The federal Fair Housing Act was passed 45 years ago, just one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Initially the law prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin or religion. Over the decades, it has been amended to include protection from discrimination on the basis of gender or disability or whether there are children in the household. Now it’s time to amend the law again to prohibit bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Currently, the law does not set aside as a protected class people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. Although it does offer some legal recourse for them — housing providers who receive federal funding or have loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration, for instance, may be subject to requirements that they ensure equal access to gay and transgendered people — it is not enough.
There have been numerous reports of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people facing homophobia and hostility from landlords and real estate agents. Civil rights and gay rights groups as well as private fair housing organizations have tracked individual complaints and undertaken studies in various states that have identified bias against gays and lesbians.
But the most extensive evidence comes from a groundbreaking national study released last month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The study, based on thousands of emails between prospective renters and housing providers, found that heterosexual couples seeking rental housing online received 15.9 percent more favorable responses than gay male couples and 15.6 percent more favorable responses than lesbian couples.
The initial emails contained identical information — except for the way the couples referred to their sexual orientation. The housing department is now starting a study to determine how gay and transgendered renters are treated in person.
Despite gains in gay rights in recent years, federal laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation are still necessary in certain arenas. That’s why this page supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which offered protections against discrimination for gays and lesbians in the workforce. Housing is another such arena. The federal government needs to state explicitly that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal.