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Let's Extend the Promise of Equal Protection to Housing

By Demelza Baer, Washington Legislative Office & Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 3:04pm

In a week of great highs and lows for civil rights, let's celebrate ending on another high note for LGBT equality. As the Supreme Court struck down the core of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" in United States v. Windsor, the Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) Act was re-introduced this week in Congress to ensure that everyone is protected against housing discrimination – regardless of who they are or who they love. The HOME Act, introduced by Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), would amend the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to prohibit discrimination in housing and access to credit, including mortgages and home improvement loans, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Despite making incredible strides towards equality, the critical need for federal civil rights protections for LGBT people in housing is as important as ever. Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released the first national study of housing discrimination against same-sex couples in a cross-section of fifty metropolitan rental markets around the country. In the study, two separate email inquiries were sent to a prospective rental housing provider, and the only difference between the nearly identical emails was the sexual orientation of the couple. Overall, heterosexual couples were more likely to receive a favorable email response over gay male couples in 15.9 percent of tests and over lesbian couples in 15.6 percent of tests.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey in 2011, the first large-scale national study of discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming Americans, found respondents reporting various forms of direct housing discrimination, including 19% who reported having been refused a home or apartment and 11% who reported being evicted because of their gender identity/expression. A fifth of respondents reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives because they were transgender or gender non-conforming.

The consequences of this discrimination on LGBT people and their partners, spouses, and children cannot be understated. Not only do they have fewer housing options, and often a longer search for a rental or new home, but they also have higher housing costs resulting from fewer units to choose among and discriminatory terms in housing finance. Although twenty states and D.C. have enacted some housing protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many people live in places where they have no recourse if they are discriminated against.

The HOME Act would also expand the protections of the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of marital status and source of income, bringing the protected groups in line with those of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. It would also broaden existing protections in both laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of perceived race or color (both the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act currently prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or color). Further, the Fair Housing Act's definition of "familial status" would be updated to include "anyone standing in loco parentis" of one or more individuals who are not 18 years of age, ensuring that all families receive the same protection. Existing protections on the basis of disability in the Fair Housing Act would also be expanded to explicitly prohibit the refusal to make a reasonable accommodation in connection with a real-estate related transaction.

All of these long overdue protections would ensure that every American family has the option to live in the neighborhoods of their choice without fear of discrimination because of who they are.

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