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HUD's Pledge To Investigate Discrimination Met By Cautious Optimism Among Local LGBTQ Housing Groups

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Katie Blackley
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90.5 WESA
Giuseppe Bagheera, a protest organizer for Black, Young, and Educated, holds a sign at a protest in the summer of 2020.

Local LGBTQ advocates are celebrating a recent announcement that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will look into discrimination filings based on gender identity or sexual orientation. The move came after President Joe Biden signed an executive order barring such discrimination.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five trans people has experienced discrimination when looking for housing.

Julian McClain, a development officer with Option-U, a housing services program for transgender and non-binary people run by the group True T, said he knew there was a lack of safe and affordable housing for queer folks, but the demand has been overwhelming. Option-U runs a two-floor housing unit in Bloomfield that offers five short-term apartment-style residences (and one extra bed for emergency housing situations).

At first, they regularly had openings. “Now, when we look at the intake inquiry form, we see two or three people [interested in housing] a day,” McClain said. The units are nearly always full.

The demand for programs like Option-U highlights the shortage of spaces available for LGBTQ tenants in Pittsburgh and around the country. Many in the community say they’ve tried to find apartments in the city, but have faced discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Discrimination can happen when a landlord doesn’t show a queer tenant certain units; trans individuals are also often required to use their dead names — the name assigned to them at birth — when signing legal documents. 

McClain said many local facilities, including shelters, still aren’t well-versed in how to deal with things like pronouns, and gender identity.

“There's some units in Pittsburgh that you only get a cot on a gym floor,” McClain said. “And on that floor you're assigned what your driver's license says. So you can be a trans woman and still get sent to the male gym floor with 100 other males that were sleeping there that night.”

The Biden order followed a tumultuous year for transgender people, when 44 trans individuals killed, and four years of a Trump administration that attempted to implement anti-LGBTQ rules. In August, for example, a federal judge blocked a Trump administration rule that would significantly rollback health care protections for trans patients. 

HUD’s pledge to investigate such cases means renters through federal housing programs now have a course of legal action. Mark Thomas, senior program manager at the human services group Familylinks, said he’s optimistic to be able to tell clients they can call HUD with a discrimination filing, and someone will answer.

“What's going to impact us most is that we're able now to to direct our residents what to do if they are encountering or they feel like they have or had encountered discrimination,” Thomas said. “There is now a contact person or people inside HUD that you can report this to.”

HUD says it will investigate filings dated back to one year before President Biden took off, January 2020.

“Trying to survive.”

While the pandemic has put millions out of work and increased housing insecurity, transgender people who already faced significant barriers to employment and housing have fared much worse. Dena Stanley, executive director of Trans YOUniting, said some transgender people have done what she calls “survival sex work” in the past, which doesn’t come with a W-2.

“If you don't have a recognizable income, some type of previous income, then they're stopping your unemployment,” Stanley said. “So it's back to doing what you have to do. And that is really, really dangerous right now with the COVID situation.”

Stanley said some things have gotten better as government systems navigate what people need, and how to best get it to them, but says the need is so dire that folks “are too busy trying to survive.”

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