LGBTQ people have long turned to the internet to locate resources and build community. Finding housing is no exception. While there are plenty of rental websites for apartment hunters to scour, over the last decade more and more folks have been turning to niche housing groups on Facebook to help them find affordable rentals with people who share their values.
LGBTQ-focused housing groups are commonly associated with a specific city or region, and in some areas—especially in large cities like San Francisco or Philadelphia—groups exist solely to help people find housing. In other locations that have more general LGBTQ-focused Facebook groups, housing opportunities are intermingled with things like job openings and items for sale or trade.
Some LGBTQ-focused housing groups are large, 10,000 to 20,000 members strong; and many are private and require new users to request access to join. Once a person is accepted into the group, they can search for existing housing availabilities, or find new roommates with whom to search. People who already have a place to live but need a new roommate post in these groups, as well as community-friendly landlords who are looking to fill a vacant unit. A person can also post about their own housing needs, and doing so often solicits members to comment with leads or directly message with offers.
Why Facebook groups? They’re “a space to connect that’s safer than Craigslist,” says Frank Vella, a moderator of Juanita’s List, a 12,000-plus member, LGBTQ-friendly housing group on Facebook that’s based in San Francisco. The groups “meet a lot of us where we already are—social media,” says Vella, thus being a low barrier to entry for folks who are comfortable with the platform’s interface.
Countering Discrimination and Rising Prices
Users are drawn to LGBTQ-focused housing groups on Facebook for several reasons. First, many hope to avoid the discrimination they often experience when searching for a home. LGBTQ people are more likely to face discrimination than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts. A study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that same-gender couples received fewer response emails than heterosexual couples when reaching out to housing providers, while a similar study in Housing Policy affirmed these results and added that nonwhite, same-gender couples experienced the lowest rates of response of any group studied. A survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality also found that nearly one-quarter of transgender survey respondents experienced some form of housing discrimination, including being denied a home or apartment because of their identity. Posts within LGBTQ-focused housing groups affirm this research, as members often describe past discriminatory situations with landlords or roommates—some of which they are actively trying to leave.
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The importance of these groups comes in part from the fragmented nature of housing protections for LGBTQ people, since gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are not protected categories under the 1968 Fair Housing Act and thus protections vary by state and locality. Twenty two states and Washington, D.C., explicitly prohibit housing discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank, while 9 more states interpret current prohibitions against “sex” discrimination as encapsulating these categories, and 1 state prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender identity. The remaining 18 states don’t have statewide legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation; most leave it to individual municipalities to pass protections (except Arkansas and Tennessee, which bar municipalities from doing so). Online community-oriented housing groups are one way LGBTQ people may seek to avoid discrimination during their housing search.
Members also often join LGBTQ-focused housing groups on Facebook to find affordable rooms in cities and regions with expensive rental markets. Several groups even make it their goal to help lower-income members find housing first, since these individuals will likely face the greatest challenges securing housing.
Queer Housing Boston’s moderators, for instance, only allow users to post rooms that rent for less than $1,000 per month. (An average one-bedroom apartment in Boston costs almost $4,000 per month, according to Rent.com.) More expensive rooms can only be listed as comments on one pinned post, which make them more difficult to navigate based on Facebook’s post design.
Groups can also help housing-seekers avoid brokerage fees and other associated costs of housing searches. As a result, most groups prohibit real estate brokers, leasing agents, and property managers from posting or even joining the group, and responses from brokers or agents are often deleted by moderators. In places like San Francisco where many apartments are rent controlled, these groups provide a forum for master tenants to post available rooms that are significantly cheaper than most new rentals, often helping users secure a spot in a longtime LGBTQ household in the process.
How Online Housing Groups Build Community
Beyond avoiding discrimination and rising housing prices, folks also turn to LGBTQ-focused housing groups with the intention of building community.
When posting for an apartment or roommate, members commonly offer their own gender identity and sexual orientation in addition to relevant details like living styles and budgets, consistently affirming the concentration of LGBTQ membership within the group. Many posts welcome users to join their “queer home” and stress that even straight and cisgender members (if allowed in the group) must be LGBTQ-friendly.
Moderators in virtually all these groups also list guidelines to establish community norms, which tend to center inclusion and equity for members. Several groups specify that no hate speech or bullying will be allowed and require that posts provide accessibility information for users with disabilities—both norms drawn from broader social justice organizing. They also require that people posting available rooms be transparent about prices and other restrictions to make the process as direct as possible for housing seekers.
