Would a Husband and Wife Be Denied Housing?
"But maybe it's just their policy, you know?"
It happens over drinks. It happens at the coffee shop we frequent. It happens on social media. It happens during the long talks of frustrations with trusted friends and family. It happens more often than it should.
It's the response my wife and I hear again and again in reference to the housing discrimination we've faced as an openly married same-sex couple living in New York City. After all, maybe it is just a home owner or leaser's policy to not rent to a married couple — that could lead to drama or more damages if there's more than one person living in the space. And not everyone is comfortable with the LBGT community, so why should they have to rent to them? Don't people still have a right to decide who they rent to?
Not if it's discriminatory.
A recent study released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that same-sex couples experience significantly higher levels of discrimination than heterosexual couples when looking to secure housing. And in fact, according to the study, in states with protections for LGBT individuals, same-sex couples experience higher levels of discrimination. Unfortunately for my wife and me, we found this to be true in both New York and Massachusetts — both states where LGBT individuals are considered a protected class with regard to housing discrimination.
We regarded Chelsea, a historically gay-friendly neighborhood in NYC, as a safe choice. We researched certain blocks, we scoured Craigslist, and we reached out to a broker located in the neighborhood. Via email we identified ourselves as a same-sex couple looking to a rent a studio or one-bedroom apartment to share. We scheduled a time to meet in person and view spaces within our budget. Danielle and I were nothing short of relieved.
At least until we got there.
Upon arrival, we shook hands with their broker and sat down. He asked what we were looking for, and we repeated what we inquired about in our email: a studio or one-bedroom in the Chelsea area.
"I don't think a studio would work for you two," he interrupted.
"Studios in Manhattan are really small; there's no way you could fit two beds in there."
"We'll only need one bed."
He shook his head and shuffled our paperwork. "If only one of you is actually living there, I can only take one person's income information."
"We're a couple. We share a bed. We told you this in the email."
He turned visibly red. "Oh! I... uh ... I ... u h... I just thought you were roommates."
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I thought you would sleep separately, like, with twin beds or something."
"We're a couple. We're looking for a studio as we discussed with you. Is the one we reached out about still available?"
Silently, he stared at his computer for several seconds. "Uh, sorry, no. I don't think we have anything available to suit your ... needs."
"There are no studios or one-bedrooms available in Chelsea?"
"Nothing is available currently, sorry."
When we left, friends and family tried to find justifications for his behavior.
"He's probably never met a gay couple before and didn't know how to react," they offered after listening to our story.
"You don't look gay. He wasn't being offensive; he just didn't realize."
But those excuses don't justify the way he humiliated or demeaned us. It doesn't justify discrimination.
Soured from the broker, my wife and I turned to Craigslist yet again. We found an apartment through a different realty company located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, another area known for young people, artists, and a liberal environment. We secured the apartment without issue -- only to experience homophobia in every email and phone call with management.
In spite of signing emails as "Mrs.," representatives of the company referred to us pointedly as "Miss." When referring to a voicemail my wife left, the secretary referred to her as my roommate. When the maintenance men arrived to fix our stove, they peaked around the corner and looked excitedly at our bed. When the electric went out in the first floor of our building and we complained, we had to wait 24 hours for someone to fix it. The couple directly across the hall, a man and woman also living in a studio, had theirs fixed the same evening.
"People at offices are just busy. They're not pointedly using the word 'roommate' instead of 'wife'; you're just projecting," was the frequent response we heard. "You can't take things personally."
But discrimination is personal. It is isolating. It is demeaning. It is degrading. And yes, it is real.
In our search for Boston housing via Craigslist, my wife and I have had good and bad experiences. Luckily, we secured a beautiful home in a particularly liberal and LGBT-friendly part of the city with a landlord who is happy to have us. But our search wasn't easy.
Massachusetts has a state law that explicitly protects married and unmarried couples — both heterosexual and homosexual — from being discriminated against in terms of housing. How could married couples be discriminated against? Here is one example:
Thanks so much for writing. I have TWO rooms that I would rent to ONE tenant per bedroom. If you think you two might be interested in both bedrooms for the year, I would be happy to follow up. Please let me know if you are interested.
I emailed the landlord clarifying again that my wife and I are a married couple and therefore require only one bedroom — adding in a reminder that both sexual orientation and marital status are protected classes in Massachusetts. Their response follows:
I rent TWO rooms on a regular basis each to a SINGLE adult only. I would need to collect rent for each bedroom. This has nothing to do with homophobia but is all about finances. This would bring the total cost of your rent for both bedrooms to $1600 at $800 per bedroom. I would regard you as two separate single tenants and charge you at that rate.
This landlord's email discriminates on two bases. What landlord or realty company would reasonably request that a heterosexual couple sleep in two separate bedrooms? And clarify that they would need to collect rent on both bedrooms? Even the justification that the landlord could not rent to us for financial reasons would not likely pass legal muster: To set an occupancy limit of fewer than two people per bedroom, the landlord would have to prove that the building's infrastructure could not support the additional tenant. The landlord's real fear? That a prospective occupant of the other bedroom would not want to live next to a gay couple.
At the end of the day, it does have to do with homophobia. It does have to do with discrimination. It is not an excuse for exploitation. It is not an excuse for LGBT couples to be viewed as roommates or separate tenants. Laws don't change people's minds overnight, but that doesn't mean that same-sex couples deserve a lower quality of life and opportunity, especially in a necessity like housing.