Doors often closed to transgender tenants searching for housing

Any protection against discrimination is patchwork at best, underscoring need for federal bill

Imani Henry, 46, is a community organizer in Brooklyn and identifies himself as a "trans man.'' For the transgender population, he says, the search for housing is laden with discrimination.
Yana Paskova for Al Jazeera America

For as long as Paola Ramirez has journeyed through her gender identity, she has been haunted by housing insecurity — first as a pained young boy living with her parents in Guatemala, then on her own as a gay man and, finally, as a transgender woman in New York.

So she was understandably nervous this summer when the lease for her studio apartment in Queens went up for renewal under a new owner.

When Ramirez was growing up, her papa would chastise her, then his only son, for not having machismo like him and for playing with dolls. At 21, jobless and cashless, she bolted first to Boston, then to New York, for a semblance of acceptance.

Her first landlord, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, went out of his way to make her uneasy and to deny her assertions of femininity, she said. Eyeing her longer hair and face made up with cosmetics, he constantly yelled at her from his first-floor apartment, using slurs like “faggot” or “gay boy.” After a few months, she moved.

Now, she said, her current landlord told her she couldn’t renew her lease unless she presented ID — such as a driver’s license or passport — that stated her female name and listed her gender as female.

“I feel pressure,” said Ramirez, 41, who works as a hairstylist. She wonders if such demands are even legal.

Getting the documentation that the landlord demanded isn’t easy. In some states, it requires medical intervention, such as surgery, according to Alison Gill, the senior legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign. Then there are states that require transgender people to submit a form signed by a medical professional that their gender identity is male or female to obtain a driver’s license.

But according to several housing advocates, the requirements placed on Ramirez by her landlord are unlawful.

“This is absolutely illegal,” said Eugene Chen, a staff attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group. “This highlights the sort of discrimination people who are transgender face. These things happen to transgender people every day, on every level.”

No tipping point yet

They happen despite the steadily increasing acceptance of the transgender population, with such TV stars as Laverne Cox from “Orange Is the New Black” and Olympian athlete and Vanity Fair cover girl Caitlyn Jenner. The issue of transgender housing discrimination even made an appearance at the recent Emmy awards ceremony, when Jill Soloway won an Emmy for best direction in a comedy for her show “Transparent,” which tells the story of a father transitioning to a woman and how his grown children adjust.

“Something interesting about my moppa,” Soloway said in her acceptance speech, using her nickname for her transgender parent. “She could, tomorrow, go and try to find an apartment, and in 32 states it would be legal for the landlord to look her in the eye and say, ‘We don’t rent to trans people.’”

Director Jill Soloway holds her Emmy Award on Sept. 20, 2015, which she received for her work on the show "Transparent,'' based on her own transgender parent. "We don't have a trans tipping point,'' she says, "we have a trans civil rights problem.''
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Soloway asked for support for a federal equality bill that would create clear and fixed protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, a bill that would provide more consistent protection than anything in the legal code now.

“We don’t have a trans tipping point yet,” Soloway said. “We have a trans civil rights problem.”

According to a recent national survey by the Human Rights Campaign, the number of likely voters who personally knew or worked with someone who was transgender rose to 22 percent in 2015, compared with 17 percent in 2014. 

Still, 20 percent of transgender people in the United States have been discriminated against when seeking a home, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, and more than 10 percent have been evicted from their homes because of their gender identity, despite government rulings that this is illegal discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

State laws vary on providing protection from discrimination. For example, 19 states and the District of Columbia explicitly protect transgender people in employment and housing, 17 states and D.C. provide explicit protection in public accommodations, and more than a dozen states and D.C. provide explicit protection in education. However, there is no federal law that provides consistent protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, according to several advocates and attorneys.

“It is sort of a patchwork of protection,” said Gill from the Human Rights Campaign, which supports the Equality Act, a federal bill that would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. “It’s not always clear when LGBT people have protections.”

People who are transgender are often locked out of employment, housing and medical services because of bias against their gender identity, according to a recent survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “Injustice at Every Turn,” the largest national survey on transgender discrimination.

Too afraid to defend rights

Even when transgender people are guarded by law, many do not know what their rights are or are afraid to pursue them.

“Sometimes," said Chen, “people just don’t have the energy and resources to litigate a discrimination claim when they’re worried about getting a roof over their heads.”

Transgender people face much higher rates of poverty, unemployment and discrimination, said Gill. They also have limited access to medical care because of their identity. And without identification matching their identity, many have a hard time opening bank accounts and obtaining birth certificates, leaving many transgender people denied crucial services.

“These things really do build upon each other,” said Gill. “Increased poverty can result in increased violence.”

