WASHINGTON -- Same-sex couples face significant levels of discrimination in the rental housing market, according to a landmark government study released on Tuesday.
The new survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development is the first-ever study examining housing discrimination against same-sex couples at the national level.
HUD found that same-sex couples were "significantly less likely than heterosexual couples to get favorable responses to e-mail inquiries about electronically advertised rental housing." In fact, heterosexual couples were favored over gay male couples in 15.9 percent of the tests, and over lesbian couples in 15.6 percent.
The survey is based on 6,833 email correspondences in 50 metropolitan markets from June to October 2011. Testers would send two emails to the landlord, each asking about the availability of a rental unit advertised online. The only difference between the two was in the sexual orientation of the interested couple.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the findings on Friday during an event at the agency for HUD GLOBE, the association for federal LGBT employees. In his remarks, he told a story illustrating the different treatment that heterosexual and same-sex couples were given by some rental agents.
"We had a married couple, Christina and Jonathan, ask if a one-bedroom apartment was available. A short time later, an email was sent from Mark and Thomas, clearly identifying themselves as partners, inquiring about the same apartment," he said. "At 2:20 p.m., the rental agent responded to Jonathan and Christina, saying the apartment was still available, and providing his phone number to schedule an appointment. Just one minute later, the rental agent replied to Mark and Thomas, saying, 'I think I have it rented. But I can check back in a day or so.'"
"This is simply wrong. It is unjust, and we as a country cannot stand for it," he added.
Housing discrimination against LGBT individuals is still legal in many states. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap -- but not sexual orientation and gender identity. However, about 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation with these added protections.
The Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) Act would add sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status and source of income to those FHA protected classes, but it has not yet been introduced in the 113th Congress.
One of the most interesting findings of the new HUD survey is that discrimination was actually slightly higher against same-sex couples in states with protections for LGBT individuals.
"Several factors could account for this unexpected finding, including potentially low levels of enforcement, housing provider unfamiliarity with state-level protections, or the possibility that protections exist in states with the greatest need for them," HUD concluded.
In 2012, HUD enacted an equal access housing rule, which bars officials at HUD-funded housing units from making decisions based on an applicant's actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. While the HUD equal access rule enacted in 2012 applies only to entities that receive public funds, the HOME Act would prohibit housing discrimination everywhere.
This is a developing story and has been updated.