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LGBT Senior Housing Project Back on Track

Photo courtesy of Wood Partners Design Studio

The planned construction of the 110-unit LGBT at Laguna and Haight streets has taken since 2005 to get off the ground because of funding sources that dried up during the 2008 recession. It would be the first public housing for LGBT seniors in the country.

By Maya Lekach

In collaboration with multiple teams of local do-gooders, the 55 Laguna St. project continues forward, aiming to become the first of its kind.

Openhouse and Mercy Housing are collaborating with the Wood Partners design studio and a hefty amount of support from the Mayor Ed Lee and his office to create low-income community housing for LGBT seniors.

The project, which is expected to begin construction in mid 2014, has been on the table at Openhouse since 2005. Openhouse, which is a group that caters specifically to LGBT communities in California, has been working on this project in conjunction with Mercy Housing, masters of low-income housing with emphasis on justice and equality. This group is reportedly growing due to the many LGBT individuals who moved to the city long ago and are now finding it hard to achieve equal rights in their senior living.

Back in 2005, Openhouse, led by Seth Kilbourn, heard about the repurposing of Richardson Hall, a UC Berkeley Extension campus, taking up the block bordered by Laguna, Hermann, Buchanan, and Haight streets. Openhouse immediately started working with the Hayes Valley and Castro neighborhoods to come up with an idea that would maintain the urban aesthetic and community feel of this up-and-coming area and yet keep it open and available to all.

The reason it has taken since 2005 is mostly financial. Despite support from the mayor and approval from the Planning Commission in 2008, the recession struck. In an interview, Kilbourn said, “The economy just collapsed and development funding died. There were no public or private backers.”

He went on to say that “it was already hard to push through on development in San Francisco, but then this.”

It was a rough time for these community-fostering groups. However once the economy recovered, the groups were able to pick up where they left off, finally securing the approval they really needed in August of last year. Kilbourn says that Openhouse is “very excited that [the project] has revived and we’re moving full steam ahead.”

The next steps for them, is continuing to work with the government, the neighborhood, and each other to secure funding on a city, state and federal level. No small task, but one that has been gradually and continually moving forward over the past decade.

Supervisor Scott Wiener said this was a project he was following before he was even in office. In producing 110 units for LGBT seniors the project is, in Wiener’s words “ good for the [currently] vacant block and the people of the neighborhood and community.” Wiener wants to provide Openhouse and Mercy with “everything they need to move forward.”

With construction planned in phases starting at 2014 and completion expected for 2015 or 2016, it may seem like a long way off. But Kilbourn reminds us that it will be realized sooner than we might realize, as development always tends to do.

The planned designs include a community center with services and resources as well as a garden in the courtyard of the planned design, open to any and all residents or visitors, or citizens.

The community center will be called the Haight Street Arts Center, and will support local and neighborhood art. This is a good thing because perhaps the only controversy surrounding this project is that its completion will require the removal of two walls of murals along Haight and Laguna streets.

However, the community center should solve this, as there are already plans to have local artists, both new members of the community and the previously participating artists, in creating new works for the new building.

Aide to Supervisor Wiener, Andres Power, tells the Courier that it was always known that “the murals would be temporary. They were mostly there to keep off graffiti”. A noble goal for an abandoned building. But as the building moves away from its abandonment, they will attempt to maintain the artistic integrity of the streets and the neighborhood.

This all sounds pretty good! Interested applicants cannot begin the application process until much closer to project completion, however they have been encouraged to contact Scott Kilbourn of Openhouse at seth@openhouse-sf.org or anyone from the Openhouse team to get on their newsletter and continue to be updated on the progression of this project.

As Supervisor Wiener said: “This is a very exciting project and I’m happy to be moving forward with it.” And we should agree with him. Once again the Castro is being put on the map as a forward thinking, justice and equality-ensuring community.