Case Could Help L.G.B.T. People Fight Bias in Senior Housing
By Mark Miller
Finding a tiny room two years ago in a senior living community seemed like a lifesaver. Ms. Wetzel had lost her life partner of 30 years to colon cancer, as well as her home in Skokie, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
Coping with multiple health problems and living on Social Security and meager savings, she was glad for the room at Glen St. Andrew, a private senior living facility in nearby Niles that houses low-income elderly people without many options. But relief changed to foreboding as she began to meet the other residents.
“I was talking to the ladies and getting to know people, and they were talking about their children,” said Ms. Wetzel, a slight 69-year-old with a broad, easy smile. Asked about her own family, she volunteered that she had raised a son with her partner, Judy Kahn.
“They were shocked that I had a partner who was a woman,” she recalled. “I could feel it.”
Word got around quickly that Ms. Wetzel is a lesbian. Since then, she asserted in a lawsuit filed in Federal District Court here, she has been subjected to a barrage of verbal and physical abuse by a small group of Glen St. Andrew residents. In the suit, she accuses the housing center and its managers of failing to protect her from hostile residents who have insulted and verbally abused her. The suit says that she has been pushed, shoved and spit on, and that she was injured, including bruises on her arm, a bump on her head and a black eye.
One man who lives at Glen St. Andrew has been especially abusive, she said. “He started in on me — ‘I’m going to throw you down that elevator shaft,’” he threatened, using obscene language and calling her, according to her lawsuit, a “dyke” and a “slimy homo.”
The lawsuit accuses Glen St. Andrew’s management not only of failing to meet its responsibility to stop the harassment but of retaliating against her for complaining about the abuse and seeking to push her out of the facility.
Glen St. Andrew has moved for dismissal of the case. Lawyers representing the company declined to comment.
If successful, Ms. Wetzel’s lawsuit could set a legal precedent establishing the responsibility of housing providers to actively address discrimination based on gender orientation and sexual identity under the federal Fair Housing Act. The law states — vaguely — that discrimination based on “sex” is prohibited.
“It’s one of the first opportunities for a court to apply the Fair Housing Act to the kinds of harassment that L.G.B.T. people experience,” said Karen L. Loewy, a senior lawyer at Lambda Legal, which brought the case.
Life has not become easier for Ms. Wetzel since she sued Glen St. Andrew, where she continues to live. “The harassment and physical assaults have been relentless,” Ms. Loewy said.
But Ms. Wetzel said she was committed to staying put and seeing the fight to the finish.
“‘If you don’t like it here, you can get out’ — I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that,” Ms. Wetzel said. “It makes you feel that you’re not human. I get hit because I loved a woman? That’s not right.”
“If I can do something to get it to stop for other gay people, I will die a happy woman,” she added. “There have to be other places like this. I’m not the only one.”
Indeed, she is not. A wide array of research has documented continuing housing discrimination against older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
A survey of L.G.B.T. adults living in long-term care settings by Justice in Aging, a legal advocacy group, found that a majority believed they would face discrimination from housing staff if they were open about their sexual orientation. The report captured hundreds of stories of problems encountered by L.G.B.T. seniors with housing staff, ranging from harassment to refusals to provide basic services or care.
“You’re in a communal living setting that puts a lot of pressure on people,” says Eric Carlson, directing attorney for Justice in Aging. “Imagine how oppressive it is to have to be guarded about who you are or your family and friends.”
Another study documented discrimination by senior housing facilities against prospective residents. The Equal Rights Center sent senior L.G.B.T. and straight couples to apply for housing in 10 states; 48 percent of the gay couples experienced at least one type of discriminatory practice, ranging from differences in availability, pricing, rental incentives, amenities and application requirements.
The discriminatory practices are not limited to senior housing. A larger “pair test” study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 50 metropolitan markets found that rental housing applications by heterosexual couples were frequently favored over those from gay male and lesbian couples.
“The research clearly shows that people in the L.G.B.T. community face discrimination and barriers that others don’t,” said Linda Couch, director of housing policy and priorities at LeadingAge, an association representing 6,000 aging services agencies. Housing providers, she added, need to “make clear to residents that their buildings are places where all are welcome and discrimination won’t be tolerated. We are not quite there yet, but our members are interested in being there.”
The aging of the baby boom generation is already increasing demand for community living options for seniors; the need is expected to be even greater for gays and lesbians. “They are more likely to be poor, and more likely to be living without family members who can support them,” Ms. Couch said.
That is true despite the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 affirming the right of same-sex marriage. It will take time for the ruling to fully provide spousal access to pension and retirement accounts and health benefits — not to mention the spousal and survivor benefits provided to married couples by Social Security.
The advocacy group SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders) began a national training program last year for housing providers. The group has also created a credentialing program for senior housing communities, certifying that a facility is welcoming to L.G.B.T. residents and family members.
“Most housing providers want to do right by residents,” said Michael Adams, the chief executive of SAGE, “but they need to know how.”
A small number of L.G.B.T.-friendly independent living senior housing projects are being developed. SAGE recently announced it planned to open buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx by the summer of 2019; similar projects are either under development or open in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis. But these projects account for just over 500 housing units.
“The reality is that the vast majority of L.G.B.T. older people will find housing in the same places others do,” Mr. Adams said. “That’s why the work to improve the environment in mainstream housing projects is so important.”
HUD has taken steps to address the problem. In 2012, the agency issued rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by housing providers that receive HUD funding or have loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration.
This September, HUD detailed standards for evaluating claims of harassment under the Fair Housing Act, whether in administrative proceedings or in court. Those rules cover harassment on any basis — race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status or disability — and specifically state that L.G.B.T. people may be able to make sex-based harassment claims.
Ms. Wetzel’s story encapsulates many of the challenges. She was born in Indiana and grew up in Calumet City, Ill., on the border between the two states, earning a high school degree and working in a variety of jobs, including factory work and as a security guard. Her health problems include severe arthritis and gastrointestinal problems; she has been disabled since the early 1980s.
Her relationship with her partner, Ms. Kahn, predated the legal protection of civil unions and, later, same-sex marriage. Her home was held in her partner’s name, and Ms. Kahn’s family took control of the property after her death, evicting Ms. Wetzel.
A local social worker helped Ms. Wetzel, who is Catholic, find housing at Glen St. Andrew, a concrete structure hard by a Catholic cemetery that houses about 200 seniors in independent living and assisted-care rooms.
“I tell Judy every night — we’re going to win,” Ms. Wetzel said. “I’m doing it for her.”
Correction: November 18, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated where Marsha Wetzel grew up. Though she was born in Indiana, she grew up in Calumet City, Ill., on the border between the two states; she did not grow up in Indiana.