Recent Comments


    Winning the Housing Lottery: It Doesn’t Add Up

    agingCrisis by Number 

    Regardless of political ideology or economic status, few would disagree that San Francisco faces an enormous housing crisis. The city has undergone massive demographic changes due almost entirely to sky-high housing costs. The term “affordable housing” can have different meanings depending on the context. In general, however, housing is considered affordable when total monthly housing costs do not exceed 30% of a household’s income. Using that standard, consider these jaw droppers:

    •   In 2014, a single person paying the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment should earn at least $124,000 per year to afford her apartment. Only 25% of San Francisco households (of all sizes!) could afford that apartment.

    •  Almost 60% of low-income households spend more than half their income on rent.

    •  Less than 40% of the 59,000 very-low income households in San Francisco—the majority of which are seniors—can afford any housing at all.

    What Is Fair?

    Affordable housing in San Francisco is clearly an extremely scarce and highly valuable resource for those in need, which by some measures is approaching half the population. It stands to reason that the systems and methods used to allocate such a resource deserve serious consideration and a thorough debate. But that would mean tackling some fundamental and often inflammatory questions. Imagine asking ten people you know if housing is a human right or an asset to be earned. Then ask whether someone who needs housing because he lost his job is more deserving or less deserving than someone who got evicted from his rent controlled apartment. Humans have gone to war and launched revolutions to answer these questions.

    I have heard people talk quite seriously about revolution in response to the scarcity of affordable housing in San Francisco. But I want to focus on a different response to addressing this scarcity. It’s called the affordable housing lottery.

    You Have to Play to Win

    Lotteries are often thought of as the fairest way of distributing benefits. In some cases, that might be true. I’d like to begin a dialogue about whether the San Francisco affordable housing lottery system is indeed a fair way to distribute such an important and scarce resource. Or is it just the easiest? I know from my work every day with LGBT seniors that it is not easy. Not by a long shot.

    A typical senior affordable housing development receives 5,000 applications for 100 units of housing. Assuming all 5,000 people meet the age, income and other eligibility requirements, each person has a 2% chance of getting a unit.  Those are tough odds. But in order to win, you have to play. And play. And play yet again. It requires emotional fortitude, incredible patience and a lot of faith. We have peer support groups for LGBT seniors in our Housing Assistance Program so they can support each other through the loss and rejection.

    It is easy to think of lotteries as being painless. The senior who did not get selected was not at fault. He didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t get rejected on purpose. That is not how it feels. It is not a painless process.

    How Random Is Random? 

    To be fair to everyone, a lottery selection must be truly random. To be truly random, the lottery pool must include a complete list of every person in the population who is eligible for the prize. Every person. For a typical senior housing lottery, every person in San Francisco who is 62 or older whose income is at or below 50% of Area Median Income should be notified and submit an application.

    Such a system is, of course, impossible. Not every senior knows about housing lotteries or that she might be eligible.  Many LGBT seniors, who have lived a lifetime of stigma and rejection, have no interest in being rejected again—even if it really isn’t their fault. The applications themselves are too complicated to understand. On the other hand, some seniors are better informed, have learned where to look for notices of availability, or have become effective organizers in their community.

    Is There Hope?

    Yes, there is hope. While we work out the fundamental questions about rights and universal access to safe and affordable housing—peacefully and without violence—we can work to make the system easier to navigate. One application for all senior affordable housing would be a huge improvement.

    We can help each other stay informed and support each other through an emotionally draining process. In addition to our support groups, Openhouse offers regular housing workshops to explain the affordable housing process, notify the community when units and buildings come on line and help seniors complete applications.

    Thanks to Supervisor Scott Weiner and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, Openhouse and the LGBT Center are working together to ensure that LGBT people of all ages understand their affordable housing options and have the financial coaching they need to secure a unit, should they be lucky enough to win. And we do win.  Over 50% of the seniors in our Housing Assistance Program have secured housing or placement on a waitlist for future openings.

    The LGBT-welcoming senior affordable housing Openhouse is building at 55 Laguna St. will be coming online in the next 18 months. We can get prepared now to make sure every LGBT senior who wants to live there is in the lottery pool.

    Seth Kilbourn is the Executive Director of Openhouse. For more information on Openhouse services and programs for LGBT older adults, visit or call 415-296-8995.



    Dr. Marcy Adelman oversees the new Bay Times  Aging in Community column.

    For her summary of current LGBT senior challenges and opportunities,

    please go to: