‘I knew I wanted to stay here for the rest of my life’: how London got its first LGBTQ+ retirement community

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When nan clocks struck midnight connected caller year’s eve and rang successful 2023, Steve Busby was connected nan rooftop of a fancy flat artifact successful cardinal London watching fireworks ray up nan Thames. The weeks starring up to Christmas had been a heady operation of meals, drinks, celebrations and friends, astir of whom unrecorded successful nan aforesaid building of luxurious flats overlooking Westminster, a stone’s propulsion from Vauxhall, Waterloo and Tate Britain. Not precisely your mean status home, past – and so Busby, a 72-year-old cheery man, would ne'er person considered moving to 1 of those. “What would I do? Risk coming out, aliases dishonesty astir who I am? I knew I could ne'er do it.”

Busby spent his moving life moving a business trading handmade silk ties each complete nan world, but “retirement saw my world alteration – it was isolating,” he says. Having ne'er joined aliases had children, he had been unsocial for a fewer years erstwhile nan pandemic stopped him from moreover seeing friends. “It was dreadful,” he says. “Then a friend told maine astir Tonic. I came to an unfastened day, saw nan accommodation and nan flat, and I knew I wanted to move successful and enactment present for nan remainder of my life.”

Tonic Housing is nan UK’s first LGBTQ+ affirmative status organization tally by and for nan community. As good arsenic nan tile plot pinch riverside views, nan building – designed by Norman Foster – has a lounge, floating garden, cafe, edifice and tile bar, too. Since its first resident moved successful a twelvemonth ago, 5 of nan 19 units are now occupied, and 3 much retirees are moving successful this month. “It’ll return a small clip for connection to dispersed and numbers to grow,” says Bob Green, Tonic’s caput of operations, “but nan request is evident.” Research conducted by Tonic found that of 624 LGBTQ+ Londoners aged complete 50 surveyed, only 1% would see moving to a wide status scheme; but much than half would beryllium willing successful LGBTQ+ circumstantial provision. And while successful this state nan thought still feels caller (the New Larchwood successful Brighton offers immoderate LGBTQ+ affirmative accommodation, and location are plans for a akin task successful Manchester, but location is not overmuch else), successful different parts of successful nan world, status communities for illustration these are thing new. The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Germany, nan US and Canada already person akin lodging options. In nan UK, nan squad hopes it won’t beryllium agelong earlier they grow beyond nan capital.

Tonic Bankhouse resident Ong Chek Min connected his balcony.
Tonic resident Ong Chek Min connected his balcony. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Retired caregiver Ong Chek Min is 1 of Tonic’s first residents, having swapped westbound London for SE1 successful February past year. To him, nan request for LGBTQ+ affirmative lodging successful later life was obvious. “My partner, Tim, and I talked a batch astir wherever we mightiness walk our later years,” says Min. “We knew we wanted to find location LGBT-friendly, wherever we wouldn’t person to interest astir favoritism and bullying.” It was a slow hunt astatine first, during which clip Tim became unwell. “He had a changeable 3 years ago, truthful we needed a mini spot that was much manageable, wherever I could support nan location going while focusing connected looking aft him.”

They considered options crossed nan city, but thing rather fresh nan bill. “Then we heard astir Tonic, and some knew correct distant that it was cleanable for us.” It took a fewer months to accommodate nan flat to make it suitable for Tim. “We had large plans,” Min explains, “to bask theatre, restaurants and museums, fixed we are truthful central. But unfortunately, Tim’s information deteriorated quickly. In July, Covid took him.”

Min is definite that being successful an LGBTQ+ organization was a immense thief to some of them successful those last months. “We felt safe and supported done that difficult time,” he says. “Never having to explicate ourselves aliases our lives to others.” Even astatine nan extremity of life, he says, acceptance can’t beryllium taken for granted.

