Affordable Housing Welcoming to LGBTQ Seniors: Addressing a Critical Need in Boston

by Suzanne Battit

Senior Vice President and Fundraising Practice Manager

Posted June 15, 2022

In this month’s At the Helm, our Senior Vice President Suzanne Battit sat down with Aileen Montour, the President of LGBTQ Senior Housing, Inc. They discussed what it means to be the first organization of its kind in Boston, finding success and establishing credibility as a new nonprofit, and how Aileen is finding joy and purpose as a leader.

Suzanne: Your career has been primarily focused on the healthcare sector, with positions at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Neponset Health Center, and LifePlans. What brought you to LGBTQ Senior Housing?

Aileen: It’s true that my career has been primarily in healthcare; however, over the past 30 years or so, I have been involved in various social justice issues, too. That work is what really moves me – I’ve dedicated time to immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights, fair trade agreements, affordable housing, volunteer acupuncture at a domestic violence shelter, treating HIV/AIDS patients, and political campaigns. After retiring, I knew I wanted to find the right cause to devote my time, energy, and experience to.

I attended a panel presentation by OLOC (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change) and one of the topics was, “Where are we going to live when we get older and how do we ensure it’s a place where we don’t have to go back into the closet?” At that time, I wasn’t really thinking of myself as that old, so I hadn’t given it a lot of thought! But I immediately connected with the cause. I have some experience in construction, having designed and built a house back in the day, and I care about affordable housing. I thought, this is something I can help with. So, I raised my hand and volunteered to work on a project for LGBTQ senior housing. From there, I was invited onto the task force, and so it went.

I have found myself at a point in my life where my past experiences have created a real fit for this work. As President of LGBTQ Senior Housing, I have the opportunity to address so many issues that have impacted our LGBTQ seniors: poverty, racism, discrimination. It’s given me the greatest joy and purpose during these years of my retirement. My path may have been uneven, but I have always pursued what appeals to me. If it appeals, I’m in. And if I’m in, I’m in 110%.

So, as you said, you started as a task force, and you have made great strides forward since then. LGBTQ Senior Housing, together with Pennrose, has been granted TDD (Tentative Developer Designation) status by the City of Boston to develop LGBTQ friendly senior housing at the William Barton Rogers School in Hyde Park. Tell us more about the significance of this.

It’s pretty darn significant that our small, community-based task force became a nonprofit, partnered with the best developer we could find, won the open bid for this property in a relatively short period of time, secured the funding and permits, and actually started construction! It might seem like it’s been a long process—we’ve been working on this for over 7 years now—but to go from zero to where we are today, it’s actually lightning speed. I think our success is due to the transparency and openness with which we have worked. We have been bringing folks along with us and our vision since the beginning – by educating and connecting with our elected officials at the local and state offices and by reaching out to the Hyde Park community. It’s been a very open—and joyful—process.

At this point in my career, I don’t have time to start small. I have to go big. And this progress in Hyde Park is pretty darn big.

What does it mean to develop affordable, LGBTQ friendly housing for seniors in Boston?

It means we are creating a community. It’s not just a place for older LGBTQ people to live – it’s a place for them to be their authentic selves without fear or shame, to be free and joyous, to laugh, celebrate, and live happily and healthily into old age while surrounded by their friends and chosen family. Too many of our community members aren’t given that opportunity. And heartbreakingly, the stress of living in the closet can take 12 years off a person’s lifespan.

So, it is critically important that we provide our community with a safe, happy, and healthy living space. And not only is the Pryde, the upcoming development, the first of its kind in the community, it’s the first in Boston and the first in New England. The need for this kind of housing is tremendous, and we’re just getting started.

Are there unique challenges/opportunities when doing this work in Boston specifically?

One challenge is the false assumption that we have made more progress in LGBTQ rights than we actually have, due to being leaders in marriage equality. We still do not have a single LGBTQ community center in Boston. So many other cities have centers – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, the West Coast, etc. Why doesn’t Boston have a designated place for members of the LGBTQ community to come together? It’s so important. And then of course, there are still so many instances of bias, misinformation, discrimination, and violence towards marginalized groups. I think about the fact that BIPOC transgender women have a life expectancy of 35 years. It’s beyond horrible. So clearly, there is still work to do around securing rights, educating people, and advocating for change.

