Anna Kear is CEO of Tonic Housing.
The most common question I’m asked is: why is there a need for LGBT+ affirming retirement communities? My short and rather simplified response is because it is all about community.
Tonic is a community-led not-for-profit housing association for LGBT+ people over 55. We are focused on creating vibrant and inclusive urban LGBT+ affirming retirement communities where people can share common experiences, find mutual support and enjoy their later life. Tonic was established in 2014 to address the issues of loneliness and isolation of older LGBT+ people and the need for specific housing and support – as there is currently none in the UK.
It is estimated that over one million LGBT+ people in the UK are over 55. In addition to the issues of ageing, LGBT+ people, in particular, have generally worse health outcomes; are more likely to live alone; be single; and less likely to have children and family support. They are also less likely to feel a sense of belonging to their local community, and crucially, feel that their specific needs are not considered in their care. Our Building Safe Choices 2020 survey, of over 600 older LGBT+ Londoners, asked what type of retirement community people wanted and found that almost four in five people (79%) wanted LGBT+ affirming or accredited, and only one per cent would consider a generalist scheme. This preference was across all tenures, gender identities and sexual orientations.
We need to look beyond these headlines to understand these issues and the demand. What is different about the challenges and lived experiences of older LGBT+ people and therefore what needs to be different about service provision alongside the importance of mutual support?
The historic discrimination that older LGBT+ people have faced (and can still face) – including criminalisation, electric shock treatment, hate crime and rejection by family – all form part of a very real fear of institutions and authorities. Tonic is all about creating safe places where people can feel at home and be themselves, where you don’t have to ‘come out’ every time you have a neighbourly chat. ‘Finally, there is something for me!’ is what many said when we recently announced the funding for our first scheme in central London.
Tonic@Bankhouse will be the first LGBT+ affirming retirement community in the UK when it opens later this year. LGBT+ affirming means that our approach to services and support will not just be ‘LGBT+ friendly’ but genuinely affirming of the lives, histories, needs and desires of LGBT+ people. The term does not imply exclusion of those who do not identify as LGBT+, but actively values those who respect and celebrate LGBT+ people. For those unsure what this looks and feels like, we will be showing this at Bankhouse with residents leading the way.
Tonic has been working towards making this vision a reality for several years now, with our community panel of volunteers actively involved in shaping the specification of the scheme and services that they wish to see. Right up there at the number one spot was the importance of the community space with a bar. Individual apartments, a well-connected location, on-site care staff, plus a guest suite were also high priorities.
The selection of Bankhouse was based on these criteria along with the hugely important value-based partnership with One Housing. This partnership route was critical because of the price of land and property in London and the difficulty small organisations face in raising capital finance. We learnt so much about how to get our first scheme off the ground from the generosity of shared learning from our friends at SAGE in the USA, where there are 17 LGBT+ affirming retirement communities with a National Housing Initiative full of resources. Members of our community panel have shared their stories, in order to increase understanding of our work. You can see their videos on our website and take a read of Ted’s Story.
Tonic’s ambition is to create many more community-led LGBT+ affirming retirement communities, through a range of partnerships. This could be through new development or further acquisitions of empty properties. We are already in discussions with a major landowner about our next project and are looking for potential investment partners. Our community-led partnership business model is flexible and replicable. The key to the success of such partnerships is mutual respect ensuring the LGBT+ community trust is embedded ‘by us and for us’ and protected for the long-term through ownership.
We are aiming to make this far easier to achieve having set the precedent. We are applying to become a Registered Provider of Social Housing which is required in the UK to provide affordable rented homes. It is a complex and ongoing responsibility, so we intend that other local LGBT+ groups can benefit by working with Tonic to provide similar schemes in their cities.