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Gay retirement havens run into financial difficulty

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SANTA FE, N.M. » Like so many others who have settled here, Janice Gaynor and her partner, Barbara Cohn, wanted to retire somewhere where they could be themselves, whether that meant holding hands in public or making decisions about each other’s end-of-life health care.

So when RainbowVision swung open its doors in 2006 as one of the first retirement communities in the country to proudly serve gay men and lesbians, offering elegant adobes where people could live out their lives among friends, the couple could not move in fast enough.

“This was our safety valve,” Gaynor said.

These days, that promise is all but forgotten. RainbowVision has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, racked by financial problems and an increasingly bitter dispute between its residents and management. Its problems mirror those of many other gay retirement communities around the country that have either failed to open or fallen on hard times, victims of a weakened housing market, a deflated economy and, in some cases, poor business decisions.

They were once hailed as havens where the Stonewall generation — the first “out” group of senior citizens — could age without being treated with hostility or forced back into the closet. But such communities in Austin, Texas; Boston; and the Phoenix area never opened because of a lack of finances. A development near Portland, Ore., is struggling at 25 percent of capacity, and another near Sarasota, Fla., has — like RainbowVision — filed for bankruptcy.

“It’s very concerning to see places like RainbowVision having trouble, both because older people need them and because they’re an important community institution,” said Michael Adams, executive director of Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. The group, which is known as SAGE, is pushing for improved housing options for elderly gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

Many are growing older without the support of children or extended family members. Gay and lesbian seniors are twice as likely to live alone, according to SAGE. A 2010 report by the group also found that nursing homes often failed to protect gay men and lesbians from hostile treatment by staff or other patients. In a study released in April by the National Senior Citizens Law Center, many older gay men and lesbians and their family members reported instances of mistreatment at long-term care centers. Social service providers say it is unsafe for residents to live openly as gay and lesbian at such facilities.

Potential residents of retirement communities, however, may be less inclined to sell their homes and move away during tough economic times. And because developments for older gay people have emerged only within the past 15 years or so, they may not have the financial reserves to weather an economic crisis, Adams said. As a result, housing options tailored to the estimated 1.5 million elderly people in the U.S. who are gay are especially limited.

Before purchasing a condominium at RainbowVision, Gaynor, a former school administrator, toured a traditional retirement community in Florida, but left with the distinct feeling that she and Cohn were not welcome.

The fear of suddenly being hurled back into a world that is not always friendly has divided residents at both RainbowVision and the Palms of Manasota, a small community near Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast whose developers filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last year. A local bank foreclosed on unfinished buildings and a number of empty units at the Palms, and there is uncertainty about who will purchase the foreclosed land.

“There was a lot of contentiousness, and the bank hasn’t given any indication on what they plan to do,” said Ron Lennon, president of one of two homeowners’ associations at the Palms. He said his support for the bankruptcy angered fellow residents who feared what could happen to the community. “There are still people here who won’t talk to me.”

For those who have invested, both emotionally and financially, in retirement communities that never got off the ground, the prospect of having to drastically change their plans is daunting.

Alice Fisher, a retired caterer, is weighing her options after plans for Boston’s first retirement community geared toward gay people were abandoned in 2008 after a major investor dropped out.

Fisher, 70, lost her $10,000 investment in the community. The developer, Stonewall Miner LLC, has since filed for bankruptcy. Fisher, who is single and owns her home, is contemplating moving into a rental for the first time, or to another retirement community.

“I thought it was really, really too bad,” she said. “This felt important because it felt like we were the last generation who were going to be able to do something like this because the economy has changed so much.”

The battle at RainbowVision has unsettled the once-harmonious group of about 100 residents, about half of whom are straight. It involves reduced services and the steeply rising monthly fee for use of a popular common building that includes a restaurant, salon and gym. The fee increase has strained the finances of some of the residents.

RainbowVision’s chief executive and president, Joy Silver, said the cost of running the community had skyrocketed, and the flailing economy had slowed leasing activity for the community’s condominiums.

Many condo owners, including Gaynor and Cohen, began refusing to pay the common building fee and have been banned from using it.

Silver, who founded RainbowVision with help from other investors, attributed much of the ill will to speculators who bought units but never lived there.

“What’s difficult is watching people who are full of fear worry about what’s going to happen to them and watching them go through the challenges of aging,” she said. “If it were up to me, everything would be free. But that’s not pragmatic or realistic.”

In June, an arbitrator in the dispute between residents and the management decided that though RainbowVision had not broken any laws, it was overcharging residents based on the services it was providing. (An attorney for RainbowVision responded that the arbitrator had not taken into account how expensive it had become to operate the community.) In the bankruptcy court filings, RainbowVision’s lender described the atmosphere at the community as “terrible and openly hostile,” and called for the management to be replaced.

“Every one of us had this starry-eyed vision of what we thought RainbowVision was going to be, and we thought we were working toward a common goal,” said David Garrity, 62, who also stopped paying the disputed fee because of the lack of services.

Garrity, who has not fully moved into the condominium yet, said he had overlooked red flags about the company’s finances because he was excited to be part of a project he called “a dream” for gay men and lesbians. “Here we are, the victims, victimized by their own,” he said.

Not everyone here has sided against RainbowVision’s management. John Wojtkowski, who is disabled, has been renting there since the summer and praised the company for being responsive to his needs.

But Wojtkowski, who worked on Wall Street for nearly 30 years, said he was worried. “We used to kid around when we were younger and say, ‘Are we just going to sit around on a porch?’ There was no place for us,” he said. “I don’t hide the fact that I’m gay. When I came here, I felt like I could be myself.”

“I don’t want to go back in the closet again,” he added. “Without RainbowVision, there’s no other place to go.”

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