Mickey Gitzin, a Tel Aviv city councilman, was looking for a new apartment to rent with his partner when a friend offered that they take over her lease since she was moving out. Simple enough, they thought, not realizing the landlord had other plans.
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“It wasn’t that he said no, but he just kept dragging things,” recounts Gitzin, who did not hide the fact that he and his intended roommate were a gay couple. “First he tried to deter us by hiking up the rent. Then he told us that he wanted to rent it out only to a family. When I responded that we were also a family, he said he meant a man and woman because a woman’s job is to keep the place clean, and he didn’t want the place to turn into a dump.”
Gitzin, who serves as director of Be Free Israel, a movement that promotes religious freedom and pluralism, decided to give up and move on.
That was nine months ago. A few weeks ago, Yehoshua Shohat Gurtler and Lior Shohat Gurtler, a couple who married outside of Israel, were looking for a bigger apartment to accommodate them as they make plans to have children. They found the perfect place for the right price and were about to sign on the dotted line when the agent who showed them the apartment notified them that he had bad news. “He told us that he gave the landlord our names, and that after doing a Google search and discovering we were a gay couple, he said he wouldn’t rent the place to us,” reports Yehoshua, a lawyer and partner in a leading Tel Aviv law firm.
That was the first time, says Yehoshua, that he ever encountered such outright prejudice while apartment hunting.
A mere coincidence, or is Tel Aviv not as LGBT-friendly as the world has come to believe?
“Sure, Tel Aviv is a more comfortable and secure place for the LGBT community,” says Gitzin, as the city gears up for its annual Pride Week events, which are expected to draw thousands of participants from around the world. “At the same time, we live in an environment where there’s still lots of homophobia.”
Attorney Michal Eden, a specialist is LGBT-related issues, notes that about once a week, she receives a complaint from a same-sex couple experiencing difficulties renting an apartment because of their sexual orientation. “It’s hard to know whether we’re getting more complaints because homophobia is on the rise or simply because there’s more awareness of the problem and a willingness to speak out,” she says.
Most of the complaints she receives are from male couples, and they mainly come from the center of the country. “I guess there’s less awareness in the periphery,” she speculates.
In some cases, reports Eden, the contracts specifically stipulate that the apartment cannot be rented to same-sex couples. And there’s nothing that can be done about it because, as she points out, Israeli law does not prohibit such discrimination. “The law that prevents discrimination in selling goods or services only applies to public places like businesses,” explains Eden. “It doesn’t apply to private property.” In other words, property rights take precedence over other rights – in this case, the right to equal treatment. Therefore, the landlord has the right to decide to whom to rent or sell his or her property. (And just as they can discriminate against individuals of a particular sexual orientation, they can also discriminate against individuals of a certain religion or ethnic group.)
But that only applies to private individuals, explains attorney Gil Gan-Mor, who runs the housing program at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “If the property seller or renter is a public authority, or a corporation that happened to win a government tender, then it is against the law for them to discriminate against someone because of his or her sexual orientation or family status,” he says.
Various attempts have been made to apply this prohibition to private individuals as well, notes Gan-Mor, but to date, all have been defeated in the government.
Since it is not against the law for a property owner to withhold selling or renting an apartment to individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, he adds, it is hard to gauge how widespread such discrimination is. “Many couples who’ve experienced discrimination just don’t bother reporting it because they know there’s nothing they can do,” he says.
Beyond that, he adds, it’s often difficult to prove. “In many instances, it’s not outright discrimination. You’ll have landlords who, upon discovering that a couple is gay, will suddenly say that the apartment is no longer available or will demand an exorbitant amount in rent.” Within the LGBT community, he reports, transgender individuals have been known to suffer most from discrimination in the rental housing market.
Shai Deutsch, chairman of the Israel National Association for LGBT (also known as “The Aguda”), notes that discrimination against the community in Israel takes a different form that it does elsewhere. “In other countries, you have many incidents of murder, violence and gay-bashing,” he says. “Here in Israel, you can maybe count those on one hand. What we do suffer from here is discrimination in daily life, and I include the housing market in that.”
Although his advocacy organization can’t challenge property owners who discriminate against same-sex couples in court, says Deutsch, it can create awareness of the problem and encourage people to speak out. “Right now, we’re about to launch a new campaign about taking discrimination out of the closet,” he says. “Our goal is to get people to speak out about what they’ve experienced,” he says.
Israeli same-sex couples are not alone. A comprehensive study published last year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that same-sex couples in America also experience discrimination in the rental housing market. This discrimination generally takes the form of them receiving fewer responses to email inquiries about rentals on the market than heterosexual couples. Rather surprisingly, the study found more discrimination in those states that already had laws on the book prohibiting it.
Same-sex couples in Israel can also take heart from a recent survey of the Israel Democracy Institute, which shows that attitudes in the country appear to be improving. When asked if it would bother them to have a same-sex couple as a neighbor, a majority of 63.1 percent of respondents questioned in 2013 said they would not. That compares with only 41.9 percent in 2010.
The Shohat-Gurtlers are, meanwhile, still hunting for that dream apartment. And no, they have no intention of being less upfront about who they are the next time they happen upon it. “We certainly weren’t going to crawl back into the closet because of some narrow-minded landlord,” says Yehoshua. “If anything, the whole experience has encouraged us to make ourselves more visible.”