Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - July 26, 2013

RentWatch

Can a landlord toss out a transgender tenant?

edited by Martin Eichner

Q I have been renting an apartment to a man named Michael, who recently asked me to start calling him Michelle, because he says he now identifies as a woman. He has also started wearing make-up and women's clothing. Both the name change and the change in dress make me uncomfortable, and I'm worried that it may make my other tenants want to leave.

At least one of the other tenants has commented about the "freak" in Apartment 201 and has asked me if the "freak" has any plans to move out. Michael has been an otherwise good tenant for several years. I don't really want to terminate his tenancy, but I don't think I should be forced to call him anything but the name he listed on his rental application. I also don't want him to stay if his behavior will provoke the other tenants. What am I allowed to do?

A The applicable fair-housing laws prohibit discrimination based on gender, which includes gender identity. As a landlord, you are obligated to treat each prospective or current tenant the same, without regard to their gender or gender identity. Michael must be called Michelle, regardless of the name she initially listed on her rental application and regardless of how you personally feel about her gender identity.

If you continuously and intentionally call her by the name and pronoun that does not correspond to her gender identity then you may be liable for gender discrimination and unlawful harassment. If you terminate Michelle's tenancy because you or your other tenants feel uncomfortable with transgender people, that action would also constitute discrimination, even if some of those tenants threaten to leave if you do not terminate Michelle's tenancy. You may not take adverse action against Michelle to satisfy the discriminatory demands of another tenant, even if it means you lose that tenant's business.

Even further, if you become aware of any other tenant harassing Michelle because of her gender identity, you have an obligation to take action to stop it. You may want to contact your local fair housing agency to inquire about training that may help sensitize you to civil rights.

Q I have lived in my current apartment building for three years with no problems, but recently a new manager took over. I originally came to the U.S. on a work visa, but I was born and raised in China and speak Cantonese as my first language. As a result, I speak with a heavy accent. I am also much more comfortable with my written English than with speaking English.

About a month ago, I got a notice of a rent increase from the new manager, which surprised me because I had just gotten a rent increase a few months earlier. When I tried to talk to her about it she kept saying that she couldn't understand me, and even got angry, eventually saying that I should "learn to speak English." Then, two weeks ago I asked her about getting my leaking faucet replaced, and she again complained that she could not understand me. She said she didn't know how I expected her to do anything for me if I couldn't speak "real English."

I am afraid to complain too much about my situation because my work visa has expired and so I am not legally in this country. Can the manager treat me this way? What can I do?

A You may be experiencing discrimination based on your national origin in violation of federal and state fair-housing laws. The fair-housing laws protect against discrimination in rental housing on the basis of national origin.

National-origin discrimination is defined as different treatment in housing because of a person's ancestry, ethnicity, birthplace, culture or language. This form of discrimination includes refusing to rent to someone because their primary language is other than English. National-origin discrimination can also be a result of failing to provide the same level of service or housing amenities because a tenant born in another country does not speak English at all, or does not speak English well.

You should not be concerned about your immigration status because the fair-housing laws protect you from discrimination even if your visa has expired or your immigration status is otherwise undocumented. Moreover, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the federal fair-housing laws, does not inquire into a complainant's immigration status when investigating complaints of housing discrimination.

The federal fair-housing laws also make it illegal for a landlord to threaten to report a tenant to the immigration authorities if the tenant files a complaint of discrimination with HUD. You can contact your local fair-housing agency for help with your problem, or you can file a complaint with HUD yourself.

Martin Eichner edits RentWatch for Project Sentinel, an organization that provides landlord-tenant dispute resolution and fair-housing services in Northern California, including rental-housing mediation programs in Palo Alto, Los Altos and Mountain View. Call 650-856-4062 for dispute resolution or 650-321-6291 for fair housing or email info@housing.org.

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