Actress Laverne Cox from the series "Orange Is the New Black,'' at the 2015 Emmy Awards on Sept. 20, 2015. Her success as an actress has helped the transgender population come into prominence, but many transgender people suffer discrimination in employment and housing.
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

The public’s awareness of violence against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, is seemingly on the rise. At least 19 transgender individuals have been reported murdered this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, up from at least 13 transgender women the year before. There is no firm count, activists say, because trans homicide victims are routinely misgendered. Advocates on social media, some using the hashtag #StopTransMurder, and organizations like the New York City Anti-Violence Project, have started tracking the violence and memorializing the lives extinguished. 

For many in the transgender community, housing insecurity began when their parents or relatives pushed them out of their home as they increasingly asserted their gender identity. Cherno Biko, 24, an activist in the trans community, said she was kicked out of her home at 16 “because my father is unaccepting of my gender expression.”

She said she finished high school while living in a group home. At Bowling Green State University, she said, she could not stay in the dormitory as a trans woman. She said she has seen, from her outreach work, that housing insecurity and employment bias fuel violence and prostitution.

“We don’t have the agency to secure housing for ourselves,” Biko said. “All these things together put us in a pretty precarious situation.''

Trouble with neighbors

Chen works with low-income LGBTQ people, particularly from communities of color, who are facing eviction or housing discrimination. Much of his work, he said, focuses on tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods, where there can be greater pressure to turn over apartments.

Some of his transgender clients, he said, have been harassed by neighbors. He has met with tenants who have been sexually harassed and propositioned by building superintendents. Some workers, he said, have refused to make repairs, like fixing the sink, in transgender tenants’ apartments.

Nicole Vazquez Cintron, 21, who came out as a transgender man last year, has been having a hard time trying to find an apartment for him and his fiancée in Austin, Texas.
Courtesy Nicole Vaszquez

“It’s sometimes difficult to resolve, and we can’t in every aspect,” he said of alleged discrimination. “It really depends on the facts. In certain cases, a single comment made could color the way the landlord and tenant are going forward.”

Nicole Vazquez Cintron, 21, had been searching for an apartment for months in southwestern Texas. “It’s been difficult in my case,” said Cintron, who came out as a transgender man last year.

Weary of going to rental appointments only to be turned down for apartments, perhaps because his voice did not match the perceptions of his cropped hair and button-down shirts, he got to the point that he told prospective landlords over the phone that he was part of a same-sex, gender-fluid engaged couple looking for an apartment. (While they consider themselves to be in a heterosexual relationship, they tell landlords that they are a lesbian couple because “that’s what they see,” Cintron said.)

Almost all the landlords hung up on him. A few told him they would rent the apartment only as one person to a bedroom, which housing experts said is discriminatory on the basis of family status.

Cintron, who works as a kitchen assistant in a cafe, and his fiancée were finally able to secure an apartment with a former coworker. But it is temporary, through the end of the year.

“I worry about it,” he said, on beginning his apartment search again. “But I think it’s going to get easier. It’s not me taking it alone or her taking it alone. We can support each other.” 

Left with questions

To impede housing discrimination, some transgender people and gender non-conforming people will take a friend who is cisgender — not transgender — to look at an apartment with them or get a cis roommate so they present to the landlord as a couple, said Imani Henry, 46, a community organizer based in Brooklyn.

Increasingly in gentrifying neighborhoods, he said, landlords are blatantly and subtly prodding transgender tenants to move out so they can charge higher rents to new tenants.

Gentrification is making the hunt for housing even more difficult for transgender people, says Imani Henry, a social worker who says that often they are among the first to be pushed out in the search for higher rents.
Yana Paskova for Al Jazeera America

“Trans and non-gender-conforming people have always had a hard time finding permanent housing," he said. “Now, with gentrification, you’re considered even less desirable to landlords.”

Henry remembered looking for an apartment in Brooklyn some 15 years ago, back when he sounded less masculine. He had a pleasant conversation with a rental agent, but when he showed up to the rental appointment as his masculine self, a black man with a bald head, “they were scared out of their mind,” he said, feeling that the landlord was afraid to let him into the apartment. As a trans or gender non-conforming person of color, he said, “you’re being discriminated against, and you’re trying to figure out exactly why you’re being discriminated against.”

As for Paola Ramirez, her current landlord offered a compromise of sorts. If she could not present valid ID listing her as female, she could transfer the lease to her fiancé, a cis male, whom she is scheduled to marry in late September.

The landlord would charge $300 for the name change and raise the rent on her rent-stabilized apartment by 20 percent. (The typical maximum annual increase for rent-stabilized apartments in New York City is 2 to 4 percent.)

Ramirez wondered if perhaps the landlord was attempting to get around rent stabilization laws and move the rent to market rate faster or just pressuring the couple to move out. Days before the lease was up, her fiancé relented and signed the new lease.

While she has her apartment, she is left with questions. Why did she need to be formally identified as a female to get an apartment? Why did the rent go up? Where could she go to get the right answers?

 “It just doesn’t seem fair,” Ramirez said.

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