Landlords Can’t Ignore LGBT Discrimination in Senior Housing, Says Court

After her partner of 30 years died, Marsha Wetzel, at age 67, suddenly found herself evicted from her home by her partner’s family. Luckily, she found a new place to live at Glen St. Andrew Living Facility in Niles, Illinois. All was going well until word spread that Marsha was lesbian.

Soon, some of the Glen St. Andrew’s residents began harassing her with terrible name calling and physically attacking her. Even though Marsha reported these incidents to the facility administrators and asked for help, the administrators did nothing to stop the discrimination. In fact, the administrators retaliated against her for complaining about the harassment. 

In 2016, Lambda Legal filed a complaint on behalf of Marsha in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois arguing that Glen St. Andrew Living Facility violated both the federal Fair Housing Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. The case was dismissed in 2017. Lambda Legal did not give up and appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit which overturned the lower court’s ruling.  

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruling means that Glen St. Andrew’s can be held accountable for failing to protect Marsha Wetzel from the harassment, discrimination and violence she suffered from other residents because of her sex and sexual orientation.

Below, AARP Foundation attorneys Dara Smith and Susan Ann Silverstein answer some questions about this important case:

Why did AARP Foundation file an amicus in support of this case?
AARP and AARP Foundation participated in the Marsha Wetzel case because we are deeply concerned about the fair housing rights of seniors who want to age in place in their homes. We’re also concerned about the ability of the oldest and most vulnerable seniors to have access to appropriate housing options in their community.

AARP Foundation attorneys have litigated, written, and trained extensively on these issues to ensure that those who live in housing marketed to seniors are given all of the rights they are entitled to under the law, including the Fair Housing Act. We advocate for seniors so that they may retain their independence, safety, dignity, and be free from discrimination throughout their life.

How widespread is harassment and discrimination against LGBT older adults in senior living facilities?
Unfortunately, it’s common. A recent national study of senior housing that included independent living, assisted living, and continuing care facilities showed that 48% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual housing discrimination testers experienced at least one type of discriminatory treatment—such as not being offered a promotional incentive or being quoted a higher monthly rental—when their non-LGBT counterparts did not.

Other research shows that LGBT older adults experience high levels of harassment in their homes, and that LGBT individuals are particularly concerned that they will have to hide their sexual identities if they moved to a retirement home.

Shouldn’t older LGBT adults just move to LGBT-friendly senior living facilities and just avoid the potential discrimination?
First, they shouldn’t have to. One of the Fair Housing Act’s most important goal was to eradicate segregation in housing. LGBT seniors shouldn’t have to self-segregate to avoid discrimination and harassment; they should have just as many choices about where and how to age as their non-LGBT peers.

And, even if older LGBT individuals want to move, they often can’t. Statistically, LGBT older adults generally have poorer health than their non-LGBT counterparts. One study found higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, disability, and general poor health, as well as delayed health access, among gay men compared with heterosexual men.

LGBT older adults are also less likely to have children to care for them and less likely to have someone to help them in time of need. So, if they currently live in supported housing, their need for the services offered there may be so great that it outweighs the pain of discrimination. They may endure harassment because they cannot afford to lose those services by moving.

What do you think the impact of this court ruling will be?
The ruling makes clear that landlords can’t ignore resident-on-resident harassment. They will be held responsible for acting as a landlord should—doing what’s in their authority as landlords to prevent and stop harassment.

The ruling will remind senior housing providers that their LGBT residents may be vulnerable to the types of harassment that Marsha endured. We hope they will be more aware of and more sensitive to the concerns that she raised, which went unheard.

Finally, we hope this ruling—and others that may follow it—will empower LGBT tenants, and older adults in particular, to speak up and not feel that they have to suffer discrimination and harassment in silence.

What’s next in this case?
Marsha’s case has been sent back to the trial court. She will now have a chance to prove the harassment and discrimination she described in her complaint. If she succeeds, St. Andrew will be held responsible for failing to do what was reasonably within its authority: to stop her fellow residents from harassing her and for playing a role in her mistreatment.