[Note: A version of this aricle originally appeared in Ebony.com in July 2015]
Same-sex couples’ right to marry is now protected, but do they have the right to housing? It is not only possible but also legal under federal law to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people when it comes to where they live.
This is the new equality we celebrate—the constant pursuit of obtaining and protecting our rights.
Surely, the joy many LGBTQ and straight people experienced on June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision was justified; as was the rage some felt regarding violence against communities of color—that same day, our president eulogized Clementa Pinkney, a black preacher and elected official murdered by a white supremacist.
Those events presented a series of ups and downs highlighting the importance of viewing the desires of all groups through a lens of creating opportunity and place for themselves. Even those celebrating marriage equality were forced to take stock when a group of mostly black youth interrupted Chicago’s gay pride parade to hold a die-in and bring awareness to LBGTQ issues that go beyond marriage. These include housing a community that experiences homelessness at high rates and is denied equal access because of their sexual orientation.
In fact, marriage (through the tax code) and access to housing are important because of their ties to financial security and wealth building. Contrary to the belief in some LGBTQ circles that marriage is only important for the gay, white, male elite, the financial benefits for couples in lower tax brackets can also be substantial. Benefits are particularly helpful to the lower earner in a marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion, pointed this out as among the “governmental rights, benefits and responsibilities” of marriage. Benefits also include inheritance and property rights, health insurance, and child support, which have huge implications for financial security.
Housing access is also a matter of financial well-being and security. More than 20 states have laws that ban discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation, but a handful of those states exclude gender identity. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires entities receiving federal money to abide by state or local regulations if they exist.
HUD has also taken proactive steps to use the Fair Housing Act to protect same-sex couples from discrimination based on sex and disability, both protected under the act. This provides some protection for same-sex couples who are not in states with equitable laws. Nonetheless, there is no federal protection for LGBTQ individuals based on their sexual orientation. States, localities and HUD have created policies that cleverly address this predicament. However, a same-sex couple's rights to housing should not be at the whim of wordplay and semantics.
Strong policies are important and necessary because housing discrimination is a reality for LGBTQ individuals and couples. In a pioneering report, HUD found that LGBTQ individuals were discriminated against in housing rental markets. Gay and lesbian couples were less likely to get a response from landlords about inquiries for rental properties. While the report focuses on one of many interactions between a potential renter and a landlord, it suggests more research and testing is needed to determine the scale of the unequal treatment. The importance and power of testing are significant. For example, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition conducts investigations to ensure fair access to housing is upheld—if not, claims are filed with HUD or in court. These claims can bring justice and relief to victims of housing discrimination, and bring much needed attention to impediments to gaining housing.
These findings from the rental market concur with what previous studies have found in home purchase markets, and homes are the biggest tool for wealth-building for most people. This is particularly true for low- and moderate-income families and people of color. Any impact on homeownership has a direct impact on building wealth, and for LGBTQ individuals who are also members of protected classes, this may have an even bigger impact. While wage and income inequality have received a great deal of attention from everyone from President Obama and Janet Yellen to Thomas Piketty, the wealth gap between the affluent and the rest of us is also extremely important in terms of outcomes and access to economic and social opportunity.
In the Center for Global Policy Solutions’ policy recommendations for closing the racial wealth gap, expanding access to jobs, increasing wages and strengthening and enforcing the Fair Housing Act are included. These are topics important for communities of color as well as LGBTQ communities. An inability to build wealth hampers a person’s ability to send their kids to college, weather the storm of an unexpected financial burden, or buy a house in a neighborhood that has access to good schools and less violence. Building wealth is not an option in our society—it is a necessity, and this is also where there are significant barriers for equal opportunity for many.
Let’s be clear: LGBTQ individuals, people of color and low- income individuals do not have to justify their right to live openly and proudly. Discrimination should end because it is wrong. Period. However, anyone who needs a reason should consider that few things are more important than shelter and wealth creation.
In 1974 and 1988, the Fair Housing Act was amended to include sex and later familial status and disability. Currently, the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability. It is time for the Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. It is not outlandish to think the act can once again be amended.
In a country where it is a fundamental right to marry a person of one’s choosing, it is common sense to also ensure citizens can live with their spouse and aren't unfairly denied housing because of their choice. We should use all levers to quickly move toward a more equitable society not just in marriage but on all issues.
(Photo credit: By Shubert Ciencia, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)