Proposed Raymond E. Shepherd House Aiming for Low Income LGBTQ Seniors

Proposed Raymond E. Shepherd House Aiming for Low Income LGBTQ Seniors

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 20, 2021)

UPDATE: City of Ferndale approved the project at their Jan. 25 city council meeting.

Ferndale, MI – While they can’t legally restrict tenancy based on sexual orientation or age, the developer behind the proposed Raymond E. Shepherd House in Ferndale is hoping to create an atmosphere where older LGBTQ adults will feel comfortable renting and aging in place.

Ferndale City Council will hear a Planned Unit Development (PUD) proposal on Monday from Full Circle Communities, a Chicago-based 501(c)3 that specializes in affordable housing and spends 75% of the revenue coming in back on the properties and programming for residents.  Among Full Circle’s other housing projects is a development to expand Ruth Ellis Center, a shelter and community center for homeless LGBTQ youth that is growing to include 43 units of long term supportive housing, a mental health center with access to care, and other amenities.

The Raymond E. Shephard House, if approved, will be built at the corner of E. Nine Mile and Paxton, the former site of Blumz by JRDesigns. The current building will be removed, as will the homes behind it on Vester Street.

The four story building features 53 apartments, 47 of which are one bedroom units and the remainder two bedroom.  While it cannot be legally restricted to senior citizens due to Michigan State Housing Development Authority rules for the financing Full Circle has sought, the apartments are designed to appeal to the needs of that community.  Apartments will be barrier-free and adaptable to meet the physical needs of individuals as they age.  They will also have code of conduct policies make clear there is a welcoming atmosphere, and giving the developer the right to evict residents who don’t respect their neighbors. They plan to advertise the property through LGBTQ publications and organizations.

Although the residential demographic makeup is not guaranteed, City Councilperson Greg Pawlica said he is comfortable with the plan, stating that he knows of people in the gay community who move into senior communities “who fear they can’t be themselves,” he said.  “There are few that are open to the general public where an openly gay, lesbian, transgender individual could go to and feel comfortable being themselves.  I’m confident in what has been shared on this project that this will be that type of facility even if it doesn’t get that formal label ‘senior housing.’”

The Ferndale Housing Commission has committed to dedicating eight of the public housing vouchers they administer to Shepherd House.  While the voucher waiting list includes anyone who meets the low income requirements, seniors and those with disabilities are given preference, so their referrals are likely to fall into those categories.

The $17 million project includes $300,000 worth of remediation due to underground tanks formerly used to store heating oil.  Plans call for underground retention of storm water, the potential for relocating the CVS bus stop to the front of the building and adding a bus stop shelter, energy efficient appliances, and silver level LEED certification (or equivalent).  There will also be a Community Meeting Hub that includes a conference room available to LGBT organizations, as well as a pocket park on the Vester side of the property.

Community Housing Network, Affirmations, SAGE Metro Detroit, and Metropolitan Community Church are working with Full Circle to provide programming options onsite for residents to include support groups, case management and support, education, and events.

According to the presentation to the Planning Commission on Wednesday, single bedroom units will be available to those who earn up to $33,000 per year with rents based on income ranging from $441-$883 per month.  With the two bedroom units the cost could be as high as $1,060 for two people who earn up to $37,680 as a household. This is based on Federal guidelines which look at the Area Median Income, with “affordable” being priced right for those who earn 60% of the AMI or less. Utilities will be included with the rent.

There is a 45 year restriction on the property, so if Full Circle were to sell, the owners would be required to continue affordable housing for that time.

Several leaders in the LGBTQ community and housing advocates joined in the Planning Commission on Wednesday via Zoom to express support for the project.

CJ Felton, Director of Real Estate Development for CNS, said “We’re excited to work on this together.  I think it’s very needed.  I think we all know the need for affordable housing right now is extreme in our entire region, and maybe about to become much more so depending on what happens with evictions and other things related to the pandemic over the next several months.”

Kat LaTosch serves on the board of SAGE.  “It was about 14 years ago at a meeting at Affirmations where I used to work where we convened a meeting of LGBTQ older adults.  Nearly 100 people showed up.  It was the first time ever that we had a conversation about this.  Up to that time there were no specific services to serve LGBT people, older adults, and the number one concern they cited was housing,” LaTosch said.

“I still remember the day one of our regular members at Affirmations called me up and said Kat, I’m moving into a retirement community and I’m going back in the closet.  I don’t want them or anyone else to know I’m a lesbian.  Please don’t call me anymore or send mail to my apartment.  That was about 12 years ago.  She moved. She severed all relationships with her community, and she passed away three years ago now.  I don’t want that future for the LGBTQ older adults who live in our community.”

While many in the Zoom meeting were supportive of Full Circle’s mission, neighbors did express concerns about the amount of parking at the property, and about the amount of construction in general happening in the area.  The project falls short of parking requirements, though Full Circle has tentative agreements with CVS and Incubizo for overflow parking if it is needed.  The site would normally require 53 parking spaces, yet without counting the potential overflow, Shepherd house has 26 spaces planned.  The City would also require and additional five electric vehicle charging stations, and the proposal would only include three.

James Dow of Full Circle explained that many low income, older adult residents would not have a vehicle.

Heather VanPoucker, Director of the Ferndale Housing Commission, said that at their buildings, which serve seniors, people with disabilities, and low income residents, only about half request a parking sticker, and many of those are not for the resident themselves, but for caregivers who visit.

The development is named after Raymond E. Shepherd, who was a local LGBTQ activist who volunteered at Affirmations and was a deacon at Metropolitan Community Church.  In 2013 he organized a Light the Way to Justice Rally in front of the Theodore Levin Courthouse in Detroit preceding the Supreme Court’s hearing of cases related to marriage equality.  “Even though I felt this needed happening in Detroit, I have felt completely overwhelmed in trying to organize the vigil until now. With me I always have been a follower instead of a leader. Tonight I think I got the inspiration to do it right,” he had said at the time.  He’d been personally impacted because his love was living in the Philippines and did not have a path to immigration the way he could have if he’d wanted to marry a woman.

“This is not a march, a fight or a demonstration – this is a peaceful show of solidarity, a stand for LOVE, not hate,” Shepherd had written at the time.  “Make signs to hold, bring candles and help show our desire to be equal. We will also be having conversations with people and collecting Freedom To Marry signatures. History is in the making and it is time to bring America into the 21st century. Let’s give people hope and create change by using the voice of the people.”

Shepherd died Feb. 27, 2018.  The last few years of his life were marked by moves between different senior care communities.  One closed for remodeling, another was far from his friends and left him feeling lonely, but in the end he found his way to Hazel Park, not far from the Ferndale community that had long been his supportive oasis.  He found a neighbor that accepted him.

“It is crazy I am 69 years old and it feels like I am coming out. The person in the apartment next to mine was at a combined churches picnic of her church and the church I go to,” he wrote on Facebook.

Dow said Shepherd’s name came up in several community conversations about finding a local LGBT advocate to honor.  In Shepherd’s 2018 obituary, MCC pastor Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow said of Shepherd “Ray was a loving and compassionate person. Adventure was always calling him and he would respond. He loved to travel and make new friends. Ray will be greatly missed by his communities at MCC Detroit and Affirmations.”

Shepherd’s name will be placed across the main entrance to Raymond E. Shepherd House if the development is approved.

City Council is expected to vote on the project at their Monday evening meeting.  Learn more at the City of Ferndale website.

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