2016-12-12
Story

While she helped African-American transgender men and women find housing through her work at an Aurora nonprofit, Nevaeh Anderson faced housing discrimination herself.

Photo by Jessica Studnik

By Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Eight years after transgender people were added to Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, protecting them from all forms of discrimination, members of metro Denver’s transgender community say rampant housing discrimination against them persists.

Nevaeh Anderson knows firsthand. While employed as a programs manager at It Takes A Village, a nonprofit in Aurora that serves the African-American transgender community, she found herself living a dual reality that was both ironic and frustrating.

By day, Anderson worked diligently assisting black transgender men and women—an especially embattled group, according to national research—gain access to HIV testing and information, medical and mental health resources, employment opportunities and affordable housing options in metro Denver.

By evening and in her personal time, Anderson privately navigated her own exasperating search for a place to live.

“It was really frustrating. For a long time, I didn’t even want to tell the people at my job about what I was going through,” Anderson said.

“As a trans woman of color, [finding a place to live is] even harder because we deal with double discrimination. We’re in survival mode every day.”

Anderson and other transgender advocates in the Denver metro area say the discrimination transgender people regularly face often results in limited employment options and subsequent income inequities, and can limit their ability to secure quality and affordable housing. Denver’s affordable housing shortage, they say, has only exacerbated their predicament.

“Most landlords don’t want to rent to trans people—they don’t want anything to do with us—because they feel a certain way about it, so when a trans person shows up, they’ll claim the place suddenly is no longer available,” said Anderson, speaking about her personal experience and that of many of her clients. “Most of the time, [transgender people] stay in hotels or they’re hopping from house to house; if they’re lucky enough, they can stay with family members.”

Anderson ultimately ended up paying $850 a month to live in a seedy extended-stay hotel on Denver’s Colfax Avenue, all while recovering from a serious leg injury.

“It was depressing at first, but I just stayed to myself and did what I had to do,” she recalled. “It was what it was.”

Anderson lived there for eight months until she saved up enough money and found a place to rent. She now pays close to $800 a month for a small but cozy studio apartment in North Aurora. Anderson says she was relieved to put the emotional ordeal behind her.

Research on both the state and national levels suggests that the discriminatory treatment Anderson says she experienced is common. Recent research from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that nearly one in four transgender people in the United States has experienced housing discrimination within the past year, such as being evicted or denied a home because of being transgender. A statewide survey by One Colorado, the state’s largest advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Coloradans and their families, found that transgender people struggle daily with discrimination, limited employment options, threats of violence, limited support networks and poverty—issues that tend to go hand-in-hand with housing challenges.

Research has shown a significant link between housing status and health. As noted in a 2008 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “factors related to housing have the potential to help—or harm—our health in major ways.” The report added that “discrimination has limited the ability of many low-income and minority families to move to healthy neighborhoods. The concentration of substandard housing in less advantaged neighborhoods further compounds racial and ethnic as well as socioeconomic disparities in health.”

Transgender Coloradans are much more likely to be out of work or living in a low-income household than the general population, One Colorado has found. That’s in spite of higher rates of educational attainment among the transgender population compared to the overall Colorado population.

“Due to the discrimination they face, many transgender people are marginalized. They find themselves in low-paying jobs where their income is not very traceable, so they don’t have the pay stubs needed to verify income [for housing applications],” explained Sable Schultz, transgender programs manager at the Denver-based GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender) Community Center of Colorado.

On the federal level, the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and familial status—but gender identity and sexual orientation are not specifically included as protected categories. For LGBT Americans to be explicitly protected, the law would have to be amended. Discrimination against a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) person may be covered by the law currently if it is “based on non-conformity with gender stereotypes,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Rebecca Laurie, public information officer for the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, said active cases under investigation for housing discrimination “are confidential under state statute.”

Arturo Alvarado, executive director of the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center (DMFHC), says he is not aware of any complaints or lawsuits filed in Colorado in relation to transgender housing discrimination since DMFHC incorporated in October 2012. Yet “there is no doubt in my mind that transgender housing discrimination is occurring,” he said.

That incidents of transgender housing discrimination are likely underreported adds to the severity of the problem. A 2010 HUD report concluded: “Because members of this group have little or no legal recourse in many jurisdictions, advocates believe that they often remain silent even in the face of overt discriminatory practices.”

Added HUD: “While there are currently no national studies of the extent of housing discrimination against LGBT individuals, couples, and families, state and local studies have shown bias against this group.”

One Colorado Executive Director Daniel Ramos said one problem is that many people, including Coloradans, don’t know that it is illegal to discriminate against transgender people in regards to employment, housing and public accommodations. Taking legal action, he said, would help.

“We encourage those who feel that they are facing discrimination to file a formal claim with the Colorado Civil Rights Division,” he said.

One Boulder couple has done so. In January 2016, the LGBT advocacy organization Lambda Legal filed a federal discrimination lawsuit on the couple’s behalf, alleging that a Boulder County property owner violated the Fair Housing Act and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act when she refused to rent a housing unit to the same-sex couple—one of whom is transgender—and their two children.

The complaint states that the property owner refused to rent the Gold Hill, Colo. home to the couple because she worried that their “uniqueness” would jeopardize her standing in the community.

“Worrying about what the neighbors will say is no excuse for discrimination,” said Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan in a provided statement. (Attempts to reach the property owner for comment were unsuccessful, but she previously told the Boulder Daily Camera that the couple’s rental application was denied due to her concerns about noise from the couple’s children.)

LGBT advocates say that although legal protections on both the federal and state levels are helpful, enforcement is most critical.

“You can pass all the laws in the world, but if they’re not enforced, people will just find loopholes. What difference is it really making?” asked Karen Scarpella, executive director of the Gender Identity Center, a nonprofit transgender advocacy organization based in Denver.

Scarpella said she feels that the discrimination many transgender people face in housing and in other areas of their lives is rooted in unwarranted fear and ignorance. Ramos agrees, adding that he believes everyone has the power to play a role in eradicating discrimination—all types of discrimination—against transgender people.

“Studies show that only one in 10 people know a transgender person,” he said. “The biggest way to [positively] impact the life of a transgender person is to get to know transgender people.”

Related article: New HUD Rule Aims to Help Homeless Transgender People

Chandra Thomas Whitfield
Print, broadcast and multimedia journalist
Denver, Colorado