An important milestone has been reached by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced Monday new regulations intended to ensure that HUD’s core housing programs are open to all eligible persons, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Donovan previewed the announcement at the annual Creating Change conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Baltimore. The final rule entitled Equal Access to Housing in HUD Programs Regardless of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which can be viewed online, will go into effect 30 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register early next week.
The new rule prohibits “inquiries regarding sexual orientation or gender identity” by owners and operators of HUD-assisted housing and HUD-insured housing. Also, the narrow definition of “family” will now be widened to explicitly include LGBT families. In addition, the new rule will also protect LGBT people when they are applying for a mortgage insured by HUD partner, the FHA.
“This is a step in the right direction. Of course we would prefer an amendment to the Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” said Pamela Kisch, director of the Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan, adding that the new rules apply only to housing programs owned and operated by HUD. This means that further action will be required to outlaw the wider problems of discrimination LGBT people face in the housing and credit sectors.
The Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status in the rental, sale and financing of housing. The Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1977 adds age and marital status to the federal protections. According to a 2007 report by Michigan’s Fair Housing Centers http://www.fhcmichigan.org/images/Arcus_web1.pdf, seventeen states prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but Michigan is not among them.
There are 14 individual cities and counties within Michigan though, that have local ordinances prohibiting housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. They include Ann Arbor, Birmingham, Dearborn, Detroit, Village of Douglas, East Lansing, Ferndale, Flint, Grand Ledge, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Huntington Woods, Saginaw and Ypsilanti.
The report states this patchwork of local ordinances in Michigan cities acts more as a welcome mat than an enforcement tool. Enforcement, typically handled by the city attorney or local human rights commission, often takes the form of “dispute resolution.” Overall reporting is low and enforcement appears to be weak. Two cities, Ann Arbor and Saginaw, give complainants the right of private action — allowing discrimination victims to bypass the city complaint process and go directly into district court. Without the civil rights protections based in law, it is not technically illegal to deny housing to families and individuals, simply based on the landlord, property manager, real estate agent or mortgage lender’s personal bias regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.
While there are no national assessments of LGBT housing discrimination, the report shows evidence of this sort of bias in Michigan and found that nearly 30 percent of same-sex couples were treated differently when attempting to buy or rent a home.
The FHC’s of Michigan reported receiving between 350 and 450 complaints of discrimination annually. As a result, with funding from the Arcus Foundation based in Kalamazoo, four Michigan fair housing groups set out to investigate housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Tests conducted uncovered widespread discrimination against same-sex couples.
Between 2002 and 2005, only 13 complaints, or approximately 1 percent, were complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation. This number, however, is likely unrepresentative of actual discrimination. Lesbians and gay men who are discriminated against may not know that there are any opportunities for action, or may not know of the existence of their local FHC. The report further describes the testing results, the status of legal protections for same sex couples in the housing market, and strategies for further action. With the release of the report, FHC’s hope to encourage lesbians and gay men who believe they have been discriminated against in housing, to come forward and lodge complaints.
“A complaint of discrimination in public housing, for instance, would be forwarded to the Office of Public and Indian Housing. That office will investigate the complaint and take action. Refusal to follow these new rules could result in the loss of HUD funding,” said Kisch.
HUD Public Affairs Specialist Laura J. Feldman elaborated further. “Each HUD program has in place mechanisms for addressing violations of program requirements. A violation of the rule may also violate the Fair Housing Act. Additionally, certain LGBT rule violations may violate state and local fair housing laws that prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, so it will be imperative to work closely with our Fair Housing Assistance Programs (FHAPs) and other state and local agencies to ensure rights enforcement,” said Feldman.
“Our colleagues in HUD offices around the country are committed to the spirit and letter of rule. The Program Standards and Compliance Division is working with them to ensure effective guidance and training during the next 30 days to prepare for the new rule going into effect. Also, HUD will develop training materials to educate recipients of HUD funding of their rights and responsibilities under this rule,” said Feldman.