June 19, 2013 -- Same-sex couples face greater discrimination when looking for a place to rent than do heterosexual couples, a new federal study finds.
"An Estimate of Housing Discrimination Against Same-Sex Couples," released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is the first analysis of its kind, according to the agency.
According to the study, not only are same-sex couples discriminated against, but gay male couples face greater discrimination than do lesbian couples.
The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate in rental sales and lending on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and familial status. It does not, however, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, as these are not protected classes under the Act.
Straight couples were favored over gay male couples 15.9 percent of the time; straight couples were favored over lesbians 15.6 percent of the time, according to the study.
The study measured the treatment same-sex couples received from rental agents when making email inquires about apartments advertised online, as compared to straight couples.
The study was based on nearly 7,000 email tests conducted in 50 metropolitan markets across the U.S. between June and October 2011. In each test, a pair of emails were sent inquiring about the listing. The only difference between the two was that one purported to come from a same-sex couple, and the other from a heterosexual one. The difference in treatment was measured, according to HUD, by whether or not the applicant was told the unit was available, asked to contact the landlord, invited to see the apartment, or given any response at all.
While federal law does not define gay or lesbian couples as a protected class in such situations, the laws of 21 states do. An ironic finding of the HUD study was that greater discrimination against same-sex couples exists in states whose laws forbid it than in states whose laws do not.
Why might that be the case?
A HUD researcher said he wasn't sure. "We don't know why," he tells ABC News. "I will say, the difference is very small." Nonetheless, he says, the Department's hypothesis, starting out, was that they would find the opposite.
Asked if a gay or lesbian couple could use the HUD report as a kind of "shopping guide" to help identify those metro areas around the country friendliest to same-sex renters, the HUD official said no, that they could not. Reason: There aren't large differences, metro-to-metro. There are, though, some regional differences. The degree of discrimination, he says, is slightly higher in the South.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, in a statement released with the report, said, "This study shows we need to continue our efforts to ensure that everyone is treated the same, when it comes to finding a home to call their own, regardless of their sexual orientation."
Bryan Greene, HUD Acting Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in the same statement: "A person's sexual orientation or gender identity should not be a reason to receive unfavorable treatment when searching for housing. HUD is committed to making sure LGBT individuals have equal access to housing opportunities."
Is it possible to compare rental discrimination against same-sex couples to, say, discrimination against couples who may be Native American, disabled, colorblind or named 'Smith'? No, says the HUD official. The same-sex study was based on email responses only. Past studies of rental discrimination against other categories of applicants have been based on in-person tests: Somebody representative of the protected class shows up at a building and asks to rent; the landlord or rental agent's verbal or physical response (including door-slamming) is then noted.
In-person tests for discrimination against same-sex couples are scheduled for next year, says HUD.