General Assembly Considering Housing Protections for LGBTQ Virginians

In 2012, transgender veteran Sara Simone started hormone therapy. She was looking for a new apartment in northern Virginia but all of the places she inquired about turned her away.  She had two jobs at the time, so it wasn’t an issue of income.

“When I went to landlords, they’d hear my voice over the phone, we’d have a nice conversation, but when I would show up they would look at me and sometimes do a double take,” she said.

On one specific showing, Simone said it became clear to her that the landlord didn’t want to rent to a transgender woman.

“He did show me the room, but he talked me out of it: “You wouldn’t like it here,” she said. “He went on like that and that told me that, based on what he saw, I was no longer invited.”

Simone said this happened a few times, so she started living in a hotel. When the money ran out, the hotel turned into a rundown motel, and eventually Simone was living out of her car.

LGBTQ rights advocates say experiences like Simone’s aren’t rare. But, it’s entirely legal in Virginia and 30 other states for landlords and realtors to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. The Virginia General Assembly is considering bipartisan legislation that would protect gay and transgender people from housing discrimination.

A 2014 Richmond area study found that 44 percent of same-sex couples were treated differently than opposite-sex couples when inquiring about the same apartment. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted a nationwide bias study with similar results.

Brian Koziol is head of research for Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, the group who conducted the study. He said the discrimination came down to who was told about rent specials or who was invited to come view the apartments.

"Certainly no one is going to put up a sign that says 'We don't rent to gay couples,' but it's the nuance,” Koziol said.

The housing discrimination bills before the General Assembly would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in the Virginia Fair Housing Law. Race, religion and disability are just a few of the other groups already protected.

The bills’ main proponent is the LGBTQ rights organization Equality Virginia. The group has been highlighting two new, non-partisan polls showing a majority of Republican voters in Virginia favor legislation protecting gay and transgender people from housing discrimination.

James Parrish, Executive Director of Equality Virginia, said the polls have given activists the ability to have new conversations with Republican legislators that go something like this:

“Listen, sometime in the last 15 years this changed under your feet. You haven’t even noticed and realized it. And where you thought those [voters] are, is not where they are.”

Parrish said he believes the change in attitudes among conservative voters began during the 2006 campaign against the Marshall-Newman Amendment -- which defined marriage as between a man and woman in the state constitution. Although LGBTQ activists lost that fight, Parrish said many people came out and shared their stories, gaining more understanding in the process.

Polls and studies might not be enough to change the minds of Republican delegates, however, especially in an election year. Groups like the Family Foundation and the Virginia Catholic Conference have also been lobbying against the housing non-discrimination bills.

Jeff Caruso represents Virginia’s Catholic Diocese and its non-profit charities, including an affiliate in Richmond. Catholic Charities run a variety of housing programs, including homeless shelters.

Caruso won’t say if these charities discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community, but they believe the housing bills would infringe on the rights of religious organizations that have a traditional view of marriage and gender.

“When charities and schools are serving their communities, it’s important that they have the freedom to serve,” Caruso said. “What I mean by that is they have the freedom to practice their beliefs.”

The Senate bill easily passed a floor vote last week, but the bill has passed the Senate three times before. The real challenge will be getting the proposal past the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Right now it’s being held up in the House Rules Committee, while Republican leaders decide whether to put them to a vote or let them die.

Since her experience with homelessness in 2012, Sara Simone has found an apartment. She had to network within the transgender community to find a landlord that would rent to her.

Simone and others in the LGBTQ community are holding onto hope that this will be the year sexual orientation and gender identity are added to the Virginia Fair Housing Law, and that finding a place to live will be easier soon.