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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Housing activists urge HUD to count LGBTs

HUD assistant secretary John Trasvina speaks
at a hearing in San Francisco on a proposed rule
to ensure equal access in federal housing programs.
Housing rights activists in northern California are urging the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to count LGBT people who seek out its programs.
The issue has emerged as one of the main critiques with HUD's proposed rules on how to ensure equal access to its housing programs regardless of a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. HUD staffers have suggested that the agency prohibit inquiries into if an applicant is LGBT.
The pending rule, which was released in January, is intended to prevent that information from being used as a reason to deny someone housing.
"In some parts of the country it could be used as a weapon to keep people out," warned John Trasvina, HUD's assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, during a meeting with community members that took place in San Francisco March 9.
But without the statistical information, argue activists, it will be impossible to know if LGBT people are able to access HUD programs. Detractors have derided it as another problematic "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"We have to have some kind of measurement tool to track these kinds of things and make sure people are getting services we are entitled to. Making us invisible is not going to do it," said AIDS Housing Alliance founder Brian Basinger.
Seth Kilbourn, executive director of Openhouse, which is aimed at providing housing for LGBT seniors, agreed that it is imperative for HUD to know if it is serving LGBT people. While he doesn't have the empirical evidence to prove it, Kilbourn said he knows anecdotally that LGBT seniors are currently being underserved.
"I know our seniors are under-represented in San Francisco. Can I prove that? No, because we don't ask the question," said Kilbourn. "I know it is a very challenging thing, but LGBT seniors are under-represented in affordable housing in this city."
Nor is it merely agencies with urban-based clients asking HUD to track its applicants by sexual orientation and gender identity. Agencies serving rural areas also want HUD to track that information.
"We need that data to be collected," said Mona Tawatao, regional counsel for Legal Services of Northern California, which works with many clients in the Sacramento area. "With the dearth of social service agencies in our area, we need that data to support policies and to support funding, so when agencies apply for funding to provide these services there is some traction there."
HUD's regulation, as currently written, would "preclude owners and operators of HUD-assisted housing or housing whose financing is insured by HUD from inquiring about the sexual orientation or gender identity of an applicant for, or occupant of, the dwelling, whether renter- or owner-occupied."
The rule goes on to stress that there is nothing preventing someone from "self-identifying his or her sexual orientation or gender identity." And it stresses that asking an applicant about their gender would still be allowed when the housing being provided "involves the sharing of sleeping areas or bathrooms."
"The reason why it is in there is it comes under pretty standard fair employment law. It is similar to not asking about marital status or religion. In part, nobody can say you used that as a reason you didn't offer someone a job," Trasvina said. "Also, lots of people don't want to be asked that."
By including the prohibition in its intended rules, HUD has inadvertently stepped into a growing debate on when, and if, the federal government should track LGBT people. The issue gained national attention two years ago during the decennial census process, when LGBT rights groups criticized the U.S. Census Bureau for, at first, not counting same-sex married couples.
Responding to the criticism, census officials later changed course. There is now debate on whether the 2020 census and other federal surveys should count LGBT people in general.
The issue has also filtered down to the local and state levels. In California out state Senator Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) is pushing for passage of AB 416, the Survey Data Inclusion Act, which would mandate state agencies that conduct statewide surveys include questions about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, domestic partnership status and the gender of a spouse.
When HUD personnel came up with the proposed restriction on asking such questions, it did so unaware of the controversy it would cause, said Trasvina, who is straight, during an interview with the Bay Area Reporter last week.
"We did not intend to get into that debate on this rule but apparently we have," he said. "There are those in the community who say they want that question to be asked. They make a case for it to be asked; they want to be counted."
Trasvina said during both the sit-down interview and public meeting that HUD is open to hearing why it should change that regulation and asked community members to send in written comments on the rule before the March 25 deadline. Some have suggested the agency could collect the information in such a way that it is anonymous.
"On the issue of the data, we are looking for a solution," said Trasvina, who expects the agency will issue its final rules by the end of the year.


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