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Stuff happens. Housing discrimination doesn't have to
by Brent Adams

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Stuff happens—sometimes really awful stuff.

Most of my 20+ years of involvement in the LGBTQ community in Chicago has been good stuff. I have been fortunate enough to be a member of the board of directors or play a leadership role for some of our institutions, such as the Center on Halsted, Howard Brown Health and Test Positive Aware Network, among others. But in 2014, a bunch of stuff happened—bad stuff.

I am a person living with disabilities and, in May 2014, I was struggling mightily. After being released from the emergency room one day, I was wandering around my neighborhood confused and disoriented. A neighbor called the cops. The cops arrested me and, over a few days, I bounced back and forth between jail and the emergency room. The felony charges were later dropped after I pled guilty to a citation for "disorderly conduct."

Folks "with records" like me face potential barriers to maintaining a stable life. In Chicago, for example, prospective landlords often deny housing to a person because of their past interactions with the criminal legal system. In my case, I was fortunate enough to secure a lease in 2015 from a housing provider who did not know or did not care about my arrest.

This issue has serious implications for LGBTQ folks. LGBTQ people have higher rates of addiction and mental illness than straight folks. The scourge of methamphetamine addiction among gay men—which has impacted me personally—is just one example of a disparity that has had profound negative consequences for our community. Drug use and crime are strongly linked, making addicts much more likely than non-addicts to be arrested. People with disabilities overall are more likely to be arrested than people without them. In sum, LGBTQ people—particularly LGBTQ people of color and low-income LGBTQ individuals—are more likely than straight folks to come into contact with the criminal-justice system. Correspondingly, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are at a heightened risk of being denied housing.

Recently, local lawmakers took significant steps to address this problem by passing the Just Housing Amendment. The measure prohibits landlords in Cook County from automatically barring housing applicants on the basis of their conviction history. Instead, it requires landlords to conduct individualized assessments of each applicant before deciding whether to offer or deny them rental housing. For applicants with arrests but no convictions, the amendment prohibits the landlord from giving any weight whatsoever to arrests.

In coming weeks, the Cook County Board of Commissioners will decide on regulations that will govern how the Just Housing Amendment is implemented. The coalition of organizations that helped pass the Just Housing Amendment is working to ensure the regulations are free of anything that would subvert the law's purpose, such as overbroad exclusions based on generalizations or stereotypes. The commissioners whose districts include neighborhoods with high LGBTQ populations—such as Edgewater, Andersonville and Boystown—should actively support the coalition's goals on behalf of their LGBTQ constituents.

Finally, the City of Chicago, under the leadership of our new openly lesbian mayor, should follow the Cook County Board's lead and adopt similar protections for folks living in the city. The truth of the saying "stuff happens" applies to everyone, but LGBTQ folks get more than their fair share. Therefore, as a community, we should support policies such as the Just Housing Amendment that eliminate barriers to people who are trying to rebuild their lives after experiences with our criminal-justice system.

Brent Adams is the senior vice president of policy and communication at Woodstock Institute, a financial-justice organization, and was formerly a cabinet member in the administration of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

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