‘I knew I wanted to stay here for the rest of my life’: how London got its first LGBTQ+ retirement community
By Michael Segalov,2023-02-02
When the clocks struck midnight on new year’s eve and rang in 2023, Steve Busby was on the rooftop of a fancy apartment block in central London watching fireworks light up the Thames. The weeks leading up to Christmas had been a heady mix of meals, drinks, celebrations and friends, most of whom live in the same building of luxurious flats overlooking Westminster, a stone’s throw from Vauxhall, Waterloo and Tate Britain. Not exactly your average retirement home, then – and indeed Busby, a 72-year-old gay man, would never have considered moving to one of those. “What would I do? Risk coming out, or lie about who I am? I knew I could never do it.”
Busby spent his working life running a business selling handmade silk ties all over the world, but “retirement saw my world change – it was isolating,” he says. Having never married or had children, he had been alone for a few years when the pandemic stopped him from even seeing friends. “It was dreadful,” he says. “Then a friend told me about Tonic. I came to an open day, saw the facilities and the flat, and I knew I wanted to move in and stay here for the rest of my life.”
Tonic Housing is the UK’s first LGBTQ+ affirmative retirement community run by and for the community. As well as the roof garden with riverside views, the building – designed by Norman Foster – has a lounge, floating garden, cafe, restaurant and roof bar, too. Since its first resident moved in a year ago, five of the 19 units are now occupied, and three more retirees are moving in this month. “It’ll take a little time for word to spread and numbers to grow,” says Bob Green, Tonic’s head of operations, “but the demand is evident.” Research conducted by Tonic found that of 624 LGBTQ+ Londoners aged over 50 surveyed, only 1% would consider moving to a general retirement scheme; but more than half would be interested in LGBTQ+ specific provision. And while in this country the idea still feels novel (the New Larchwood in Brighton offers some LGBTQ+ affirmative accommodation, and there are plans for a similar project in Manchester, but there is not much else), in other parts of in the world, retirement communities like these are nothing new. The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Germany, the US and Canada already have similar housing options. In the UK, the team hopes it won’t be long before they expand beyond the capital.
Retired nurse Ong Chek Min is one of Tonic’s first residents, having swapped west London for SE1 in February last year. To him, the need for LGBTQ+ affirmative housing in later life was obvious. “My partner, Tim, and I talked a lot about where we might spend our later years,” says Min. “We knew we wanted to find somewhere LGBT-friendly, where we wouldn’t have to worry about discrimination and bullying.” It was a slow search at first, during which time Tim became unwell. “He had a stroke three years ago, so we needed a small place that was more manageable, where I could keep the house going while focusing on looking after him.”
They considered options across the city, but nothing quite fit the bill. “Then we heard about Tonic, and both knew right away that it was perfect for us.” It took a few months to adapt the apartment to make it suitable for Tim. “We had big plans,” Min explains, “to enjoy theatre, restaurants and museums, given we are so central. But unfortunately, Tim’s condition deteriorated quickly. In July, Covid took him.”
Min is certain that being in an LGBTQ+ community was a huge help to both of them in those final months. “We felt safe and supported through that hard time,” he says. “Never having to explain ourselves or our lives to others.” Even at the end of life, he says, acceptance can’t be taken for granted.
It was exactly this realisation that led Geoff Pine, one of Tonic’s founders, to first contemplate the idea of LGBTQ+ retirement-community living 20 years ago. Today, he’s an ambassador for the project, having stood down from its board last year. In the early 00s, his late partner, Jamie, was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition. “I was working full-time,” Pine explains, “so we had carers coming in. Jamie knew he was dying, but at one stage became particularly depressed. When I asked what was happening, he told me that the woman who came to look after him every morning would get on to her hands and knees by his bed, and pray for his condemned gay soul. It was horrendous.”
Of course, Pine complained to the agency, who were deeply apologetic. “But it made me think,” he says, “what might happen to us as we get older? Until I was 21, it wasn’t legal to be gay. Many of my generation fought hard for the rights we have today. As we grew older, were we going to be forced backwards?”
Jamie died in 2002. While Pine continued to grapple with these questions, he read an article about a plan for an LGBTQ+ retirement community in Madrid that offered inspiration. By 2010, he had pulled together a small team and some early funding to look seriously at what might be possible in the UK. “We made visits to all sorts of retirement and care homes,” Pine says. What they took away was hugely helpful. “When we’d ask, however, how many LGBTQ+ people lived in their homes, the answer always came back the same: zero.” Of course, Pine adds, this was rarely the case in truth. “But people clearly didn’t feel able, safe or comfortable to be out in these environments, as was backed up by our research.”
According to Opening Doors, a charity for LGBTQ+ people, there are about 600,000 people aged 65+ across the UK who identify into the acronym. “LGBTQ+ affirming housing for older people is incredibly important,” says Jonathan Buckerfield, the charity’s head of fundraising and communications. “We have heard some horror stories from our members about having to go back in the closet because they don’t feel comfortable being out in their care homes, and about active hostility and prejudice from care home staff.”
