Know your rights if a landlord won’t rent to you because you are gay or lesbian.

Most sensible landlords care more about whether you pay the rent on time and take good care of the property than whom you share your life with. Unfortunately, you may encounter some landlords who are inappropriately nosey or flat-out prejudiced.

You may be asked pointed questions when you apply for a rental (“Are you two, like, together?”) or you may receive a termination notice from a landlord who has just learned that your relationship with your roommate is not platonic. What you can do in response depends on three things:

  • whether the state or city where you live has established legal protections that will help you
  • whether the discrimination takes place when you’re applying for a rental or during the rental, and
  • whether you have a long-term lease or a month-to-month rental agreement.

If a Landlord Won’t Rent To You

If you are denied a rental at the application stage, you may or may not be able to do anything about it. Federal law does not protect gays, lesbians, or transgender people from discrimination by landlords. Several states and many cities, however, do have laws that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.

California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin have laws prohibiting discrimination against gays or lesbians. California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Mexico, Rhode Island and New York City also protect transgender folks. In addition, many cities have passed laws that make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal, including Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Seattle.

If you don’t live in a state or city that extends protection, there’s not much you can do besides, perhaps, attempting to reason with the landlord.

If Your Landlord Tries to Break Your Lease

If you encounter discrimination after your tenancy has begun, the picture may improve dramatically.

If you have a lease, your rental cannot be terminated until the lease term is over, unless you have broken an important lease clause (such as failing to pay rent or keeping a pet in violation of a no-pets rule) or you have committed an illegal act. Most lease clauses do not expressly address whom you share your bed with; and most states have tossed out their anti-sodomy and fornication laws. So, as long as your lease has no clause prohibiting certain types of sexual behavior and you don’t live in a state that makes sodomy or unmarried sex illegal, a landlord who attempts to evict you solely on the grounds of your sexual orientation would have a hard time succeeding. This result would be true even for renters who live in cities or states that don’t prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. Those that live in states that do would have an even stronger case.

If Your Landlord Tries to End Your Month-to-Month Rental Agreement

Renters with month-to-month rental agreements may be in greater danger of eviction. In a month-to-month tenancy, a landlord may terminate the agreement by giving the required notice, which is 30 days in most states. The landlord need not give a reason for the termination. However, landlords are not allowed to terminate rental agreements for a discriminatory reason, so if you have protection against sexual orientation discrimination by virtue of a state or local law, you may be able to stop the landlord. If you aren’t protected, the landlord is free to act on his whims or beliefs. Tenants in rent control situations, however, may fare better, since most rent control ordinances prohibit termination of month to month tenants unless they have violated the rental agreement or have seriously broken the law (by selling drugs, for example).

Landlords’ Defense: Freedom of Religion

Landlords have attempted to trump antidiscrimination laws by relying on various state and federal freedom of religion laws. A court in Alaska prohibited this end-run, but another court in North Dakota allowed it. (Swanner v. Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, 874 P.2d 274 (1994); North Dakota Fair Housing Council, Inc. v. Peterson, 625 N.W.2d 551 (2001).) In both cases, however, the courts were grappling with renting to unmarried heterosexual couples. There are no reported cases dealing specifically with a landlord’s attempt to use a religious freedom law to protect sexual orientation discrimination.

Copyright © 2006 Nolo