Another challenge is the high cost of living in Boston. It’s extremely expensive. And there is a history of economic inequality for LGBTQ folks; they have often faced job discrimination and been paid less, and that all impacts retirement. On top of that, gentrification is coming, neighborhood by neighborhood, forcing people out. That piece is critical, too.

On a positive note, we are so grateful for the support that we have received from our elected officials at the city and state level. They have been very open to learning, listening, and joining us in our efforts.

You touched on the devastating statistic about the average lifespan of Black trans women. That leads to my next question. How are you thinking about and addressing intersectionality?

For us, it’s about intentionality. It’s something we are always thinking about as we develop our Board. We need to be inclusive, diverse, and representative of a range of ages, skills, expertise, races, ethnicities, gender identities, and sexual orientations. And as we bring on subcontractors and workers, we continue to educate everyone along the way about the historic nature and importance of the project. We’re also constantly reaching out to Boston residents from every background. We want to ensure that everyone feels welcomed and included.

LGBTQ Senior Housing was incorporated in 2018. As you reflect on the past few years, what have been the biggest successes? The biggest challenges?

I think many of our challenges have led to our greatest successes. We grew from a small task force to a nonprofit in a relatively short amount of time, all while keeping the board and project community-based and controlled. We realized early on that we had a unique mission: focusing on affordable housing welcoming to and inclusive of LGBTQ seniors. None of the formal housing groups, senior living agencies, or larger LGBTQ organizations in town were focused on this specific need. The only option was for our task force—our little band of warriors—to incorporate and do it ourselves. In this way, our dream and unique mission were born, and that was a challenge, but we’ve done it.

Diversifying our board was also a challenge, but we were determined because representation does matter. We are very pleased with the strong and diverse board we have created.

Winning the bid to secure land against some other big hitters was another challenge. We’re an upstart, brand new nonprofit partnered with a relatively new developer in town, so we were wondering, how are we going to win with an open bidding process? But we did. That’s partly due to the amazing and unprecedented amount of community support we had, in addition to the best design and our strong experienced developer. Our bid included over 400 letters of support from the local Hyde Park community as well as the LGBTQ community across Boston. What started as a challenge became another success.

Now, what are you focused on looking forward?

We’re focusing on establishing our credibility as a new, young organization – which I think we’re already doing successfully! Any of our naysayers can see that we have already embarked on our first project and we’re looking towards our next one.

As we complete the Pryde, launch it, and get it operational, we will be actively involved with the community to ensure it’s everything that we said it would be – and that we have the programming and services needed to truly create a vibrant LGBTQ community center. And of course, to achieve this and make it as fabulous as it can be, we will need to raise funds. So, we are focused on how we can support ourselves. How can we make ourselves better known to donors, funders, and philanthropists so we can fulfill our vision?

From there, we want to be able to help other communities to replicate our work by making our model accessible and available. Whether that means partnering directly or just empowering them to take on projects themselves – we want to do whatever we can. I cannot overstate how great the need for housing of this kind truly is. We have already collected over 700 names of people who are interested in our housing, and our first development will only have 74 units. And we’re just beginning our outreach! So clearly, we need to keep going and do more. It’s exciting.

Of course, throughout all these changes and growth, we need to stay mission-focused. It’s the nature of the beast – there will always be pressure to become more conventional. But we have been pretty successful going along our own path in our own way. And at this point in my career and at my age, I want to have fun with this work and be strong and speak out in ways that I wouldn’t have earlier in life. Being older and working for a cause you truly care about – it gives you a freedom to put it all out there.

One final question: what advice would you share with fellow leaders – especially those at the helm of organizations during their formation?

Do not let anyone discourage you from pursuing your dream, and do not let them limit your vision. There will always be forces that say, “oh you can’t do that, it’s too hard, it’s not possible,” etc. Don’t buy that. Stay strong, keep going, and remain laser-focused on your goal. That also means not getting pulled in too many different directions. Know your mission and stick to it.

Seek out the right partners. Recruit a strong, diverse team and board. It takes a whole village, so you need the right people around you.

Keep your community and supporters engaged every step of way. Keep educating and informing them. You need to bring people along with you.

And lastly, be open to change, new challenges, and learning new things. I’ve certainly learned a lot on this journey, and it’s been a blast. So have fun, people!

Every month, Development Guild leadership spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.