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Q & A on aging in place and housing for 2SLGBTQI older adults with Victor Perez-Amado

November 2023

Interviewed by Dr. Ashley Flanagan

Victor Perez-Amado is an Assistant Professor (tenure track) at the Toronto Metropolitan University School of Urban and Regional Planning. He is trained as an architect and urban designer, graduating from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

His academic research is based on aging-in-place studies and multigenerational housing, including in 2SLGBTQI+ communities. These projects include Aging Together and Queering Home, a partnership with Egale-Canada, Lathrop Communities in Massachusetts, a masterplan and design for independent and assisted living focusing on seniors with dementia and autism, and the Boston Home-Harmon Apartments, independent living for seniors with mental disabilities led by DiMella Shaffer, a Boston-based architecture practice. On another scale of engagement with the city, Perez-Amado is interested in activating public spaces by designing and building equitable and educational installations. His methodology is based on theories of placemaking, where he explores prototyping, visualization, public realm activation and community engagement.

Perez-Amado’s work has been exhibited at the 2019 and 2023 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism and the Harvard GSD Grounded Visionaries, among others.

Q: Can you share a brief introduction to the specific housing challenges faced by 2SLGBTQI older adults when considering aging in place?

It is crucial to comprehend that 2SLGBTQI+ communities rely on the concept of ‘queer kinship’ or ‘chosen family’ in order to age in place. These non-biological relationships serve as a significant source of care, especially since 2SLGBTQI+ individuals often lack traditional support from their biological families. The idea of chosen family, as introduced by anthropologist Kath Weston, acknowledges the importance of close friends who may have faced rejection from their biological families.

First, heteronormative relationship ideals, family roles, and cohabitation have influenced the development of housing opportunities for older adults in Toronto and Canada. These influences marginalize individuals who do not conform to heteronormative societal expectations, especially concerning cohabitation with chosen families. Additionally, research on the experiences of 2SLGBTQI+ older adults in Canada revealed that many feared and experienced discrimination when accessing formalized support. Some 2SLGBTQI+ older adults reported having to ‘come out’ again or return ‘back into the closet’ due to the fear of discrimination when accessing institutions, supportive housing, or other forms of housing. Moreover, various types of housing and policies in Toronto are not designed for cohabitation or shared housing, which is crucial for 2SLGBTQI+ individuals to form chosen families.

Second, 2SLGBTQI+ villages emerged from the desire to form chosen families and can help meet the social needs of the 2SLGBTQI+ community, especially after periods of persecution such as Stonewall. However, due to gentrification, rising rents, and the increasing popularity of ‘gay’ acceptance, these neighbourhoods have become dominated by tourism and non-2SLGBTQI+ individuals rather than serving as a safe haven. As a result, people often choose to leave for more affordable areas that may lack the necessary services and amenities specifically dedicated to 2SLGBTQI+ individuals. Additionally, other areas may not be as open-minded as the city center.

Third, structural and systemic factors, including 2SLGBTQI+ identities, older age, poverty, and racism, impact the housing needs of 2SLGBTQI+ older adults. These individuals often avoid or carefully navigate senior housing programs, such as residential care, due to ongoing socially sanctioned and systematic stigma, discrimination, and violence. This issue becomes more pronounced when 2SLGBTQI+ older adults reside in areas designated within the city where service providers are not adequately trained to cater to the needs of 2SLGBTQI+ communities.

Finally, 62% of Toronto’s land area is designated as neighbourhoods, vast pieces of land that only allow single-detached housing on large lots. For 2SLGBTQI+ older adults who reside in these areas, finding essential services and diverse housing options near their homes can be challenging since these areas are zoned for single-use only.

Q: Can you provide some insights into how housing policies or designs could better address disparities in housing access and quality experienced by 2SLGBTQI older adults as they age in place, and how might these changes be implemented effectively?

Firstly, Canada’s and Toronto’s housing policy should better consider the unique social structures of 2SLGBTQI+ older adults, who often rely on chosen families for support. These families are formed through non-biological relationships that are essential for support networks and informal caregiving. To facilitate aging-in-place for 2SLGBTQI+ older adults, inclusive policies prioritizing safe, affordable housing and public realm services are needed in Canada.

