Property paradise: Calling all gays and lesbians as niched housing estates take off

What do you do in a global recession when business is tough? One option is to think up catchy marketing angles. International property developer Danny Silver reckons his new upmarket housing estate for gays and lesbians could be a winner, while Jawitz Properties director Francois Venter reckons a similar concept could work in South Africa. – JC

Happiness is...property marketers are excited at the prospect of retirement villages aimed at gays and lesbians, like this new development in France.
Happiness is…property marketers are excited at the prospect of retirement villages aimed at gays and lesbians, like this new development in France. They reckon it will work well in SA.

By Jackie Cameron*

Men arm-in-arm, one swinging a picnic basket as the pair walk with enthusiasm through a newly tiled courtyard. Women holding hands as they survey their surroundings from a picturesque garden stocked with lavender and other floral delights.

These are among the illustrations produced to demonstrate attractions of life at The Villages – Rainbow, the first property development for gay and lesbian buyers in France. The estate of about 100 eco-friendly homes on the banks of the Canal du Midi has attracted much interest from international buyers, particularly from the US and England, says its British developer Danny Silver.

He told Biznewz from his office in Paris this week that, with business looking a little quiet, he and his team decided to try this concept in France. These estates are catching on in the US, and France is an appealing destination for expatriate retirees, was their thinking.

But France didn’t yet have a retirement complex specifically aimed at the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) sector. Silver spotted what he thought was an obvious, and lucrative, gap in the market. The gated development, he says, ‘offers the perfect living environment for greying gays who wish to remain active, social and open about who they are’.

Aside from the benefits of living in a comfortable, modern villa –  all priced just under €250,000 (or about R3m) – there will apparently be plenty to do at Rainbow. Says Silver. ‘We offer a huge range of activities that are inclusive to absolutely everyone, abolishing loneliness and feelings of being an outsider or even having to hide their sexuality.’

Silver is adamant that the complex, which has yet to be built, isn’t aimed at decrepit oldies, though. The emphasis, he says, is on active retirement for over 50s, so there won’t be a frail care unit or dedicated nursing facilities. ‘This is not a place for people who want to go away to die,’ says the developer.

Rainbow is also not a good idea for buyers who think this may be a good investment opportunity and have plans to generate a rental income from tenants. ‘I wouldn’t sell this as an investment. I’ll never make promises to investors I don’t think are 100 percent certain,’ he says.

From a lifestyle perspective, though, Silver reckons nothing will beat this – if you are gay or lesbian. ‘Younger guys of about 35 to 40 have been on to us, saying they wouldn’t mind buying a villa and then renting it out until they are ready to move in,’ he says.

Silver says he believes there is demand for retirement complexes targeting the LGBT sectors because ‘there isn’t any place for them and they like to be amongst their own’. ‘The lack of support felt by those reaching retirement is often worse for lesbian, gay and bisexual people who see the opportunity to access formal community groups and social networks diminish as they get older,’ he notes.

Do all these groups want to live together? Silver says he has research that indicates, while older same-sex couples don’t particularly want to hang out with the opposite gender, Gay Pride marches and other awareness activities have brought younger gays and lesbians closer.

Heterosexual retirees are not excluded from buying. However, Rainbow is being punted as idyllic real estate for homosexual individuals who don’t want to be ‘the only gay’ in a community and want to ‘enjoy their golden years with anxiety or prejudice’.

Not everyone in the neighbourhood is pleased there will soon be a gay and lesbian retirement village in the vicinity. A local mayor, for example, caused a stir in international gay circles when he reportedly expressed surprise and revealed his disappointment that Rainbow was targeting such a specific market.

But Silver looks on the bright side of all the headlines that were generated, pointing out the result was a huge amount of free publicity. ‘It went viral,’ he says of the debate over whether France would have its own ‘gay ghetto’ or a ‘safe haven’ for a group that faces discrimination.

Although Silver has identified what he perceives as a need for a specific property type in Europe, he says he isn’t in this project for social reasons. The market conditions have been tough so his company decided to try a new approach, he admits candidly.

‘Why this group? Money. We’re business people. This is a wealthier market. There isn’t a place for them. It is the same reason I build golf resorts. If you saw the size of me, you’d know I don’t play golf,’ adds Silver, cheerfully – and pointedly.

Some of South Africa’s top real estate sellers, meanwhile, think the concept sounds like it could be a hit in the domestic market.  Francois Venter, director at Jawitz Properties, believes a retirement village aimed at gay and lesbian communities is a brilliant idea and well worth considering for the South African market.

‘There is an undersupply of good retirement villages all round. We’ll definitely consider the gay and lesbian market,’ he tells me.

A retirement development for the gay and lesbian sector ‘would as far as I am aware be a first and would certainly create some spark in the market’. It could be a growing market, says Venter. Jawitz recently promoted its brand at The SA Pink Lifestyle Expo in Cape Town, which led to several sales, he adds.

Another property mover-and-shaker who thinks the concept is worth consideration is Denise Dogon, Chief Executive Officer of Dogon Group Properties. She says: ‘I have never been approached or made aware of that sort of retirement development being offered so it is an interesting thought. Cape Town is definitely a recognised Gay destination.’

Dogon says property developments like these ‘could very well become attractive to the middle income gay crowd’. ‘I don’t think many in the high net worth gay crowd would like a purely gay retirement estate,’ she adds.

* What do you think? Is there a place for retirement villages aimed at the gay and lesbian communities? Would you buy into a real estate development for the LGBT community? Share your views with us, below this article. Or, write to me at [email protected].