Why equal housing for women will continue to be a 'tough road'

From sexually-abusive landlords to being denied a loan when you’re on maternity leave, equal housing is a challenge for many women, says Lisa Rice, CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance.Courtesy of NFHA.

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By Laura Haverty

Housing discrimination happens everywhere, and could be affecting women you know, including yourself.

It’s the advertisement describing a rental as “perfect for a single woman." Or, the Facebook ad that doesn’t pop up when a woman with children searches online for a rental. Or, it’s as blatant as the many cases of landlords demanding sexual favors.

The ever-evolving ways to discriminate, coupled with a weakening of protections, alarm fair housing professionals like Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, the only national organization dedicated solely to ending discrimination in housing. In her 12 years with NFHA, and 20 years with local fair housing groups, Rice has fought to uphold the Fair Housing Act, which makes it unlawful to discriminate in real estate transactions, including renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities.

It’s a fight that will only tougher, she said. Starting in 2018, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enforces fair housing laws, has taken steps to weaken the Act’s protections and reduce funding for local fair housing groups.

Rice recently shared her concerns and insights with Know Your Value. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Know Your Value: Why is fair housing protection important for women?

Lisa Rice: Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords can’t charge women more for a rental, or refuse to rent to them, based on their sex. Nor can they be excluded from learning about products or opportunities.

But too often, women face sexual harassment and assault from their landlords, maintenance staff, real estate agents, mortgage lenders and other housing staff.

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Since 1996, when we started collecting data from local agencies for our annual report, we’ve recorded more than 500,000 complaints. The most common are based on disability (57 percent), race (19 percent), family status (9 percent) and gender (7 percent). But those numbers probably don’t reflect reality; they are too low. We’ve found that women, and especially low-income women, are afraid to report abuse because they can’t afford to lose their home.

KYV: How are women discriminated against?

LR: There are variations, but often a woman is discriminated against because she is pregnant, has children or is the victim of domestic violence.

Rosetta Watson, for example, was evicted from her Maplewood, Missouri home because she called the police four times after being assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. Maplewood’s ordinance defined a “nuisance” as more than two calls to police related to domestic violence within 180 days. The city revoked Ms. Watson’s occupancy permit for six months and forced her to leave Maplewood, despite the city’s own records revealing that she was a victim of domestic violence. The American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Missouri filed a federal lawsuit that was settled in September 2018. As part of the settlement, the city agreed to overhaul the law.

Low-income renters who receive “Section 8” housing vouchers were recently discriminated against by a landlord in the District of Columbia, and we’ve filed a lawsuit on their behalf. There have been several cases where women on maternity leave were denied a loan because they were “not working” at the time.

Abuse happens online too. In 2018, we filed a lawsuit against Facebook because its advertising platform may have enabled landlords and real estate brokers to exclude people of color, families with children, women, people with disabilities, and other protected groups from receiving housing ads. That lawsuit was settled earlier this year and will set new standards across the tech industry and affect millions of consumers.

Policies like these disproportionately impact women because they earn less, are often the primary family caregiver and are the most likely victims of domestic violence.

KYV: What can we expect as far as enforcement and funding for fair housing protections under the Trump Administration?

LR: It’s going to be a tough road. In May, HUD Secretary Ben Carson told lawmakers that he did not anticipate making changes to the Equal Access Rule, which provides sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination protections in housing and shelter services. A day later, HUD announced a proposal to gut and rewrite the rule.

That’s only the latest setback.

Since 2018, HUD has slowed or stopped most high-priority fair housing investigations and enforcement and announced plans to revise its disparate impact rule, potentially weakening a powerful tool to protect people and communities from discriminatory practices…

KYV: So what’s next?

LR: We will continue to help women, minorities and the disabled understand their rights under the Fair Housing Act and urge them to get help if they’re facing discrimination. If their local housing agencies have gone under or are struggling, victims can contact HUD or NFHA for assistance.

KYV: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

LR: Yes, in the 51 years since passage of the Fair Housing Act we’ve made progress to help women and other protected groups secure safe affordable rentals and become homeowners. But now we’re seeing some of our progress slipping away. Regaining it will be hard. We have found people are willing to endure economic loss to avoid someone they have an unconscious bias against a woman, a person of color or a person with a disability. We want to put a logical lens on it, but bias isn’t always logical.

This is a very important issue because fair housing discrimination disrupts the ability of a family to live in safe secure housing. When a family is experiencing housing disruption, it has negative implications on health, school performance, economic security for the family. I think that people don’t realize the important role that housing plays in our society and our economy.

Housing stability is extremely important for all of us.