The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 2, 2017

Discrimination is limiting LGBTQ people’s access to rental housing

August 3, 2017

A transgender woman asked a rental housing agent about an advertised rental unit, noting that she was transgender to explain the difference between her legal name and the name she uses. The agent cut the meeting short.

A gay man told another rental agent that he was married. Instead of quoting the lower application fee for married couples, the agent quoted him the price for both single and married renters and required proof of marriage for the lower fee—a step the agent did not require of a straight married man.

These are  examples of differential treatment that transgender people and same-sex couples face, which we documented in our new report, A Paired Testing Pilot Study of Housing Discrimination against Same-Sex Couples and Transgender Individuals. This discrimination occurs even in places with laws prohibiting housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In places with no such laws, LGBTQ people looking for housing have little or no legal recourse to combat discrimination.

Our research draws attention to housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the need for concrete policy solutions. Differences in treatment can affect where people live and the resources available to them, hurting their ability to secure safe and affordable housing.

What we found

We conducted in-person paired tests to capture differences in treatment of same-sex couples and transgender people by housing agents who advertised rental units. Testers in a matched pair were similar in every way except for sexual orientation or gender identity, and they made the same inquiries about available rental units and expressed the same qualifications and housing needs.

Our analysis of 600 tests across the Dallas–Fort Worth and Los Angeles metropolitan areas found that housing agents were slightly less likely to schedule an appointment to discuss and view available housing with gay men posing as half of a same-sex couple compared with straight men posing as half of a heterosexual couple. The agents also told gay men about fewer available units and quoted gay men higher average yearly costs. Across another 600 tests, agents treated lesbians posing as half of a same-sex couple comparably with straight women posing as half of a heterosexual couple, but they were slightly less likely to tell lesbians about available units.

Through 200 exploratory tests in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, we found that housing agents were less likely to tell transgender testers who identified themselves as transgender that units were available, and they told them about fewer units than cisgender testers. When transgender testers did not tell agents they were transgender, the agents were less likely to invite the testers to inspect a unit, and the testers inspected fewer units on average than cisgender testers. It’s unclear what led to the differences in results between the two test approaches.

Challenges for addressing housing discrimination

Whether it happens subtly or blatantly, discrimination can hinder people’s access to safe and affordable housing and to the neighborhoods where they want to live. This can diminish access to schools, transportation, and other resources that foster economic and social prosperity.

Only 22 states have laws prohibiting housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 20 of the 22 prohibit housing discrimination based on gender identity. Hundreds of cities have passed nondiscrimination laws, including jurisdictions in states without protective laws. This patchwork approach leaves thousands of people without legal recourse.

At the federal level, some policymakers have recognized this problem and are taking steps to fix it. Members of the US House and Senate have introduced bipartisan bills to expand protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Fair Housing Act to prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (the Fair and Equal Housing Act of 2017). In May, both houses of Congress also reintroduced the Equality Act of 2017, which adds nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to civil rights laws pertaining to employment, housing, credit, federally funded programs including education, and federal jury service.

Whether the proposed nondiscrimination bills gain traction in the current political environment is an open question, as the Trump administration recently announced it would bar transgender people from military service and argued against using civil rights law to protect against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. In the meantime, our research demonstrates that same-sex couples and transgender people face differential treatment in rental housing markets.

Angie Rice and her wife Sandi stand in front of their home, Tuesday, May 17, 2016, in Mountain Green, Utah. In the year since Utah passed a Mormon church-backed anti-discrimination law protecting gay and transgender people, 22 complaints were filed alleging discrimination in the workplace or in housing. Rice, a transgender woman and public school teacher, says the law's protections gave her the courage to come out to administrators and students. Photo by Rick Bowmer/AP.

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