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Gay Renters to Get Some Discrimination Protection

Saturday Nov 7, 2009

When it comes to negotiating a lease or paying fair rent, gay and transgender renters may soon get more protection.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it's fast-tracking a nationwide study to determine the extent of housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It's also proposing regulations to insure these individuals won't be denied public housing or government housing vouchers because of their identities.

HUD's initiatives will soon be posted for public comment, but the agency offered no timeline for the study or regulations.

If the regulations pass, gay and transgender renters would get legal firepower they've never had, though not as extensive as other protected classes. The proposed regulations only cover HUD rental programs, so not all apartments will be included.

Still, the regulations would cover the most vulnerable, those who depend on government help for housing.

''This is huge,'' says Jaime Grant, the director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's policy institute. ''It's the first time (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people will have leverage to stop practices that are demeaning and discriminating.''

The apartment industry also supports HUD's initiatives, according to the National Multi Housing Council, and the group said in an e-mail it ''reinforces the professional commitment through ongoing education and outreach programs.''

The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which covers all housing, prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It was amended in 1988 to include familial status and handicap. HUD investigates about 10,500 discrimination complaints a year. In cases involving threats of force, offenders can be criminally prosecuted.

Protections for sexual orientation and gender identity weren't included in the law, and only 17 states and 80 cities ban housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Not all cover transgender individuals.

Many gay rights advocates and housing authorities say discrimination -- from neglecting maintenance to denying applications -- in this area is rampant yet underreported because often there are no ways to fight it. Gay rights advocates also hope results from HUD's nationwide study will lead to further protections.

The initiatives could alter the sobering realities for these renters nationwide.

In 2007, Michigan's Fair Housing Centers compared the treatment of same-sex couple versus heterosexual couples by landlords, real estate agents and lenders. Though the same-sex couples were given higher incomes and credit scores than their counterparts, one-third reported landlord discrimination.

For example, a lesbian couple in Ypsilanti, Mich., was quoted $625 per month for a rental, while a heterosexual couple was offered $600 for the same unit. In Battle Creek, Mich., a heterosexual couple was shown two units and was offered $200 off the first month's rent. A lesbian couple saw only one unit and wasn't offered any incentive.

And in Detroit, a landlord ticked off the apartment rules: ''No drugs, prostitution, homosexuality, one-night stands.''

Other recent studies in Salt Lake City and Jacksonville, Fla., showed similar housing discrimination. Some of the gay and transgender individuals interviewed for the Salt Lake City study said they had been denied rental housing or threatened with eviction, while one in 10 in the Jacksonville study reported some kind of discrimination, including neglect from landlords and refusals to renew leases.

Salt Lake City is holding a public hearing Nov. 10 on its proposed fair housing and employment bill that specifically includes protections for gay and transgender people. And Jacksonville's Human Rights Commission is drafting a local ordinance to address anti-gay discrimination.

''We hope to build a community where all members are free to participate in all aspects of public life,'' said Ben Warner, deputy director of the Jacksonville Community Council Inc. ''That's what civic engagement is all about.''

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