Unwelcome Mat

Housing discrimination based on sexual identity or orientation is against Oregon law. Who knew?

When Mari Orr and her partner, Jennifer Vales, went looking for a new apartment last fall, Orr says, “We got a lot of odd looks.” 

Vales is a transgender woman, and she still had a male name on her driver's license. Orr says apartment managers told them units were already rented—only to learn later they were still available.

They say a Gresham property manager told Orr: "She's your partner, and she's female? That doesn't make any sense."

The property manager took $140 from the couple for a credit check and later told them they'd been denied. Orr contacted the credit agency and found out the landlord had never run the check. 

Today, Orr and Vales believe they were victims of housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

They might have filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, which investigates such cases. But Orr, 47, and Vales, 50, say that while they had a sense the treatment was illegal, they had no idea where to file a complaint.

They're not alone. State officials believe many people who have faced discrimination based on sexual identity or orientation might also be unaware they can file a complaint and seek an investigation.

Housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity has been illegal in Oregon since 2007. But state officials say they have received only 14 complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity since then—out of more than 400 complaints of housing discrimination of all types.

That number is low based on the anecdotal information received by gay-rights advocates.

"I hear about this anecdotally all the time, especially from transgender people," says Paul Fukui, operations manager at the Q Center. "But most aren't aware they can seek a legal recourse."

The federal Fair Housing Act, which bans housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, disability, marital status or source of income, doesn't cover sexual orientation or gender identity.

But earlier this year, the Obama administration moved to fill part of this gap by banning such discrimination in U.S. Housing and Urban Development housing, which includes homes with Federal Housing Authority-backed loans and mortgages.

The new rule comes with federal money to beef up state BOLI investigations and publicize housing rights regarding sexual orientation and identity.

BOLI and the Q Center, which won a state contract to do public outreach, are teaming up for a yearlong effort to educate Oregonians about the state's anti-discrimination standards for housing. 

"In sheer numbers of complaints that are filed, there just aren't that many," says Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who as a state senator carried the bill that outlawed housing discrimination based on sexual identity or orientation. "I would suspect that we will see an increase either in the amount of complaints or the amount of calls to the agency just to get information about what their rights might be."

Of the 14 complaints BOLI has received since 2008, investigators found evidence of discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity in only one case. The state reached settlements in six other cases, four lacked evidence of discrimination, and three are still under investigation.

The Metro Multifamily Housing Association, which represents landlords and property owners, provides training on preventing discrimination.

"Our fair-housing training is constantly revised to be up to date with current issues and any changes in protected class status," says Deborah Imse, the association's executive director. "So each time Oregon or the federal expands protections based on LGBTQ status, we update our education programs to reflect those rights and protections."

Last week, the Q Center hosted a forum of representatives from HUD, BOLI, the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, and Cascade AIDS Project (CAP) offering information on how people who believe they have been wrongfully denied housing can file a complaint.

CAP housing services manager Amanda Hurley says many of her clients have faced housing discrimination, and she has referred those cases to the Fair Housing Council of Oregon and BOLI to be investigated. She says CAP offers housing subsidies through some of its programs, and association with the group has scared off some landlords in the past.

"One of our clients had applied for housing and was accepted." Hurley says. "The landlord had asked to receive the rent check directly from us, and as soon as he found out the agency was Cascade AIDS Project, he called it off and told the client he couldn’t move in.” 

Hurley says some CAP clients have trouble with neighbors as well.

"When a neighbor finds out someone is HIV-positive, that can come with some type of retaliation—anything from writing on their door to refusing to ride the elevator with them,” she says. 

And if that happens, it's the landlord's responsibility to deal with it—and the state's duty to investigate if they don't.

"Landlords are liable," says BOLI investigator Christopher Lynch. "A lot of them don't understand that they have the duty to protect you from that harassment.” 

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