Senate bill to offer protections for LGBTQs in housing passes first vote with bi-partisan support
It’s currently legal to deny housing to someone because of who they love or how they identify on the gender spectrum, but not if Senator Jennifer Wexton has anything to say about it.
Currently, Virginia’s Fair Housing law makes it it is illegal to deny housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, or handicap. Wexton (D-33), who has submitted similar legislation in the past, is hoping her new bill, SB822, will add sexual orientation to that list.
“A person’s sexual orientation or gender identity has nothing to do with whether or not they will be a good tenant, a good neighbor, whether they’ll be able to pay their rent or live up to their obligations under their contract,” Wexton said to the board. “These are the kinds of bills that businesses look at when they decide whether they’re going to locate their businesses in the commonwealth.”
Wexton’s pointed to the majority of Fortune 500 companies that have policies in place to protect workers based on similar qualities, and not offering those protections in housing could hinder attempts to woo them to the Virginia.
“These companies are not going to want to come to the Commonwealth if their staff [or] workforce is going to face housing discrimination,” she said.
Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, opposed the bill as he and his group has in the past. Caruso told the board that the bill’s caveat, which would allow for organizations with religious connection to give preference to members of their preferred faith when renting out housing, was not satisfactory.
“We adhere to a certain teaching on marriage, and because of that teaching on marriage…we do view this bill as a very important bill with relation to religious liberty,” Caruso said. “We don’t want to exclude based on our religion, what we do want to do is to be able to take our beliefs on marriage into consideration.”
Caruso’s argument was met by Senator Glen Sturtevant, who addressed a disparity he saw between the bill and Caruso’s concerns.
“The religion would have to base its membership off of sexual orientation [and/or] gender identity, which I don’t think applies in this instance,” said Sturtevant. “[For example,] being Catholic is not determinate on your gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Senator Adam Ebbin added to Sturtevant’s point. “Don’t we already forbid discrimination on the basis of familial status?” Ebbin said. “So wouldn’t that mean that single people who live together are already protected?…If you’re concerned about people who are not married…you already have that issue, at least for heterosexual people who are not married.”
Senator Jennifer Wexton has partnered with the non-profit organization Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), as she has in the past, to work on the law.
According to a 2013 nationwide study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, same-sex couples experienced discrimination 16 percent of the time when seeking rental housing.
The HUD study found adverse treatment is found primarily in the form of same-sex couples receiving fewer responses to the e-mail inquiry than heterosexual couples, and while “no clear cut pattern exists in the magnitude of adverse treatment by metropolitan market size,” discrimination exists in all metropolitan areas.
The National Center for Transgender Equality found that one in five transgender people in the U.S. have been refused housing, and more than one in ten have been evicted because of their gender identity.
A 2014 HOME study echoed these concerns and Helen Hardiman, HOME’s director of fair housing, presented those findings to the senate committee during the hearing. Hardiman said results found when a gay couple and a straight couple were sent to ask for housing at the same agencies in three regions of the state, the straight couple was treated better by the rental agent 44 percent of the time.
Whether it was the testimony or a repeat of last year’s success, SB822 will fight to live another day, with a full Senate vote expected in the next few days.
“I have proudly championed this legislation for the last three years. It was great to see it pass the Senate last session, and I hope the House will follow suit this year,” said Sen. Wexton in an interview with GayRVA earlier this session. “This is not only an issue of fundamental fairness but also of economic viability. What business will ever want to come to Virginia when their employees can be denied housing because of whom they love?”
In years past, the legislation has survived a more evenly split Senate vote but failed once it reached the House of Delegates.
Here is how the committee voted on SB 822 (“Virginia Fair Housing Law; unlawful discriminatory housing practices, sexual orientation and gender”).
01/23/17 Senate: Reported from General Laws and Technology (11-Y 3-N)
YEAS – Locke, Barker, Vogel, Ebbin, Wexton, Surovell, DeSteph, McPike, Dunnavant, Sturtevant, Mason – 11.
NAYS – Ruff, Black, Reeves – 3.
“We must continue to reject efforts to use religion as a justification to discriminate against anyone.”March 8, 2017
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