It’s Taco Night in the community room at A Place for Us, an apartment building at 11610 Madison Ave. on the Cleveland-Lakewood border.
Darryl Fore, a resident of the building, organized the event. He chats with neighbors as he hands out goodie bags and plates of tacos.
Fore is 62 and retired, and—in his words— “I just happen to be a gay Black man.”
The building itself also happens to be gay. Or, to quote the apartment building’s website, “The first LGBTQ-friendly Senior Housing Community in the state of Ohio.”
That's not necessarily apparent from a quick look around. There are no rainbow flags on the wall. No flyers about gay organizations. It's just a taco night—a chance for neighbors to gather.
Fore says that’s exactly the way he likes it.
"I am always about inclusion," Fore says. "I don't want to do anything where I'm going to exclude anybody for any reason from anything that happens here."
A decades-long effort
As the building approaches its sixth anniversary, some former residents and the building’s founder and co-developer say it’s not fulfilling its promise to be a space that proactively supports older LGBTQ people.
“The mission is to build community,” says Linda Krasienko, a pastor and activist who founded A Place for Us as a nonprofit initiative. “And the way you build community is you have amenities inside the facility which bring people together and you have focused programing and intentional services.”
Krasienko worked for more than 20 years to build a residential building in Cleveland for older LGBTQ adults. Over that time, she explored partnerships with many developers, but she says most were only interested because they saw a potential for profit.
“What they wanted to do was just build apartments,” Krasienko says. “And I said, ‘No, I have a mission. The mission is to build community.’”
She eventually partnered with NRP Group, an apartment developer based in Cleveland. She says NRP understood her mission, and they worked together to win low-income housing tax credits from the State of Ohio to help finance the project.
The $10 million, 55-unit building opened in 2016. There were plentiful news reports at the time about it being the first LGBTQ-friendly senior housing in Ohio.
Because of the public funding the building got, it’s not legal to ask about someone's sexual orientation when they apply for housing—something meant to protect people from discrimination. But the law also means that management of a building catering to the LGBTQ population can't ask prospective tenants if they identify as LGBTQ.
Instead, NRP and Krasienko originally planned to offer programming that would attract older LGBTQ adults to move in and stay. A supportive services plan submitted as part of the tax credit application said there’d be activities like a women’s social group, talks by local LGBTQ experts and senior lunches coordinated by the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
Krasienko, who never moved into the building herself, said she was able to offer some of that programming initially. But she said it didn’t last, because building management stopped including her in meetings and planning sessions.
What's gay enough?
Some residents, too, were disappointed in what they saw as a lack of LGBTQ events and sense of community.
"I wanted to have a place that was safe, and I could be myself," says Ken Atkins, a retired machine operator who moved into the building shortly after it opened. "I thought it was going to be all gay and lesbian."
Atkins eventually moved out, along with some of his gay neighbors, in part because they didn’t find the community they sought.
“A lot of them said that it just wasn't what they thought it was going to be,” Atkins says. “You know, ‘I don't even see that many gay people there.’”
The question of exactly how many LGBTQ people live in the building is impossible to answer, given that questions about sexual orientation are off-limits to building managers.
But Fore, the resident who organized the taco party, estimates about 25% of current residents are LGBTQ. That compares to about 4.5% of the total population nationally.
“My question is, how gay do you need it to be?” Fore asks. “People come to this property with expectations, and it’s just not what they expected it or wanted it to be. And I've approached those people and asked them, ‘Well, what do you want this to be?’ And most of the time, they can't tell me.”
Fore says he senses some LGBTQ residents want services or events that exclude non-gay people, which would go against his preference for including everyone.
NRP Group declined to be interviewed for this story, but the organization provided a statement that said it believes the building is doing just what it set out to do. The statement read, in part, “There is a long waitlist of individuals who have applied to live at A Place For Us, which we believe is a testament to the inclusive and safe culture we’ve cultivated here.”
Figuring out just how visibly gay or proactive in its programming a building needs to be to feel safe for LGBTQ people is complex work, according to Aaron Tax of SAGE, a nonprofit that provides services for older gay people. But he says it’s still very much work worth doing, because older LGBTQ people are more likely to be single and less likely to have kids than straight older people.
“And because of that, they generally don't have that same support network in place,” Tax says.
And contrary to the “affluent, double-income-no-kids” stereotype of same-sex couples, LGBTQ people actually face higher rates of poverty than their straight counterparts, which can make life in general more difficult, Tax says.
“One challenge that it highlights is as much as it's great to have one building, it's an issue that we can't build our way out of,” he explains. “We have to make sure that the larger housing stock all across the country is welcoming to LGBT older folks.”
Krasienko, meanwhile, says she's working with a different local developer to build a new project for older LGBTQ adults.
The big difference this time, she says, is that she’ll insist on being a paid employee, so she has more direct say in how the building is programmed and marketed.
This story originally appeared on June 9 on Ideastream Public Media and in The Buckeye Flame. Republished with permission.
Justin Glanvile tells stories of Northeast Ohio’s people and also helps them tell their own stories through Ideastream Public Media’s the “Sound of Us” initiative.
Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame, Ohio’s LGBTQ+ news and views digital platform. He is the author of Seriously…What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew (2017), LGBTQ Cleveland (2018), LGBTQ Columbus (2019), and LGBTQ Cincinnati. For 10 years, he was the host of This Show is So Gay, the nationally syndicated radio show. In his spare time, he is a Professor of Education at Baldwin Wallace University, teaching courses in ethical leadership, antiracism, and how individuals can work with communities to make just and meaningful change.
Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame, Ohio’s LGBTQ+ news and views digital platform. He is the author of Seriously…What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew (2017), LGBTQ Cleveland (2018), LGBTQ Columbus (2019), and LGBTQ Cincinnati. For 10 years, he was the host of This Show is So Gay, the nationally-syndicated radio show. In his spare time, he is a Professor of Education at Baldwin Wallace University, teaching courses in ethical leadership, antiracism, and how individuals can work with communities to make just and meaningful change.