Home may be where the heart is, but having a roof over one’s head is one of the most basic of human needs. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes “housing” on its list of essentials that everyone should have access to, alongside food, medicine and social services. Federal law in the United States largely agrees. Title VIII of the Civil Rights act of 1968, known as the Fair Housing Act, states that “it shall be unlawful to refuse to sell or rent … or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status or national origin.” Great! That means that no landlord or Realtor can ever discriminate against a person seeking a place to live based on who they are and what they look like … right? But what about LGBT people? Could a landlord or Realtor discriminate against a potential tenant or buyer based on his or her sexual orientation? What about based on gender identity? The answer in more than half of America — including in most of Pennsylvania — is, unfortunately, yes. This is a real problem.
A 2013 study of properties offered for rent found that landlords were significantly less likely to respond positively (or at all) to inquiries from same-sex couples. Unfortunately, federal law is no help. As promising as the strong language of the FHA is, discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is NOT protected under the FHA. In July 2012, the U.S. District Court had the opportunity to step up and set a new precedent in Cruz v. Seton Hall University, but it chose to uphold the discrimination that has plagued our community for years. Until new legislation is passed at the federal level to amend Title VIII to include LGBT people under the protection of the FHA, federal law will be of no help to LGBT people who face housing discrimination.
State and municipal jurisdictions have luckily taken up some of the slack left by the federal government’s failure to protect LGBT people from housing discrimination. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia ban housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and an additional four states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation alone. Pennsylvania does not have a statewide ban on LGBT housing discrimination, but the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance states that it is illegal to deny housing to someone “based on his or her race, ethnicity, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, age, source of income, familial status, or domestic or sexual violence victim status.” This means that, in Philadelphia at least, landlords and Realtors cannot discriminate against LGBT people. If they do, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations may order them to stop and, in some cases, even to pay punitive damages, and a victim of a violation may sue the violator.
So as long as you want to live in Philadelphia or one of the other cities or states that guarantee that right, you can safely find a place to live without fear of discrimination. But then what? If you don’t plan on living on your own, and you’re not legally married or in a civil union (for those who live in places that recognize those … we’re STILL waiting, PA), you might want to consider a cohabitation agreement. Married couples are usually financially interdependent and hold valuable and complicated assets as a couple. That’s why it’s often a good idea for couples to enter into a prenuptial agreement, or prenup, before they tie the knot. But unmarried people who live together — whether they’re partners, dating or just roommates — are often just as financially interdependent and may even own property together. That’s why it might not be a bad idea to consider a cohabitation agreement, which is basically a prenup for unmarried folks.
Like a prenup, a cohabitation agreement can settle a lot of issues before they arise, such as who gets what. This might actually be relatively straightforward for things like cars and real estate because those are both “titled assets,” which means there is a legally binding record of who owns what already. But it might otherwise get really complicated for things like furniture, appliances, DVD collections and household items, which are called “untitled personal property” because no such legally binding record exists. Not everyone owns a car or a home, but pretty much everyone owns furniture, toasters and teapots. A cohabitation agreement can decide in advance who gets what by making a record of which things belong to whom before your move-in date, and what your intentions are for the things that you buy together.
Housing is a very serious issue because it is a necessary human right that affects everyone. Equal access to housing is an important civil right that has been legally recognized for many groups for more than 40 years, but until that right is guaranteed to everyone, including the LGBT community, there is progress left to be made.