How Gay Will Your Retirement Be? Planned Communities Take a Queer Turn

james-t-sears-phdThe imagery of growing old presented in films such as On Golden Pond and Cocoon is almost iconic. But, entering one’s “golden years” with the prospect of being wheeled back into the closet is a fate feared by many LGBT seniors. 

Heterosexist policies or homophobic attitudes are rampant at mainstream retirement homes or senior-only planned communities. Unable to hold your lover’s hand in public, silenced as others share photos of their grandchildren, restricted from sharing your room with a same-sex friend are some of the everyday indignities endured by graying gays. 

My book, Growing Older: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Aging Process, highlights issues ranging from a shrinking network of friends to denial of spousal benefits (such as Social Security money earnedThe Gabyboom by a deceased partner). In one senior (and straight) care facility, for example, a gay man found himself involuntarily moved from the active population after others protested his presence to a “more suitable” location where he was surrounded by patients suffering from dementia.

As a society, Americans are living longer but there is no guarantee that our extended lives will be matched by the standard of living which we have become accustomed or a retirement lifestyle that we have imagined. The dwindling value of investment portfolios, from stocks and real estate to CDs and annuities, along with near certain increases in taxes and decreases in benefits are dampening many a retirement plan. Some would-be retirees are facing the prospect of working additional years and those in retirement are re-entering (or trying to) the job market (WalMart greeter anyone?). 

Members of my “gabyboom” generation (estimated at 3 million) have had an extraordinary impact on every life phase. Many of us were youthful activists in the years surrounding Stonewall. We entered professions and, in the process, often queered them, from LGBT business guilds to out academics.  But, what about our second 50 years? Is the Stonewall generation going to gay grayness?

During the last decade or so, as the economy boomed and real estate seemed a sure bet, lesbian and gay senior communities sprouted up throughout the US as well as in other countries like Australia and Germany. From rental apartments to planned developments, common amenities ranged from restaurants, fitness centers, and housekeeping services to assisted living and medical care.  Cabaret theaters and piano bars sometimes substituted for mainstream golf courses.

The oldest gay/lesbian community, the Palms of Manasota, was conceived by psychologist Bill Lang during the mid-90s. Construction began at this Florida Gulf Coast community in 1997. Eight years later—in the midst of a red-hot real estate market—more than 50 houses and townhomes had been built with prices starting at $190,000. There were plans for a pool, clubhouse, and assisted-living center.

Granada HaciendaBy mid-decade more than 20 other retirement/resort communities had been announced, started, or completed.  In 2005, for example, plans were unveiled for a 14,000 square foot apartment building with 53 units in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. One and two bedroom apartment units were priced between $400,000 and $600,000. That same year, Rainbow Vision launched a $32 million project with the construction of 20 condos in Santa Fe. By June 2006, this 13-acre development had attracted 60 mostly gay and lesbian persons, ages 48 to 94, who paid a minimum of $270,000 for a residence, in a planned community that now boasts 26 assisted living suites along with a fitness center, spa, and salon.

The Great Recession has hammered the planned community market. This summer the Palms filed for bankruptcy, listing more than $1.5 million in liabilities. The Fenway complex failed to get off the ground as it went into tax delinquency. Other developments have slashed prices—and few developments have been launched in these economic headwinds. 

This destruction of capital has created investment opportunities. As a real estate broker and analyst (as well as a gay senior), I have taken particular interest in the market for lesbian and gay planned communities. One trend is the entry of mainstream investors into our niche market. This year, for instance, Fountaingrove Lodge received government approval to begin constructing 109 units on a hilly 10-acre parcel in Santa Rosa, a northern California town. This is a project of Aegis Living, a corporation that owns 40 other (straight) retirement projects.

While there are values to be found for individuals who wish to buy into a gay-themed development, the best opportunities lie off America’s shores. Not only are property and construction prices often cheaper but theBeauty of Granada likely return-on-investment is higher and everyday living expenses are less. Thus, rather than looking at a future diminished standard of living, our retirement years can be truly gay. This is especially important for LGBT seniors since—despite the popular stereotype—median income, on average, is less than heterosexuals.

There are a number of considerations that should factor into a decision about investing and living overseas—especially for a gay and lesbian senior housing. Some fundamental issues, which also apply to US-based retirement communities, include the financial stability and capital resources of the developer, the viability of the master plan, and the percentage of build-out. Other considerations are more relevant to overseas properties: availability of quality health care; stability and transparency of the government; potential for property appreciation. 

Central America, I believe, is an overlooked destination for many graying gays. Within a 3 or 4-hour flight from major US cities, countries such as Costa Rico, Panama, and Nicaragua are the most popular destinations.  Each of these countries are unique, with Costa Rica being the most Americanized and expensive. Panama and Nicaragua offer valuable tax and property incentives for foreigners who become residents (living at least 6 months in the country each year). 