For example, several policies hinder the provision of housing for 2SLGBQI+ older adults, especially to accommodate the needs to form chosen families. Single-use zoning in areas designated as neighbourhoods emphasizes preserving and enhancing the existing neighbourhood character, including street patterns, lot sizes, building types, heights, setbacks, and heritage preservation. These bylaws fail to address the needs of 2SLGBTQI+ older adults, as they limit essential retail services mixed with diverse housing options. The emphasis on single-detached homes also restricts the functionality of chosen-family systems within 2SLGBTQI+ communities.

Second, in a research project conducted in collaboration with Dr. Celeste Pang, we found that federal-level housing policies for tax benefits require normative familial relationships based on genetics, such as parents, grandparents, child, grandchild, brother, sister, spouse, or common-law partner. This excludes households identifying as a family but not genetically related from receiving the tax benefit, especially 2SLGBTQI+ individuals who often rely on chosen families for support.

From a design perspective, there is an absence of purpose-built mid-size housing typologies in Toronto. A high concentration of 2SLGBTQI+ households is found in areas characterized by a prevalence of apartment buildings with fewer than five stories. These areas are typically zoned as Residential Detached neighbourhoods and often include apartments within houses, as medium-density housing is uncommon in Toronto. Residential Detached neighbourhoods have the lowest housing density in the city, yet they hold strong potential for medium-density housing growth.

Additionally, there is a lack of purpose-built apartments that support multi-family living or cohabitation. It has been observed that 2SLGBTQI+ households tend to concentrate in the western part of the city, likely due to rental unit size and capacity.

Q: Could you elaborate on the role of community and social support in facilitating aging in place for 2SLGBTQI older adults, particularly in the context of housing security and overall well-being?

Community support systems are extremely important for 2SLGBTQI+ older adults to age in place. For example, it is known and researched that structural and systemic factors, including 2SLGBTQI+ identities, older age, poverty, and racism, affect the housing needs of 2SLGBTQI+ older adults. These individuals tend to avoid or interact carefully with senior housing programs, including residential care, because many have been subjected to ongoing socially sanctioned and systematic stigma, discrimination, and violence. Consequently, their needs are often overlooked, leading to self-advocacy and community-led initiatives.

For instance, studies have revealed that participants engage in various forms of self-advocacy, finding ways to make housing work for them. Some share houses or rent rooms to other 2SLGBTQI+ people of different ages in an intergenerational, resource-sharing housing model. 2SLGBTQI+ communities are also involved in grassroots programs to fill gaps in other services. Examples include Cathy Collett, Barry Deeprose, and Marie Robertson, who began advocacy work related to HIV/AIDS at a young age. As they became older, they identified a need to provide a safe and welcoming atmosphere for 2SLGBTQI+ individuals in long-term care facilities and residential homes.

Some advocacy groups have engaged in similar work in Toronto, such as The519, Egale-Canada, and The Senior Pride Network. They have collaborated with community partners to develop public awareness and education campaigns addressing homophobia and transphobia affecting seniors.

Q: How might innovative or inclusive housing models, designs, or community programs be developed or adapted to better accommodate the diverse needs of aging 2SLGBTQI individuals seeking to age in place?

To bridge the gap between theory and practice and create shared housing models for 2SLGBTQI+ older adults in Toronto, it is necessary to understand what these shared housing typologies may look like and how they can be co-created. This understanding is crucial to encourage housing that meets the unique needs of 2SLGBTQI+ communities. It involves gaining insights into existing policies, their impact on the built form in housing, and avenues for change. It also entails understanding funding opportunities and identifying potential community partners to support these projects. Importantly, involving the community from day one is a pressing need.

To effectively create programs and ensure equity and engagement, citizen participation plays a pivotal role. Prioritizing the needs of the neighbourhood and allocating sufficient funding for quality programming are essential aspects of this process. Genuine citizen participation enables collaborative decision-making, encouraging the community to creatively work together toward shared goals and fostering a sense of ownership over the projects.

For example, in my graduate studio PL8110 – Aging Together, students developed a toolkit supporting individuals and organizations interested in exploring 2SLGBTQI+ shared housing models in Toronto. The toolkit consolidates information on policy, built form, financing, and community partnerships. It builds on research conducted on 2SLGBTQI+ shared housing arrangements, including a review of relevant academic literature and policy, along with a mapping exercise that explored where 2SLGBTQI+ populations are living in Toronto.

Q: Where can people go to learn more about your past and current work?
Currently, my research on strategies for aging in place among 2SLGBTQI+ older adults has been featured in exhibitions such as the 2023 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, as well as conferences like the 2023 ACSP in Chicago. I am currently working on multiple publications web-based resources, some in collaboration with Egale Canada, set to be published in 2024.