Making the most of a niche market
The number of baby boomers hitting age 65 increases daily. Within that larger demographic is a submarket those in the seniors housing industry are eyeing with interest: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender seniors.
Studies conducted in 2010 estimate that there are about 1.5 million LGBT seniors and project that by 2030 there will be 3 million.
In today’s seniors housing market, there are not many housing options specifically tailored to the LGBT community. In recent years, projects have crashed and burned as financing dried up and as LGBT seniors stayed put as they watched the value of their 401Ks and homes wither.
Still, there is money to be made with this market, said Joy Silver, president and CEO of RainbowVision Properties, a consulting firm specializing in creating progressive senior living communities. Silver was the co-founder of RainbowVision Sante Fe, one of the country's first senior living communities targeted at the LGBT community. Facing financial problems, RainbowVision Sante Fe filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and is now being operated by trustees of its largest creditor, the Los Alamos National Bank.
“There is a market for LGBT seniors housing,” Silver said. “I think what that is going to look like has to be looked at in the larger construct of what’s happening in the economy.”
While the 2012 forecast is robust for healthcare-related real estate investments reported Jones Lang LaSalle, a financial and professional services firm specializing in real estate, at the end of 2011, supporting projects targeted to so specific a market may be challenging.
However, the challenges can be met, and sometimes in simpler ways than building a new facility from the ground up.
One of the simplest? For mainstream facilities to become more inclusive. “The population of older adults is becoming increasingly diverse,” said Serena Worthington, director of community advocacy and capacity building at Chicago’s Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE).
“If you’re looking at it from a business perspective and you want people to be safe, being culturally competent and safe and inclusive just makes sense,” said Worthington. “It also makes sense to be ready for this wave of people that will be LGBT, that will be HIV positive, (that) will be people of color.”
Being inclusive, she said, can be as simple as labeling a single-stall bathroom gender neutral. That makes using it comfortable for, say, transgender people, as well as others, such as a mother who needs to accompany a young son or an adult son who needs to assist his elderly mother.
Furthermore, inclusivity isn’t just about attracting LGBT seniors to live in a facility. It makes senior living facilities more attractive to LGBT adult children helping their non-LGBT parents make senior housing decisions.
While there are simple things senior living facilities can do to become more inclusive, facilities also need to make fundamental changes, Worthington said.
“When people think about serving LGBT adults, they have to think about what their life was like – the unequal treatment under the law and stigma and discrimination and maybe not being able to make the career choices that would have lead to the highest impact,” she added. “I think folks have to really think about that when (they) think about ‘Oh, you know, well I’ll just put a rainbow flag on the door and everything’s going to be OK.’ You have to actually make serious changes to the culture of your organization.”
Those businesses that already have a number of senior living facilities (mainstream or “progressive”) are at a financial advantage over those “Mom-and-Moms” or “Pop-and-Pops” that try to create LGBT-targeted housing from the ground up said Silver. That’s because there are savings in pooled costs and things like bulk pricing.
But, given the wave of diverse elderly that the country – and its senior living facilities – will be facing in the near future, there’s opportunity for everyone. “If you look at these numbers,” said Worthington, “we’re going to need everybody on board to care for this number of people.”