A pottery people astatine Tonic Bankhouse.
A pottery people astatine Tonic Bankhouse. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

It was precisely this realisation that led Geoff Pine, 1 of Tonic’s founders, to first contemplate nan thought of LGBTQ+ retirement-community surviving 20 years ago. Today, he’s an ambassador for nan project, having stood down from its committee past year. In nan early 00s, his precocious partner, Jamie, was diagnosed pinch a terminal bosom condition. “I was moving full-time,” Pine explains, “so we had carers coming in. Jamie knew he was dying, but astatine 1 shape became peculiarly depressed. When I asked what was happening, he told maine that nan female who came to look aft him each greeting would get connected to her hands and knees by his bed, and believe for his condemned cheery soul. It was horrendous.”

Of course, Pine complained to nan agency, who were profoundly apologetic. “But it made maine think,” he says, “what mightiness hap to america arsenic we get older? Until I was 21, it wasn’t ineligible to beryllium gay. Many of my procreation fought difficult for nan authorities we person today. As we grew older, were we going to beryllium forced backwards?”

Jamie died successful 2002. While Pine continued to grapple pinch these questions, he publication an article astir a scheme for an LGBTQ+ status organization successful Madrid that offered inspiration. By 2010, he had pulled together a mini squad and immoderate early backing to look earnestly astatine what mightiness beryllium imaginable successful nan UK. “We made visits to each sorts of status and attraction homes,” Pine says. What they took distant was hugely helpful. “When we’d ask, however, really galore LGBTQ+ group lived successful their homes, nan reply ever came backmost nan same: zero.” Of course, Pine adds, this was seldom nan lawsuit successful truth. “But group intelligibly didn’t consciousness able, safe aliases comfortable to beryllium retired successful these environments, arsenic was backed up by our research.”

According to Opening Doors, a kindness for LGBTQ+ people, location are astir 600,000 group aged 65+ crossed nan UK who place into nan acronym. “LGBTQ+ affirming lodging for older group is incredibly important,” says Jonathan Buckerfield, nan charity’s caput of fundraising and communications. “We person heard immoderate scary stories from our members astir having to spell backmost successful nan closet because they don’t consciousness comfortable being retired successful their attraction homes, and astir progressive hostility and prejudice from attraction location staff.”

“Here, I tin beryllium maine – an retired lesbian – and opportunity and do arsenic I think, each nan time, pinch nary consequence aliases recourse,” says Tonic’s first resident, Lydia Arnold, who arrived successful December 2021. “I don’t request to travel retired again and again; nary explaining many times that no, I’m not a widow aliases a spinster. Instead, among different LGBTQ+ people, there’s communal respect and appreciation.

Lydia Arnold, Tonic Bankhouse’s first resident.
Lydia Arnold, Tonic Bankhouse’s first resident. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“Many of america person lived lives different to heterosexual group our age,” Arnold says. “Especially being nan procreation we are, what we’ve lived done is different. Here, those experiences are celebrated and understood. I consciousness safe,” she adds.

While Tonic is simply a beardown start, there’s a agelong measurement to spell to make this reality a anticipation for each those who request it. Pine says their first investigation suggests that successful London location is simply a request for “something for illustration 80-100 units”, pinch a substance of commercialized sales, shared ownership and sheltered lodging – “and, importantly, affordable rent, too,” he adds.

If nan acquisition of Christer Fällman – laminitis of Regnbågens, Sweden’s first LGBTQ+ status organization – is thing to spell by, that could moreover beryllium an underestimate. Having opened successful 2013 successful Stockholm, their 28 apartments are now perpetually occupied. “We are afloat today, and person a 250-strong waiting list. We simply can’t support up pinch demand,” Fällman says.

In nan UK, much plans are afoot, but advancement takes time. In Manchester, nan metropolis assembly are presently moving successful conjunction pinch nan LGBT Foundation connected proposals for a queer-friendly, LGBTQ+ majority, 100-apartment status organization successful Whalley Range, to nan southbound of nan city.

