feeling if the people you live with know about you and understand you, and that it doesn't change their opinion of you. I'd move there in a minute. I'd move there in a hurry."

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