Dig Baton Rouge

Access Denied

By Leslie D. Rose

There’s a saying that most Americans are just a few paychecks away from homelessness. People who are homeless are most often unable to acquire and maintain regular, safe, secure and adequate housing, mainly due to financial reasons. But in Louisiana, there are individuals fully capable of paying for their fair share of housing that are denied a place to call home because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

The Louisiana Equal Housing Opportunity Act prohibits discrimination in housing and related activities because of a person’s race, color, national origin, gender, religion, handicap or familial status. There is nothing referencing sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, thus making it completely legal for individuals identifying as members of the LGBT community to be discriminated against when seeking to purchase or rent property.

In response to this housing discrimination, Rep. Jared C. Brossett authored fair housing bill HB 804. Brossett worked with Equality Louisiana – a coalition of LGBT and allied organizations committed to the full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – to formulate data and arguments to present the bill.

HB 804 and its Senate companion SB 424 by Sen. JP Morrell would add sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and marital status to the Louisiana Equal Housing Opportunity Act. These annotations would forbid discrimination based on these characteristics in renting or selling property, in the terms or conditions of rental or sale, and in access to credit and lending. It would not apply to people renting or selling owner-occupied housing, or housing owned by religious institutions that has preferences for members of a particular religion.

On March 31, Brossett argued HB 804 at a hearing at the State Capital for a vote in front of the House Commerce Committee.

It was shot down, 13-5, leaving the door shut to same-sex couples hoping to avoid housing discrimination in Louisiana.

Disagree to Disagree

James Perry, who is the Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, presented arguments in support of HB 804. While he said he is frustrated with the outcome, he is said he believes that a fair change will happen within the next few years.

“Twenty-two states have passed laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and not just because it was the right thing to do, but also because it proved effective and appropriately business-friendly,” Perry said during his arguments at the hearing.

Perry also referenced a 2011 study done by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The study’s key findings show that same-sex couples experience discrimination in the online rental housing market, relative to heterosexual couples; adverse treatment is found primarily in the form of same-sex couples receiving fewer responses to the email inquiry than heterosexual couples; states with legislative protections show slightly more adverse treatment for gays and lesbians than in states without protections; and that adverse treatment of same-sex couples is present in every metropolitan area where tests were conducted, but no clear-cut pattern exists in the magnitude of adverse treatment by metropolitan size.

Perry said that the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center has been working towards ensuring everyone equal rights to housing since 1995. The City of New Orleans has its own citywide fair housing law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Perry said that while this work is long-going, it is important that Louisiana becomes a state that accepts the beliefs and lifestyles of all of its citizens, no matter who they are or who they love.

“We can agree to disagree about a lot of issues, but we don’t need to put people in a situation where they have no access to housing because we disagree with their lifestyle,” Perry said.

“The Reason is Fear”

And with all the changes that Louisiana has seen over the last few years, the vote on HB 804 has some residents scratching their heads. Baton Rouge resident Leah Siefka said she believes that the 13-5 vote was in favor of needless bigotry and discrimination.

“The same year that has seen several announcements of truly large initiatives for southern Louisiana, such as IBM’s Domestic Delivery Center and the planned water campus research center and a study on a potential passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, our legislators decide to dig our state deeper in opposition to an inclusive, successful population,” Siefka said.  “This kind of legislative action does not just hurt individuals who are directly affected, but [it] also serves as a bellwether for those of us who measure our freedoms by the freedoms of our fellow citizens.”

Siefka’s ideals speak directly to that of Baton Rouge area film writer and producer Amy Dyess, who identifies herself as gay. Dyess said that while she loves that Louisiana has so much culture, she hates that minority groups are often treated with hostility. It’s something she said she doesn’t understand based on what she perceives to be positive characteristics of the LGBT community.

“It’s well documented that gay people raise property values because we give back to our communities,” Dyess said. “I’ve heard no logical arguments against fair housing. Not a single one of the arguments are rooted in reason. It sounds just like racism to me. Gay people improve neighborhoods. Why would someone not want us to make their world better? The answer is fear. The opponents of fairness and equality are afraid because they know they’re losing the war. It’s a war they started and it’s a war that will end soon.”

Dylan Waguespack, Communications & Outreach Coordinator for Louisiana Progress, is also hopeful that this type of discrimination will end soon. Waguespack was at the hearing, but waived his opportunity to comment. In his prepared statement, he cited the HUD study and a statistic that LGBT members are disproportionately affected by homelessness with rates 10 times higher than their straight and non-transgender peers.

“I was hoping to see a lot more courage from the members of the Commerce Committee but I wasn’t shocked,” Waguespack said of the 13-5 vote.

He continued on to say that there is still upcoming hope with a different fair housing bill, HB 871, by Rep. Pat Smith. It would add the protections listed in HB 804, and additionally protections based on arrest or conviction record, veteran’s status, lawful source of income and status as a victim of domestic violence, to the existing fair housing law.

Waguespack urges that if anyone is offended or upset about the current Louisiana Equal Housing Opportunity Act that they call their legislators. He said that constituents can have a huge impact on how legislators vote, as tallies may be taken on the number of times they are contacted about a certain issue. Mainly Waguespack said he believes having a home is a basic human need in which everyone should be entitled to possess.

“If you don’t have a home and you don’t have the opportunity to provide shelter for your family, you’re not necessarily going to be able to maintain employment, so it affects every part of your life,” he said. “That’s all we’re asking for is fair treatment in the housing market.”

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