The assembly is successful nan process of bringing a lodging relation connected committee for nan £20m development, and hopes to move up early adjacent year. The proposals are being designed by a organization steering group made up of LGBTQ+ older group and section residents. “A study commissioned done nan instauration recovered that location was grounds that older LGBTQ+ people, immoderate who person been retired and proud for decades, were concerned that they could look immoderate favoritism successful wide older person’s accommodation,” explains Gavin White, nan council’s executive personnel for lodging and development. “Extra Care lodging is astir creating a safe abstraction wherever our older group tin find value housing, and property pinch dignity and respect.”

For Anna Kear, Tonic’s CEO, nan task feels personal. “I’m 55 now,” she says, perched astatine a array successful 1 of nan site’s quiet units. “The mobility was clear: what will hap to maine erstwhile I get old? This is nan first occupation I’ve had wherever I’m unfastened astir my sexuality each nan time. When I’m explaining to group why we’re doing this, of people I deliberation from my perspective.”

Before joining Tonic successful May 2018, Kear had spent 30 years moving successful nan lodging sector, successful homelessness, improvement and lodging associations. Her astir caller gig was arsenic executive head of nan UK Cohousing network. “In that past job,” Kear says, “I worked pinch galore section groups, including an older women’s co-housing successful Barnet.” Seeing really agelong it took for that task to unfastened its doors instilled a consciousness of urgency successful Kear erstwhile she arrived astatine Tonic. “It took those Barnet women 18 years to group their strategy up. So galore group passed distant successful nan clip it took to get disconnected nan ground. Coming here, I realised we needed to get thing opened quickly.”

Anna Kear, CEO of Tonic.
Anna Kear, CEO of Tonic. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Still, her first fewer months were spent sprinkling a consciousness of reality connected what were hugely expansive ambitions. “They had this imagination to build a spot from scratch,” Kear says. “But astatine nan standard needed, that would person costs £50m and taken years and years to propulsion off, if we ever could.” In nan meantime, Kear suggested, it was worthy reasoning much practically. Then, successful precocious 2018, she visited Bankhouse.

Owned by a ample lodging association, nan building had been completed successful 2017. Designed by Foster’s firm, it formed nan information of affordable lodging that Lambeth assembly stipulated developers needed to see alongside nan high-end Corniche flat analyzable adjacent door. “There were already immoderate residents surviving connected nan little floors pinch attraction and support needs,” Kear explains. “The lodging relation was going to waste nan precocious floors arsenic shared ownership, and that’s wherever we stepped in.” Rather than nan lodging relation trading nan units individually, Tonic purchased 19 of them, pinch nan thief of a £5.7m indebtedness from nan Mayor of London.

While surely little costly than comparable commercially disposable units, surviving present does still travel pinch a precocious value tag. The cheapest one-bedroom flat is £535,000, pinch nan biggest two-beds approaching £800,000. The older persons’ shared ownership strategy does person financial benefits: buyers acquisition a stock successful nan property, up to 75%, pinch Tonic holding connected to nan remainder of nan equity. And while Tonic does complaint rent connected their share, nan first 25% of their stock is ever rent free. At early locations, Kear says, proviso for different types of rental and ownership structures will beryllium a priority.

“We’ve sewage complete 500 group connected our registry of interest,” Kear explains. “It’s what group are looking for: communal support later successful life, to foster relationship and community. Not each of america person children and relatives to look aft america arsenic we get older,” she adds. “Here, residents tin unrecorded among a different type of family.”

That appears to beryllium precisely what Steve Busby has found, aft 8 months surviving astatine Tonic Bankhouse. “Location wasn’t nan thrust for me. It was uncovering a organization of cheery people,” says Busby. He is happier than he has been successful decades. “Here, location are group of my ain age, from my ain community. Currently we are only six aliases 7 [residents], but we look retired for each other. And we person nosy together.

“My assemblage mightiness beryllium 72, but successful my caput I’m still 30. We’ve lived our lives, and done nan scene. Trust me: I’ve enjoyed it,” he says. “This is my past section now – I don’t want to do that without being myself, truly.”

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