A vulnerable triple threat: Senior, black, gay

Q&A with Assistant Secretary of HUD Dr. Raphael Bostic about housing discrimination

By Ruchi Naresh

There is a triple threat facing the elder African American LGBT population in the Detroit area. Even though small in number, this particular group of people encounters difficulties in finding retirement homes, safety, recognition and financial security. Dr. Raphael Bostic, the assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, attended an April 16 summit organized by KICK (an agency for LGBT African Americans) to address such concerns. Dr. Bostic spoke to BTL about discrimination and other issues faced by these elders.

What were the common concerns discussed at the KICK summit?

The elder LGBT population has significant challenges. They don't have children who can offer them help and support. If they are with a partner they often don't have access to their (partner's) pension funds, so they can become extremely vulnerable rather quickly. This is a really important conversation, and a lot of the gay and lesbian elder population has not been a (focus) of that conversation. Somehow they are a hidden population.

Elders in African American communities have difficulties, elders in general have difficulties and LGBT elders have difficulties, so this really overlays three types of groups. We don't really know much about the challenges that this group faces and they are forced to be invisible because sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected classes, so landlords can and do discriminate against these (people). So sometimes they have to go back into the closet. One of the things we are trying work on is how often these issues arise so we can talk about it in an informed way and hopefully get to a place where that kind of discrimination happens a lot less frequently.

The (KICK) summit was really interesting. It included the issues of public safety, senior health and particular challenges in the LGBT community and also financial protection and self-sufficiency. I thought it was a strong event.

Tell us more about the health issues you heard about.

There were three areas of particular focus. The first was, just the basic issues around how do you deal with menus of medication that might include HIV related medications and treatments. And how those interact and intersect with some of the other things that might happen as you age in terms of diabetes. Second is really about talking to your doctor and doctors who are sensitive to your situation and making sure they are aware. Third was around visitation rights in hospitals where you make it clear that you would like your partner to have access to you in time of difficulty. Make sure you fill out all the paper work in empowering your partner to the extent the law allows.

Did you get to find out whether the people who attended the summit were currently in a decent housing situation?

That's an interesting question. After I left I kinda kicked myself for not asking that question. We do a lot of tracking of what fraction of income people are paying for their housing. And I forgot to ask all the attendees what fraction are they paying.

What has HUD done so far to rectify the issues surrounding housing discrimination?

So, we've done a couple of things. I think it's 30 percent of all people who live in public housing are elderly and 40 percent of people who live in project-based Section 8 are also elderly. In terms of the LGBT population this is a new thing for us and (HUD) secretary Shaun Donovan has been at the forefront of being inclusive. We have changed the policy around the Federal Housing Administration to make it clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not acceptable and it's against our regulations.

In terms of public housing we have issued a rule to change the definition of family to allow same sex couples to be eligible and included in all assistance. Because sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected classes under the Fair Housing Act, we don't have explicit jurisdiction to be able to enforce anti-discrimination statutes. But there is an anti-discrimination statute at a local level where you are bound to comply with housing law. We try to empower these anti-discrimination statutes.

What are the areas in Detroit that are senior and gay friendly to some extent?

From listening to people at the summit it seems there are some people who are starting to think about this and perhaps acquire properties and rehab them to make it more senior and gay friendly. To my knowledge this is the first summit that has been held on this topic and it makes it clear on the type of information that we have to really work hard to get better at, to make these people included in our conversations and that we create an environment that allows them to live however they wish.

In cases of discrimination against this specific group, what is the right way to seek help?

Right now we don't have jurisdiction. But let me say that, first thing you can do is report that this has happened, and my department has an Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity led by Assistant Secretary John Trasvina, and we get complaints on discrimination as a regular course of our business. So I'd encourage people who face these challenges to call us. Secretary Trasvina has done a great job in revising the policies that we have and he has directed our department to closely track on what's happening in LGBT housing discrimination.

Are there any other sensitive issues regarding discrimination that these elders face?

(At the summit) the public safety issue was really interesting and people's ambivalent relationship with the police force. There was an expression that people were reluctant to report when they had been harassed. There was a lot of conversation during the summit about how we can build better bridges between the gay and lesbian population and the police and fire department. I don't think there is a formal (LGBT liaison) in Detroit. But there are models around the country like Washington, D.C., and this was something that came up and I am expecting to hear more as we go forward.

To report housing discrimination, go to http://www.hud.gov/complaints/.
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