by Jordan Green

A proposal to protect against housing discrimination towards gay and transgender people is under review by a citizen committee in Winston-Salem, but some think the city should be moving with more urgency considering that Greensboro City Council adopted the protections more than a year ago and a similar proposal will come before Charlotte City Council later this month.

Greensboro City Council amended its fair housing ordinance to protect LGBT people from discrimination in rentals and real estate transactions in January 2015.

Charlotte City Council is considering a similar proposal later this month.

Meanwhile, a potential amendment to Winston-Salem’s fair housing ordinance has been under review by a committee of the city’s human relations commission for almost a year, with no timeframe for bringing a resolution before city council.

Some leaders in the LGBT community would like to see the city move faster, particularly in light of the Human Rights Campaign’s recent Municipal Equality Index Scorecard, which gave Winston-Salem a score of 33 out of 100 on inclusion of LGBT people, compared to Greensboro’s score of 85.

“I do not feel that we’ve moved with a sense of urgency compared to our peers,” George K. Dukes III, the board chair at the North Star LGBT Community Center in Winston-Salem. “There is more work that needs to be done by the city of Winston-Salem. I think there is an issue there, with [the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index] score. Greensboro’s score is twice as high as ours. There are issues that need to be spelled out in the LGBT community so we can have protections.”

Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, said the North Star LGBT Community Center and the Campaign for Southern Equality deserve credit for lobbying Winston-Salem to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the city’s fair housing ordinance.

“LGBT people really do face discrimination and surveys show these ordinance updates make a difference,” Sgro said. “They are commonsense. The vast majority of people in North Carolina, and I would imagine in Winston-Salem, believe you shouldn’t be denied housing or employment because you’re gay or transgender.”

Winston-Salem Human Relations Director Wanda Allen-Abraha said the fair housing hearing committee, a subcommittee of the human relations commission, is currently reviewing the ordinance in concert with the city attorney’s office. Judge Ben Tennille, a retired business court judge, and Sonny Haynes, a lawyer employed with the Womble Carlyle law firm, serve on the review committee. Neither could be reached for comment before press time. Allen-Abraha said she has “no idea” when the committee might complete its review and bring a resolution to city council for consideration.

City Attorney Angela Carmon said her legal review of the city’s options is still at a preliminary stage.

“I need to look and see what our enabling legislation provides and whether that’s adequate for us to move forward, or we need to go the legislature to get the authority to do that,” she said.

Willie Ratchford, executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, said Charlotte City Council is considering a proposal to extend protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in city contracting, public accomodations and vehicles for hire. The proposal does not cover the city’s fair housing ordinance, Rathford said, because the city attorney believes the city would need enabling legislation from the General Assembly.

The Greensboro City Attorney’s office conducted a legal review prior to the council’s adoption of a sweeping expansion of protections for gay and transgender people, including adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes in the fair housing ordinance, along with race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status and national origin. The city council also ordered the city manager to conduct a review of city restrooms, lockers and changing rooms to look for opportunities to create private facilities for individuals and families to use on a gender-neutral basis, and updating the city’s hiring process to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. All three measures passed with unanimous support.

“The federal government, specifically [the Housing & Urban Development Department], has an agreement with the city to allow us to enforce these housing regulations,” City Attorney Tom Carruthers told Greensboro City Council before the adoption of the resolution on Jan. 6, 2015. “We’ve been in contact with HUD and they are encouraging us to adopt this expanded definition of protected classes and will have to approve the council action, but we anticipate this will occur because they’re encouraging us to consider this and adopt this.”

Rep. Dan Bishop, a Republican lawmaker from Charlotte, said he opposed the council’s previous attempt because of what he called “the deep community division that it has prompted [in Charlotte] and other places such as Houston.”

Bishop said in an email to Triad City Beat that he has warned the city that if the ordinance passes, he expects it to be litigated and that if it survived litigation then he “would introduce litigation to amend Charlotte’s charter to give Charlotteans the same right that Houstonians had and that citizens of Greensboro and other NC cities have to repeal the ordinance by referendum.”

Winston-Salem Councilman Dan Besse said he hasn’t given much thought to the adoption of an amendment of the city’s fair housing ordinance because he believes that federal law already includes the protections. “If we get advice from our human relations staff that an appropriate amendment is needed or would be helpful as an enforcement tool, I’m very happy to look at it,” Besse said. “I support nondiscrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity in both employment and housing.”

Besse added that he believes most, if not all, of his colleagues on city council similarly support extending protections against discrimination to LGBT people.

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