“Here, I can be me – an out lesbian – and say and do as I think, all the time, with no risk or recourse,” says Tonic’s first resident, Lydia Arnold, who arrived in December 2021. “I don’t need to come out again and again; no explaining repeatedly that no, I’m not a widow or a spinster. Instead, among other LGBTQ+ people, there’s mutual respect and appreciation.
“Many of us have lived lives different to heterosexual people our age,” Arnold says. “Especially being the generation we are, what we’ve lived through is different. Here, those experiences are celebrated and understood. I feel safe,” she adds.
While Tonic is a strong start, there’s a long way to go to make this reality a possibility for all those who need it. Pine says their initial research suggests that in London there is a need for “something like 80-100 units”, with a mixture of commercial sales, shared ownership and sheltered housing – “and, importantly, affordable rent, too,” he adds.
If the experience of Christer Fällman – founder of Regnbågens, Sweden’s first LGBTQ+ retirement community – is anything to go by, that could even be an underestimate. Having opened in 2013 in Stockholm, their 28 apartments are now constantly occupied. “We are full today, and have a 250-strong waiting list. We simply can’t keep up with demand,” Fällman says.
In the UK, more plans are afoot, but progress takes time. In Manchester, the city council are currently working in conjunction with the LGBT Foundation on proposals for a queer-friendly, LGBTQ+ majority, 100-apartment retirement community in Whalley Range, to the south of the city.
The council is in the process of bringing a housing association on board for the £20m development, and hopes to move ahead early next year. The proposals are being designed by a community steering group made up of LGBTQ+ older people and local residents. “A report commissioned through the foundation found that there was evidence that older LGBTQ+ people, some who have been out and proud for decades, were concerned that they could face some discrimination in general older person’s accommodation,” explains Gavin White, the council’s executive member for housing and development. “Extra Care housing is about creating a safe space where our older people can find quality housing, and age with dignity and respect.”
For Anna Kear, Tonic’s CEO, the project feels personal. “I’m 55 now,” she says, perched at a table in one of the site’s empty units. “The question was clear: what will happen to me when I get old? This is the first job I’ve had where I’m open about my sexuality all the time. When I’m explaining to people why we’re doing this, of course I think from my perspective.”
Before joining Tonic in May 2018, Kear had spent 30 years working in the housing sector, in homelessness, development and housing associations. Her most recent gig was as executive director of the UK Cohousing network. “In that last job,” Kear says, “I worked with many local groups, including an older women’s co-housing in Barnet.” Seeing how long it took for that project to open its doors instilled a sense of urgency in Kear when she arrived at Tonic. “It took those Barnet women 18 years to set their scheme up. So many people passed away in the time it took to get off the ground. Coming here, I realised we needed to get something opened quickly.”
Still, her first few months were spent sprinkling a sense of reality on what were hugely grand ambitions. “They had this vision to build a place from scratch,” Kear says. “But at the scale needed, that would have cost £50m and taken years and years to pull off, if we ever could.” In the meantime, Kear suggested, it was worth thinking more practically. Then, in late 2018, she visited Bankhouse.
Owned by a large housing association, the building had been completed in 2017. Designed by Foster’s firm, it formed the portion of affordable housing that Lambeth council stipulated developers needed to include alongside the high-end Corniche apartment complex next door. “There were already some residents living on the lower floors with care and support needs,” Kear explains. “The housing association was going to sell the upper floors as shared ownership, and that’s where we stepped in.” Rather than the housing association selling the units individually, Tonic purchased 19 of them, with the help of a £5.7m loan from the Mayor of London.
While certainly less expensive than comparable commercially available units, living here does still come with a high price tag. The cheapest one-bedroom apartment is £535,000, with the biggest two-beds approaching £800,000. The older persons’ shared ownership scheme does have financial benefits: buyers purchase a share in the property, up to 75%, with Tonic holding on to the rest of the equity. And while Tonic does charge rent on their share, the first 25% of their share is always rent free. At future locations, Kear says, provision for other types of rental and ownership structures will be a priority.
“We’ve got over 500 people on our register of interest,” Kear explains. “It’s what people are looking for: mutual support later in life, to foster friendship and community. Not all of us have children and relatives to look after us as we get older,” she adds. “Here, residents can live among a different type of family.”
That appears to be exactly what Steve Busby has found, after eight months living at Tonic Bankhouse. “Location wasn’t the drive for me. It was finding a community of gay people,” says Busby. He is happier than he has been in decades. “Here, there are people of my own age, from my own community. Currently we are only six or seven [residents], but we look out for each other. And we have fun together.
“My body might be 72, but in my head I’m still 30. We’ve lived our lives, and done the scene. Trust me: I’ve enjoyed it,” he says. “This is my last chapter now – I don’t want to do that without being myself, truly.”
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