Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
When it comes to housing access, New York City is an especially hard place to live for trans and gender non-conforming people.
In 2014, Cecilia Gentili and her partner were ready to move in together. It was a big step for their year-old relationship. The couple started scouring Craigslist for the perfect home. Gentili, 42 at the time, knew what she wanted: a two-bedroom in Ridgewood, Queens (where she lived at the time), close to the train, with a kitchen island and a patio out back. And they found one that fit all those criteria. She called a broker on the phone, and the prospect seemed like a slam dunk; she and her partner had steady jobs and great credit. They decided to go see the place.
Gentili identifies as a transgender woman; when she met the broker in person, the man fell silent, stared, and asked if she was Cecilia. When she answered affirmatively, he told her he’d forgotten the address of the place and excused himself, saying he’d get in touch. It never happened.
Gentili prefers not to revisit such interactions in her life. They’re too painful—“a constant reminder that I can’t get what I need in life because of who I am,” she says. “We can’t change who we are. I am trans.” Her experience is one of three highlighted in a brief on housing discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people released by the office of New York City Public Advocate Letitia James on Friday—International Transgender Day of Visibility.
Like in Gentili’s case, the discrimination is often not explicit. Brokers will suddenly run out of open apartments, and landlords will say they don’t accept Section 8 vouchers or other housing assistance. “Most of these discriminatory acts happen under the veil of normalcy—but I know what happened,” Gentili says of her experience.
In the other cases, the ill-treatment is overt—ugly, even—with transgender applicants identified as “prostitutes” and “risks,” according to the report. Brokers often ask for additional fees for the “extra effort” of finding an apartment, and landlords charge a higher upfront deposit, without any guarantee of return. And even after a transgender person ends up signing a lease, the harassment may not stop. Reports of name-calling and violent threats are common. And if the victim complains, they can be evicted.
The most economically or socially vulnerable are at most risk. Landlords will often threaten to report undocumented transgender tenants, for example, if they don’t voluntarily leave their apartments. Or they’ll simply stop providing services or repairs till the apartment is unlivable. It’s no wonder that vulnerable transgender tenants often end up homeless.
Such treatment by landlords and brokers is, of course, illegal. While the Fair Housing Act doesn’t explicitly include sexual orientation and gender expression within its protected classes, according to guidance provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “discrimination against a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) person may be covered by the Fair Housing Act if it is based on non-conformity with gender stereotypes.” Additionally, New York City has had laws protecting transgender folks on the books for years, and in 2015, released guidance clarifying the scope and penalties.
But ending housing discrimination is still quite a long way off. The first problem is that there’s not enough data on how many such cases are actually out there. Among the 500-plus respondents from New York surveyed by the National Center For Transgender Equality in 2015, 19 percent reported being denied a home or apartment. (Of the 28,000 respondents nationwide, 23 percent experienced housing discrimination.) That’s the most authoritative statistic available on this issue, and it’s probably understated, advocates say.
Community-based service providers are in the best position to track and compile discrimination cases, because victims trust them and are more likely to come forward. But often, these organizations lack resources do that kind of data collection. Providing them with grants for that intake is the first step toward solving the problem, according to the NYC Public Advocate’s report.
Another recommendation: Make it easier to complain. Victims of housing discrimination can call 311 and tell their story to the Human Rights Commission. But in order to pursue legal actions, the complainant has to come in to the office in Manhattan. That’s a barrier to entry, which is why the report suggests expanding the city’s capacity to take in and deal with these complaints in the outer boroughs. Then, once the city starts bringing in better data, it should send transgender “testers” out to catch repeat offenders in the act, the report suggests. (In 2013, HUD deployed white and minority testers and found widespread, albeit subtle, housing discrimination continues to exist.) Other solutions include creating a repository of successful court cases and educating landlords and homeless shelters.
Many states still openly allow housing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Older members of this group face particular challenges. Unlike some of these places, New York has been a bastion for gay and transgender rights. But when it comes to housing access, it’s an especially hard place to live. “Housing is difficult because housing is expensive,” Gentili says. Trans people already face systemic barriers to education and employment, she says. But even if they overcome them, and get to a point where they can afford a home for themselves and their loved ones, complete with a patio and kitchen island, transphobia thwarts them again. “People fear what they don’t know, and many people don’t know anything in trans people,” she says. “That fear translates to action.”