Tama Robertson, a real estate broker, was warming up to a landlord on the Lower East Side of Manhattan recently when he casually asked for her help in breaking the law. Ms. Robertson had heard landlords make crude requests before, but this one stopped her cold.
“Try to get me some good people,” she remembers him saying. Got it.
“Make sure their finances are in order.” No problem.
And then, she recalled, he delivered this ultimatum: “Don’t bring me any gays or blacks.”
Ms. Robertson flinched, but wasn’t all that surprised.
“We have a tendency to think that 10 years ago was 10 years ago, but it’s not,” Ms. Robertson said. Despite state and city anti-discrimination laws, outright discrimination, she added, “is alive and well.”
Ms. Robertson, 59, an agent with Coldwell Banker Bellmarc, opposes discrimination of any sort but as a gay woman she has a deeply personal sensitivity to the challenges confronted by gay, lesbian and transgender apartment hunters. Her biography on the brokerage’s website reads: “She specializes in working with first-time buyers, investors and the G.L.B.T.Q. community,” referring to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning. About half her clients are gay or lesbian.
“Maybe a heterosexual person would say, ‘What’s the big deal now? You can get married and buy properties,’ ” she said. “We have yet for the federal government to admit that we have these rights. They just agreed to stop fighting it in court.”
Ms. Robertson was unruffled by the Lower East Side landlord, who owned several buildings in the area. “I just very calmly said, ‘You know that’s illegal and I can’t be a party to that,’ ” she said. He raised his voice, but Ms. Robertson politely ended the conversation. “I can be very straightforward,” she said.
The Supreme Court decision last year overturning the Defense of Marriage Act granted lesbian and gay couples a raft of new housing rights, including tax breaks and exemptions that straight spouses receive. But it did not eliminate the unique housing barriers that continue to stymie gay couples.
It is still legal to deny Americans housing because of their sexual orientation under federal law, which does not prohibit discrimination based on sexuality. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently made it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in federally funded or insured housing, but most housing in the United States is not publicly funded.
New York is one of 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have enacted anti-discrimination laws to protect gay and lesbian renters and homeowners. But federal studies have shown that even when the law prohibits it, sexual minorities are routinely shut out of housing opportunities that are made available to straight people.
A HUD investigation last year found that in states with anti-discrimination laws in place, brokers were more likely to respond unfavorably to inquiries from a man or woman who said he or she wanted to move with a “partner.” The report said “potentially low levels of enforcement” of rules may explain that dynamic.
At least two legal actions in New York in the last two years challenged landlords who sought to deny married gay tenants the right to add their spouses to the leases of rent-controlled apartments, a right that all married couples are entitled to under state laws.Karen Loewy, a lawyer at Lambda Legal, an organization that worked on the cases, said that wrangling over lease rights is just one among many battles that gay and lesbian apartment dwellers have to fight. “In a housing market in New York where trying to find affordable housing is a challenge for everybody,” there is no disincentive for landlords to discriminate, Ms. Loewy said. “Unfortunately, even in communities that consider themselves pretty progressive, more subtle forms of anti-L.G.B.T. discrimination continue to be rampant.”
Ms. Robertson said she got into real estate more than a decade ago because she did not want already-stressed apartment-hunters to have to deal with the potential extra headache of a biased broker.
Originally from Bloomington, Ind., Ms. Robertson had a past as an informal landlord, renting out the odd room in her townhouse. But it was only after she moved to New York City about 20 years ago — actually, only after her first gay pride parade — that she considered making a career out of real estate. She was then teaching architecture and art in the public schools.
At the parade, she noticed a booth for a renter’s insurance company that boasted about serving gay customers. She took a business card, and it occurred to her that there might be a market for someone who could anticipate the particular set of anxieties that make the blood sport of apartment-seeking in New York City even harder for gays and lesbians.
“Those are the kinds of connections that we had to make in the beginning to help one another,” she said. “For so long we had to figure it out for ourselves because we were so disenfranchised.”
When Ms. Robertson and her wife were looking to buy an apartment in Manhattan several years ago, she said co-op boards somehow neglected to schedule interviews with them, and when they did, came up with incongruous concerns. One board, she said, suggested that Ms. Robertson’s wife, who has tenure at Columbia University, might lose her job.
Agents were also squeamish, she said. “You would have thought you had lobsters crawling out of your ears the way agents looked at us and dealt with us,” she said.
The couple finally found an apartment.
When she overhears brokers complaining about how hard it will be to get a gay or lesbian couple through a co-op board, for example, she will remind them, nicely, that they are part of the problem. “Yeah, it was really difficult for me to find an apartment because of that attitude,” she will interject. “I always challenge it.”
The Real Estate Board of New York requires all agents and salespeople in the city to take classes in civil rights in housing. “Issues of discrimination do exist,” said Neil B. Garfinkel, the board’s broker counsel. “Our members take this very seriously. The purpose of fair housing laws is to give anyone, regardless of their characteristics, the opportunity to live and buy wherever they want.”
Ms. Robertson said that at Coldwell Banker/Bellmarc, where she has been an agent since 2002, agents who put their discomfort with gays or lesbians on display never seem to last long. “My sense was that they didn’t work out on various levels,” she said. “I see Bellmarc as just an incredibly honest company that encourages civil rights, so that’s why I stay there.”
When Todd Anderson moved to New York from Kentucky with his boyfriend, his agent was Ms. Robertson, who had tread the same territory two decades earlier.
“Tama immediately understood the reasons and the plight of someone moving from the Midwest, and wanting to come to New York,” he said.
Mr. Anderson, 32, had been harassed for being gay since high school, when he began dating Timothy Douglas, the sophomore boy who would eventually become his husband. Mr. Anderson and Mr. Douglas stayed together through high school, college and graduate school. Along the way, they learned how to use real estate to avoid the haters.
The couple moved within Kentucky from Bowling Green, to Lexington, a city they assumed would be more welcoming. Not entirely so. “Just walking down the sidewalk we would still get people rolling down the window and yelling, ” Mr. Anderson said. “We lived on the 19th floor of a high-rise building so that, in part, we would be protected from such things.”
But he didn’t want to have to live in a high-rise in New York, and Ms. Robertson didn’t need him to translate his wishes for the new life he envisioned with Mr. Douglas.
“We were both speaking from a common unspoken understanding that the most important thing was to be in an open and affirming neighborhood,” Mr. Anderson said.
Ms. Robertson found the couple a place in Inwood; it was a sponsor unit, which allowed them to bypass an interview with the co-op board.
The only problem was that the apartment wouldn’t be ready by the time the couple had to vacate their Kentucky high-rise. So, for about a week, Ms. Robertson put the couple up in her spare bedroom. They joked that Ms. Robertson was a “full-service broker.”
Five years after the couple moved in, New York legalized same-sex marriage. The men said their vows the first day they could, in front of a gay Supreme Court judge who had volunteered to work on a Saturday. After the ceremony, they returned home, husband and husband, to their studio apartment on the very first floor of a six-story building.
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