Sam Emery: Tonic Housing’s pioneering LGBT+ retirement community must be the first of many

Sam Emery: Tonic Housing’s pioneering LGBT+ retirement community must be the first of many

Many will be aware of the launch of the UK’s first LGBT+ affirming retirement community in Vauxhall earlier this month. What won’t be so well known is that it has taken almost seven years to make it a reality. With Tonic Housing, the not-for-profit organisation founded to create such accommodation, expecting to welcome the first residents in the summer, we need to see greater change within the UK retirement home market. There shouldn’t be another seven-year wait for more projects of this kind to come to fruition.

There are over 65,000 LGBT+ people over the age of 65 living in London, some with specialist health needs and others with genuine concerns about how they will be treated in mainstream retirement care. There is a sad but real truth that older gay and trans people across Britain still suffer discrimination in care, fewer feel a sense of belonging in social housing communities than other residents, many are lonely and, in extreme cases, some consider assisted suicide as an alternative to going into care. Tonic’s founder Geoff Pine has spoken publicly about his horror upon learning that his dying partner’s carer was praying daily for his gay condemned soul.

It is fully accepted that not all LGBT people want to live in an LGBT+ community in retirement, but if last year’s Building Safe Choices survey is anything to go by, over half have a preference for this type of living. The demand clearly dwarfs the existing provision, which until this month was zero.

Despite this clear need, the challenges faced by Tonic to get their Vauxhall project off the ground have been immense. A community-led venture, backed by charitable support with a team of just three full-time staff, its dream of a purpose-built facility has faced various obstacles: London’s high land values,  finding the right site in an LGBT+ friendly location and raising the type of capital needed.

My involvement is as a Director of London Communications Agency, which was approached to help Tonic in 2016. For much of the last five years they have been our pro-bono charitable client, part of our company’s commitment to invest at least one per cent of turnover (not profit) each year in cash and kind to good causes. Early on, we spoke with many of London’s council leaders and senior officers. All were receptive to the idea, but with Tonic operating on a shoestring budget the right business partner was needed to make their idea fly.

After some years of searching, an existing care facility within One Housing Group’s Bankside development was identified, with a number of shared ownership homes unsold. Located amid Vauxhall’s famous LGBT scene, close to the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern and within walking distance of Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery and Tate Modern, it was clear that this was the right location. Lambeth Council, which runs the borough that is home to the UK’s largest LGBT population, was instantly supportive of the concept and supported Tonic closely. This sealed the deal for Tonic’s first homes.

Now all they needed was the money. Cue the Greater London Authority’s Community Housing Fund and a loan application, submitted early last year, for the £5.7 million needed to purchase 19 new homes. Officers were understandably cautious lending such a large amount of public money to a small and as yet untested community organisation. After more than a year of gentle coaxing, some frustration and much evidence-gathering the arrangement was agreed. I strongly suspect this was ultimately thanks to the unwavering support of Deputy Mayor for Housing, Tom Copley.

The loan was agreed early this month, just days after the end of LGBT History Month. The team was overwhelmed by support for the project from across the globe. As we had hoped, a flurry of media coverage led to would-be residents coming forward in droves. The register of interest is already over 15 times what Tonic can accommodate, and that is before sales have even officially begun.

This first Tonic project already looks set to be a huge success, but there is no time for resting on laurels. The shared ownership homes are a start, but they remain out of reach for many Londoners and more work is needed on an affordable rental model to provide choice for all older LGBT+ people. This is recognised by Tonic, who have taken pragmatic financial decisions to make this first project happen.

But the Bankside scheme will be a springboard for much more to come. There are already early and promising discussions around the location for “Tonic 2.”  We very much hope we can work with Tonic on that too.

Sam Emery is a Director at London Communications Agency Follow Sam on Twitter.

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