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LGBT Seniors Await New Affordable Housing In North Park

San Diego’s first affordable housing development for LGBT seniors breaks ground next week. It aims to help a community wounded by bigotry, job discrimination, isolation and loss of family.

Robert Bettinger has more stories than can fit in a single news article.

He's 87 and gay. He served in the Army in Japan after World War II. He’s an ordained Episcopal priest, and lobbied for that church’s move toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians. He married a woman and raised children before coming out in 1975 and moving to San Francisco. There, he said, he met Harvey Milk and served on then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s gay advisory committee.

Bettinger also had two partners die of AIDS.

These kinds of experiences are shared by many in Bettinger’s generation. That’s one reason why he’s so supportive of North Park Seniors, the forthcoming affordable housing development designed for LGBT seniors. He said they need to be among their peers.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Robert Bettinger gestures toward a frame holding old photos of himself, June 22, 2016.

“It’s the issue of not having family, but having somebody step up and be support to you, and someone who’s also experienced what you’ve experienced. The discrimination, the loss of jobs, the loss of home, family, being forced away from your own family, being refused to be acknowledged by your family,” Bettinger said. “There are just so many people who need this housing.”

The San Diego-based nonprofit developer behind the project, Community Housing Works, breaks ground on Wednesday. The 76 apartments, which are also available to non-LGBT seniors, are reserved for people 55 and older earning a maximum 60 percent of the area median income.

The development took advantage of a number of state and local incentives designed to encourage low-income housing construction, including tax credits, loans and a density bonus that allowed more apartments to be built on the parcel of land than otherwise permitted.

The site at Howard Avenue and Texas Street is currently an out-of-use parking lot — an example of the blight that has kept the area from redeveloping. Dave Gatzke, vice president of acquisitions for Community Housing Works, said North Park residents have been eager to see how the new apartments improve the character of the neighborhood.

“Throughout the approval process we received enthusiastic support, not only because we were providing a home for people who may be threatened with displacement, who have long been North Park residents and part of the LGBT community, but because North Park’s very excited about seeing new high-quality development along the transit investments that the city of San Diego and MTS have made,” Gatzke said.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Dave Gatzke of Community Housing Works holds an artist's rendering of the LGBT-affirming North Park Seniors affordable housing development, June 22, 2016.

One of those transit investments is the nearby Mid-City Rapid 215 bus route, which connects to Balboa Park and downtown San Diego. The LGBT Community Center is also two stops away, and the center has committed to providing programming for the new residents.

Betty Owen, 77, comes to the LGBT center a few times a week for yoga and other social and service-oriented activities. She also participated in the original study, published by the center in 2011, that assessed the needs of LGBT seniors in San Diego. The study found a majority of those who responded had not been able to plan sufficiently for retirement.

Owen and many others like her were hard-hit by the Great Recession. She said a condo she bought at the peak of the housing market lost half of its value.

“Everything took (a) dump that I had,” she said. “My investment principle, I lost probably half of, which meant I lost half of my income. Probably even more.”

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Betty Owen smiles while speaking in the library at the San Diego LGBT Community Center, June 22, 2016.

Beyond the financial vulnerability of LGBT seniors, Owen said fear of rejection can lead some seniors to go back into the closet when they enter a new living environment. She said many — herself included — yearn for a place where they can be fully themselves without risking homophobia or transphobia.

“I see a lot of these commercials for senior housing, and they all have a man and a woman, enjoying each other,” she said. “And they have parties and dances and things. I wouldn’t fit there, you know? As gracious as these people might tend to be, I go to women’s dances.”

Bettinger agreed that LGBT seniors need a home where they can come together and support each other.

“And I’m hoping that as we get to live in the North Park housing, that we will go in that direction,” he said. “And that we will go with joy and speed, and that we will go with a lot of compassion.”

Applications for the North Park Seniors apartments open in mid-2017. Construction is expected to finish later that year.

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