LogoClubAlegria2Amazingly, there is one LGBT-planned community in Central America. Club Alegria, is located just a few kilometers from the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua. Its 23 wooded acres lie in the shadow of the ancient Mombacho volcano. The developers, two gay men from Belgium who now live in Nicaragua, launched the project in 2007. About a half-dozen foreigners (including Americans) have bought into the project, which includes haciendas (townhomes), quarter to three-quarter acre lots for building, and homes. There is a swimming pool and clubhouse with plans in the near future for a restaurant, fitness center, massage salon, and bar.

Panorama from Club Alegria

Francis Defrancq moved to Nicaragua with his partners of 25 years, Jan, in 1999. The couple had built a successful pastry business in Antwerp along with restoring old homes for sale or rental. In 2006, they opened Hotel Joluva, which caters primarily to lesbians and gay men, in the heart of Granada. 

Their vision for Club Alegria is unique among planned LGBT communities that I have investigated. It is eco-friendly, using many of Nicaragua’s natural resources, employing energy efficient systems, and establishing ecologically-minded covenants for home construction. It is socially conscious, contributing to the community through projects ranging from feeding street kids to providing work opportunities and trade apprenticeships. It is democratic and transparent, as each owner has an equal vote in the operation of the community with full access to financial statements.

Every real estate investment carries risk. For Club Alegria the greatest risk is not the project itself, as it is well capitalized and has a conservative long-term build-out strategy, but national politics. Following the ContraNicaragua is very gay friendly war during the Reagan administration, Nicaragua settled into its new constitution with the popular election of three presidents since 1990. The current president, Daniel Ortega who was the leader of the Contra opposition, won election in 2006 with a plurality of votes (the other two major candidates split voter support). Recent sable rambling along the Costa Rica border and the pushing of emergency legislation will likely secure Ortega an unconstitutional third consecutive term. But, this may also make some investors more nervous.

In 2010, I made three trips to Nicaragua, interviewing ex-pats, local business people, investors and developers—and, of course, members of the increasingly visible LGBT community (homosexuality is legal).  Here the concern is less Ortega’s political policies than their impact on the economy.  Nevertheless, most people with whom I spoke felt confident about their investments and the long-term economic future of Nicaragua.

A recent article in US News & World Report ranks Nicaragua as the Number 1 top retirement haven for 2011. The reasoning is simple: land prices are cheap; low construction prices (high end construction would be at $60-80 s/f); and the current government has a self-interest in maintaining global economic partnerships (much of Ortega’s family wealth is tied to land and businesses). Unlike Costa Rica and Panama, Nicaragua did not experience ballooning real estate prices. As the world economy headed into its downturn, residential development for foreigners was just beginning. The net result is a significantly larger potential return with a lower investment threshold than in Costa Rica or Panama—but it comes with somewhat greater risk.

As gay people, we are not simply investors in properties; we invest in communities. Forging and being part of a community is a theme cutting across our LGBT history. Certainly, living in a foreign country (even part-time) is not for everyone, but the opportunity to have a positive impact in the local (straight & gay) community cannot be overemphasized. For example, Jan & Francis work with Doña Esperanza who sets up her food kitchen for the homeless kids every Saturday. The cost to feed the 30-40 persons is less that a dollar each—and there are opportunities to meaningfully connect with kids whose problems range from homelessness to drug use. There are also many local volunteer opportunities, ranging the annual queer film festival to HIV-AIDS work.

haciendaint1For anyone who is older and considering living overseas, health care is an important consideration. Club Alegria will have assisted care facilities, including a nursing service, manicure/pedicures, and hairdressing. Residents can also avail themselves of washing/ironing, home cleaning and gardening, and errands into town. Full time weekly service costs about $50. 

The Club is within 5 minutes of an emergency health care clinic, Cocibolca, and nearby Managua boasts the internationally credentialed Vivian Pellas Metropolitan Hospital, which hosts many foreigners who areThe grandeur of Granada seeking top quality health care at a fraction of US prices (there is a “gold” medical plan available for ex-pats). In general, prices for food are about one-fifth that in the US (although at the nearby upscale Colonia grocery in Granada prices are more). Dinner with wine at one of the top restaurants in the city will cost less than $15.

Home construction prices vary largely due to the preference of the homebuilder. For those who want a European/North American style of living but are comfortable with age-old designs of courtyards, fans, and verandas, then a new eco-friendly home of 1000 s/f can be built for less than $50,000. Many of the materials that are used are made at the Club. For example, floor tiles are made by hand to the design specified by the homebuilder; doors and windows are handmade by carpenters who work at the Club. Almost any type of furniture can be built by master builders who live in nearby pueblos.

My partner of 26 years and I are in good health and hope to share many more years together. Frankly, until recently, we seldom thought or talked much about our long-term retirement plans. This is alarmingly true with many of my clients who are in their 50s. But, given the economic and political situation in the United States, I am encouraging my clients to consider investing internationally. For those in the market for LGBT-oriented retirement/resort communities, there are quite a few options, including Club Alegria which will offer free 3-day, 2-night tours several times next year.

My next real estate article will look at other international LGBT communities.

James T. Sears, PhD

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