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Trailblazing in San Diego: North Park Senior Apartments

Member Sponsor Award

Torrey Pines Bank, a Division of Western Alliance Bank

Community HousingWorks

$750,000 AHP Grant

More than 2.7 million Americans age 50 and older identify as LGBT, making this population a significant and growing part of the “silver tsunami” that is swelling demand for scarce affordable senior housing options. As they age, these LGBT elders — who represent the Stonewall Uprising generation that fought for the right to live their lives “out and proud” — confront unique barriers and inequities, in addition to the challenges that face their non-LGBT fellow baby boomers.

When The San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (The Center) conducted a survey of the housing and related needs of the area’s LGBT seniors, more than 400 respondents identified their top four concerns as:

  • Lack of family, community, and social support and fears about increasing social isolation;
  • Lack of access to culturally competent healthcare, mental health, and social services;
  • Inadequate financial resources; and
  • Lack of safe, affordable, and LGBT-affirming housing options.

The survey findings, published under the title LGBT San Diego’s Trailblazing Generation, are what led Community HousingWorks and The Center to collaborate on the design and development of an inclusive and LGBT-affirming affordable housing community. “This was the hard evidence that made the case for creating this community,” says Lauren Manalo of Community HousingWorks. “And this is a very civically engaged community, so there was a ton of support from the very beginning.” 

The result is North Park Senior Apartments, an award-winning, transit-oriented, 76-unit affordable housing community that is open to all seniors 55 and over who meet the income requirements, while providing an especially welcoming environment to low-income LGBT seniors, with onsite services and programs offered to all residents by The Center. 

“When I got the call that I had been approved for housing — it was my miracle. I hung up the phone and cried — I couldn’t have been more grateful that I had been chosen.”
Terry Vaughn, Resident

Terry Vaughn, at 60 years old, has been living with HIV/AIDS since 1984. He moved from Florida to San Diego in 1997 and spent six months in the hospital at UC San Diego with encephalitis of the brain. “I was fortunate, San Diego was my salvation,” he relates. “They saved my life, and then the new cocktail came out and that saved all our lives.” 

Terry became part of the North Park community as he volunteered for the HIV agency Being Alive and at The Center, and was busy with other projects, like a mask-making class he taught for five years, but it wasn’t an area where he could afford to rent. A former cabinet maker, Terry’s only source of income was SSI, so he put his name on the waiting list for a Section 8 housing voucher. After eight years on the waiting list, he was finally able to live in the neighborhood where he spent most of his time. 

But over time, as the area grew more popular, his rent rose to consume 60 percent of his $1,000 monthly SSI income and it was difficult to manage. At the same time, Terry’s weight went down to 118 pounds. “My doctor told me to put my affairs in order, to go say goodbye to my sister, it was time,” he says. 

He went to stay with his sister, but he felt uncomfortable being in a Southern town of just 5,000 people that lacked the kind of diversity he enjoyed. Terry returned to San Diego and his too-expensive apartment, because this was home, and a place where he felt he could die with dignity as a gay man.

And then: Terry did not die. “God just wasn’t ready for me, AGAIN,” he says. “This is about the fifth time I’ve knocked on the door and he said, “No, not yet.” Visiting The Center’s website, Terry learned about North Park Seniors apartments, and he became fixated on having the opportunity to become one of its first residents. He avidly followed the project’s progress and waited for applications to be available.

“On May the first, at 4:30 am, I was sitting at The Center with a little bag of food and a couple of drinks, to be first in line,” he says. His application was among those chosen in the first-cut lottery, then came background checks and interviews. "When I got the call that I had been approved for housing — it was my miracle. I hung up the phone and cried — I couldn’t have been more grateful that I had been chosen.” 

Feeling safe and secure in a brand new one-bedroom apartment for which he pays only 30 percent of his income, Terry’s weight is back up to 135 pounds. He’s working on a memoir, serving on the board of Being Alive, participating in the North Park Seniors Residents Advisory Council and, as he puts it, becoming a “poster child” for affordable housing advocacy. He recently gave testimony at a City Council committee meeting to successfully advocate for placing a new $900 million affordable housing measure on the ballot. “I have so much gratitude. I’m no longer 118 pounds and without hope,” he shares. “I know where I’m going to be, I can sleep in peace.”

“I’m just so delighted to be here. Everyone gets along. People say hello and neighbors help each other.”
Catherine Williams, Resident

Fellow Advisory Council member Catherine Williams, 62, joined Terry in testifying in favor of the bond measure. Catherine was living nearby in an older, poorly maintained apartment building when she saw a notice about North Park Seniors. Like Terry, she watched and waited until applications became available. She didn’t make it through the first-cut lottery, but received word a few months later that she could re-apply. “I think I was really excited to move in here because it was new, and they put so much attention to detail,” says Catherine, who lives in one of the units with special features, including a visual doorbell for the hearing-impaired. 

A retired social worker, Catherine says there was not a lot of “connectedness” where she was living before. “I’m just so delighted to be here,” Catherine says. “Everyone gets along. We have Christians and Muslims, gay and lesbian people, straight people, black people, white people – a mix of people. People say hello and neighbors help each other.”

Kyron Pierce, Senior Housing Client Manager for The Center, advises the Residents’ Advisory Council that both Terry and Catherine sit on. “Catherine has really embraced the idea of community,” Kyron notes. “I think the message here is inclusivity, because we’ve all felt shut out of spaces, and we don’t want to shut out others.”

Catherine also appreciates the activities and programs that Kyron organizes for residents, from Monday Morning Donut Socials to Lunch and Learns on important topics, like Alzheimer’s disease, from which her father suffered. “They explained the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, and I used the resource agency that presented the information to us, and they helped get hospice for him at the end,” Catherine says. “It was a great resource, and I’m not sure I would have found it on my own.” 

“Building North Park Seniors was a true collaborative effort among individuals and community groups at every level, from neighborhood supporters and LGBT activists to community leaders and generous funding partners. This one came from many hearts.”
Sue Reynolds, President and CEO, Community HousingWorks

From conception to move-in day, it took over a decade of advocacy and planning and the forging of many productive partnerships to open the doors of North Park Seniors to Terry, Catherine, and the other residents. “Building North Park Seniors was a true collaborative effort among individuals and community groups at every level, from neighborhood supporters and LGBT activists to community leaders and generous funding partners,” says Sue Reynolds, President and CEO of Community HousingWorks. “This one came from many hearts. We are proud and grateful to have the support of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and Torrey Pines Bank in constructing this landmark community.”

The project received a $750,000 Affordable Housing Program (AHP) grant through FHLBank San Francisco member Torrey Pines Bank. “Torrey Pines Bank is fully committed to reinvesting in the community, and the North Park Seniors project helps fill the need for affordable housing in such a vibrant neighborhood,” said Sean Hunt, Vice President at Torrey Pines Bank. “We appreciate being able to partner with the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco on this project through their AHP.”

North Park Seniors is the seventh development of its kind in the nation, and the first in San Diego. “It has so much more to offer than a regular residence,” Catherine points out. “It would be good to replicate this everywhere – every area of town should have something like this.” The project’s success will undoubtedly inspire more developments like it around the country.