Group guidelines also often list values that embrace an intersectional approach to identity that goes beyond groups’ titular focus on gender identity and sexual orientation. Queer Housing Boston’s guidelines, for instance, list that the group is “pro-Black, pro-Indigenous, pro-POC, pro-accessibility, pro-sex workers, pro-all queer identities, pro-all pronouns, and pro-calling out white supremacy and patriarchy.” To uphold these values, moderators will address or delete language determined to be in violation and will potentially remove the members who used it.
Given that LGBTQ-focused housing groups are commonly private and require new users to first request access to join and view posts, moderators also maintain a sense of community by vetting individuals seeking to join. Requests are commonly met with a standard set of questions from moderators–such as the individual’s relationship to the LGBTQ community and their values in relation to housing–that help moderators determine if the person will respect group norms. Moderators may also ask mutual connections (which Facebook displays) to verify if someone is a good fit to join.
Joshua Alexander Villegas, a member of Juanita’s List who joined after they were recommended by a friend, expressed that this vetting of new members creates a group in which members are more dedicated to building long-term housing arrangements and being a part of local community. “I really like that they grill people a bit; in the Bay, people come and go a lot, so asking them questions helps make sure they are actually trying to move to the area.”
Given their role as community hubs, several groups also allow users and moderators to share resources related to housing or other essential needs. Many list local housing resources in their descriptions–including rental assistance, advocacy groups, and legal defense organizations–and allow users to post about mutual aid opportunities in their area. While many groups limit posts solely to housing opportunities, some also serve as forums to discuss housing-related issues in the community, ranging from the impacts of COVID-19 on renter finances to the lack of resources for LGBTQ youth aging out of the foster care system.
Disagreements Over Fair Housing Rules and LGBTQ-Spurred Gentrification
As is true in other housing organizing spaces, tensions have emerged about the best way to achieve some groups’ specific goals, such as providing safe and affordable housing while maintaining community norms.
One central tension has been whether more marginalized segments of the LGBTQ community– people of color, trans, and gender nonconforming members–should be able to express preferences to only live with roommates who also share these identities. Group moderators have handled this situation in various ways. Some, like Queer Housing Boston and Chez Queer Montreal, allow users to express this type of preference, but only from the groups’ more marginalized members. Queer Housing Boston’s guidelines explain that “the core of this guideline comes down to recognizing systematic oppression within housing as well as recognizing someone’s need for safety within their own community,” thus framing the ability for more marginalized members to express preferences as essential to the groups’ larger goals.
The moderators of Juanita’s List take a different approach. While Vella noted that group moderators agree it is “completely understandable that members of marginalized communities feel safer living with other marginalized folks,” they worry about violating California’s laws regarding housing lists (and, by extension, Facebook’s rules about complying with state law). The group’s guidelines therefore clarify that “it is illegal to indicate preferences for tenants of a particular race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability,” pulling these categories directly from state fair housing law. Instead, members can establish commonly shared values that serve this purpose. Vella gave the example that “rather than stating you’re BIPOC seeking another BIPOC person to rent a room, [you can] say that applicants should understand/respect what it means to join a BIPOC home.” This allows users to firmly comply with California laws while also allowing marginalized members to create living arrangements that ultimately feel safe.
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Group members also disagree about their responsibility to identify and slow the community change that the group may facilitate, given critiques that LGBTQ communities have historically spurred gentrification of low-income communities and communities of color. Sheba Wood, a member of Queer Housing Boston, remembers seeing a post to create a new queer cooperative house in the Savin Hill neighborhood of Boston, where she had witnessed many white LGBTQ community members moving and showing little respect to existing Black residents. Anticipating that members of this cooperative would continue this trend, she pushed for the group to consider living elsewhere. She says responses were mixed; while some members agreed that they had a responsibility to slow gentrification, others framed LGBTQ people as themselves disenfranchised and not the proper target for gentrification concerns.
The Future of Queer Housing Groups?
The popularity of these groups and the assistance they provide to users in finding safe and affordable housing raises an important question: how can local governments and organizers support this work, given the potential to lower rates of discrimination in housing searches? Would these groups work if made public and posted on a city website? Or is privacy necessary to feel safe during the housing search? Would more public postings undermine the community-building function of these groups?
Even if kept private, city governments could offer several light-lift resources to support these groups’ work. Most notably, a municipality’s legal or housing departments could support moderators in understanding fair housing laws to avoid potential legal conflicts. Local governments might also consider providing stipends to moderators to compensate their time moderating posts. In places where a Facebook housing group doesn’t exist, cities could also offer stipends to moderators who want to create one, and stipends could be offered to organizers from other identity-based communities to create a portfolio of similar groups.
National LGBTQ organizers can also consider how to support the creation of these groups in other cities—particularly in states and localities that do not have legal protections against housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This might involve compiling and sharing best practices from existing groups and anticipating any legal troubles new groups may face.