Britain’s other housing crisis (the one that politicians aren’t talking about)

By Andrew King

The context

I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the housing crisis in the UK in recent weeks. It’s been dubbed a ‘human disaster’ and as the General Election 2015 fast approaches there are suggestions that housing is moving up the political agenda; witness, for example, the Conservatives’ much debated extension of ‘right to buy’ to Housing Association tenants. It’s interesting to see that in recent weeks the housing debate has taken a generational turn – it’s been suggested that Baby Boomers (those currently aged between 50 and 70 years of age) are buying up new housing at an alarming rate and renting at sky high prices to young millennials  (those young adults aged up to their mid-30s). A review by the Charted Institute of Surveyors said: “In England, the proportion of 25-34-year-olds who were homeowners dropped from 66.5 per cent to 36 per cent in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of 65-74-year-olds who own their own home rose from 62.3 per cent to 77.1 per cent.” (1) Apparently, it’s another example of wicked Baby Boomers, robbing the ground (foundations!) from under their own (and others) children, in a re-run of previous accusations by the likes of David Willets, Howker and Malik et al.

Whilst there certainly appear to be generational differences in access to and choice of housing, the notion that all Baby Boomers are enjoying a wonderful later life, living in luxury, is a dangerous misconception, as my colleague Professor Sara Arber has recently demonstrated in her analysis of data from the Understanding Society survey. There is, however, another reason that I make this claim. That is because research, including my own, has demonstrated that older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, including older LGBT Baby Boomers, consistently express concerns and actual experiences of discrimination related to housing later in life because of their sexuality and/or gender identity.

LGBT people and Housing in later life

Studies show that older LGBT people report a range of concerns, fears and detrimental experiences related to housing later in life. A survey by the older LGBT charity Stonewall (2), for instance, with a sample comprised of 1,050 heterosexual and 1,036 lesbian, gay and bisexual participants found that older LGB people were more likely to be living alone and express more anxiety about housing later in life than their heterosexual peers. Additionally, 36% of the older LGB people in the sample were concerned about revealing their sexuality to a housing provider; and this despite a decade of equality legislation.

The Stonewall survey echoes the findings of other research, particularly qualitative studies, which demonstrate that older LGB&T people are particularly concerned about prejudice, stigma and outright discrimination from housing providers, housing staff and other residents, especially in relation to residential care homes and housing complexes (3). Such places are felt to be highly heteronormative – organised and run with the idea that everyone is heterosexual. Transgender and gender nonconforming people, in particular, have grave concerns that their gender identity will be questioned or subject to derision and further that care home providers will simply not know how to care for them (4). Indeed, for many LGBT people, contemplating life in a residential care home or residential housing complex is akin to losing their identities, their sense of self and their dignity (5); these are dangerous places, to be avoided at all costs.

What can be done?

There is limited research in this respect. Some suggests that older LGBT people want LGBT-specific housing: specifically for LGBT people and preferably staffed and/or owned by LGBT people. Such provision does exist in other countries (6), including: ‘LGB Co-operative Retirement Community’, Rivas-Vaciamadrid, Spain; ‘Triangle Square Senior Living’, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA; ‘Sanctuary Cove LGB Retirement Community’, Florida, USA; Linton Estate Retirement Haven, Yarraville, Victoria, Australia. However, other research suggests that older LGBT people prefer LGBT-friendly, mainstream provision: provision, which recognises that LGBT people exist, have different needs and lives to heterosexual and/or cisgender people, yet do not want to be separated from others. Or as one older lesbian said, in research I conducted with my colleague Dr Ann Cronin:

Sandy: I quite like the idea of a gay sheltered home complex. But I don’t think it’s realistic. Gay friendly’s ok.

Ann: What does gay friendly mean?

Sandy: I tell you what it would. In sheltered housing it would mean having gay stuff up on the notice board. Wouldn’t that be brilliant?’ (Cronin and King, 2011)

Yet this ‘specific’ vs ‘friendly’ dichotomy can obscure other options that are, or should be, available: for example, co-operative housing (7), set up, run and operated by residents based on a range of preferences; gender specific housing, particularly LB women-only, women-only, GB men-only housing (8); or intergenerational housing options (9, 10), where younger and older LGBT people support each other, including in the home. However, one of the single biggest problems in the UK is a lack of robust evidence, particularly quantitative evidence, about housing choices/options and preferences for older LGBT people, which can be used by policy makers, housing providers/developers and advocates to lobby for and create change. It’s partly for this reason that I, along with colleagues in Sociology and the Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender (CRAG) at Surrey (Dr Paul Stoneman, Dr Sue Westwood and Dr Ann Cronin) have commenced a new project, the ‘SAFE (secure, accessible, friendly, equal) Housing – LGBT Housing in Later Life’ Project. Working with Opening Doors London, Stonewall Housing, SAND and Age UK Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, the project will run a number of focus groups with older LGBT people in London and Shropshire, plus an online survey. The aim of the project is to understand (a) barriers and problems older LGBT people currently face in relation to housing, (b) housing options currently available and (c) future needs and developments i.e. what older LGBT people would like to see. The project runs until July 2015 and there will be a ‘LGBT Housing in Later Life Summit’ at Surrey on 30th July 2015, attended by policy makers, local and central government agencies, LGBT activists and community members, academics and housing providers/organisations.

Whilst the SAFE Housing Project is too late to impact on this general election, highlighting Britain’s other housing crisis remains a crucial objective – let’s hope that by election 2020 LGBT housing in later life will be a political priority!


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