How LGBT renters in Vancouver are finding safe living spaces
They're not only contending with the city's pricey rental market, but also the worry of discrimination
Pablo Muñoz, a 29-year-old designer, was hunting in 2011 for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver. Like most renters, he brought along the person he'd be living with — his boyfriend.
They viewed about ten places, and among them, a few of the landlords were startlingly direct: Were the two a couple? Muñoz was caught off guard at first, unsure of how to respond. But each time he fielded the question, he answered truthfully.
"I found that having to be explicit about that was not fair," Muñoz said. And the question spurred doubt whenever his applications went unanswered. "I always wondered, 'Is this straight couple getting this apartment that I'm not?' "
Muñoz's experience reflects the struggles that LGBT people face when searching for rental housing in Metro Vancouver. They're not only contending with the region's sky-high rental prices and near-zero vacancy rates. There's an added worry: whether their sexual orientation or gender identity will hinder their search, and finding spaces where they can feel safe.
"At least daily, we have someone either calling or coming into the space, saying, 'Can you help me find a place to live?'" said Heather Wong-Mitchell, management of finance and administration at Qmunity, an LGBT centre in Vancouver's West End neighbourhood.
Studies suggest LGBT renters' concerns are warranted. A U.S. government housing study in 2013 showed that same-sex couples received fewer responses to email inquiries about rental units than straight couples. A 2016 study found that LGBT people filed housing discrimination complaints as often as women and people of colour, highlighting a need for stronger protections in some states.
In B.C., tenants are protected under the province's human rights code, which stipulates that landlords can't refuse to rent to a tenant because of their sexual orientation. If renters do encounter discrimination, they can take their case to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
But LGBT renters say that prejudice can appear more subtly, making it harder to pinpoint and challenge.
"That's the thing about discrimination," Muñoz said, referring to his unanswered rental applications. "You never know if that was an actual factor."
In 2015, Muñoz, who now lives in Toronto, decided to circumvent the rental system. He co-launched Homes for Queers, a Facebook group that connects LGBT renters in Vancouver.
Members apply before gaining page access and must agree to be respectful. The listings are more personal than typical Craigslist ads: renters often note their gender identities, sexual orientations and preferred pronouns.
Today, the community boasts about 3,800 members; similar groups have popped up in cities like Victoria, B.C., Seattle, Wash., and Portland, Ore. Wong-Mitchell, with the Qmunity centre, said the Vancouver page is one of the first resources she highlights when approached by prospective renters.
"Folks are able to find housing where they can be a little bit more confident around their safety and security," she said.
West End 'not in my budget'
Unease from LGBT renters might seem at odds in Vancouver, home of Davie Village, the well-established LGBT enclave in the West End. But the area's desirability has priced out many people. The average cost of a one-bedroom in the West End is $1,983, and $3,200 for a two-bedroom, according to PadMapper, a rental listings site.
Those numbers mean LGBT renters must contend with having fewer dollars in the city, or move to the suburbs, where queer communities are smaller and the resources are more sparse.
When I go into an interview for a house, one of the things I look at is whether I can connect with a person.- Justin Lawrence
Chris, a 34-year-old sales associate who identifies as trans, says he's never lived in central Vancouver, out of financial necessity. (He asked not to disclose his last name because he isn't fully out at work). In 2018, he moved from Vancouver to Port Moody, B.C., for the cheaper housing.
"It would be great if I could afford the West End or any places where there's a queer community," he said. "But I don't think it's ever seriously crossed my mind. It's not in my budget."
But his current living situation, he said, is the best he's had in his five years in B.C.: a six-bedroom, two-bathroom house, which he shares with five roommates.
They live communally, which means they share all the household expenses and hold meetings every second week. It's a housing model that's popular in the LGBT community, as roommates usually screen each other to ensure their values align.
"It doesn't mean that you hang out 24-7," Chris said. "It means that you have the support of a community when you need it and you're also able to give that support. That's something that's very important to me."
'Glaring lack of protection'
Laws in B.C. protect tenants from discriminatory landlords, but not roommates in shared accommodation. Robert Patterson, a legal advocate with B.C.'s Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, said the exception is meant to allow someone to choose a roommate of a certain gender, for instance, or someone from their country of origin.
But it also means that a roommate could deny someone over their sexual orientation or gender identity.
"It's a glaring lack of protection for LGBT people," Patterson said.
The centre doesn't collect data on LGBT discrimination. But the last housing case, based on sexual orientation, to go before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal was in 2010.
A judge ruled in favour of the complainants, a gay man and a two-spirited man, who claimed their landlord in West Vancouver had used homophobic remarks, forced into his way into their home and physically assaulted one of them. The two men were awarded $15,000.
Most cases, however, aren't as extreme and don't end up in a tribunal. An LGBT renter's strife can simply stem from not feeling comfortable in their own home.
Justin Lawrence, 31, moved to Vancouver in the spring to start working at the international airport. He said he never felt at ease in his previous home in Calgary, which he shared with three roommates. Lawrence was the only gay man.
There was no overt discrimination, he said, but his roommates' body energy and attitude suggested discomfort.
"I know there's still people out there who still don't like our community," he said. "Now, when I go into an interview for a house, one of the things I look at is whether I can connect with a person."
That's ultimately what he found. In April, Lawrence posted on ad on the Homes for Queers Facebook page and, a month later, moved into a three-storey house in New Westminster with three roommates. One of them, Kira, a transgender woman, has become one of his closest friends, he said.
"It's been easy. She looks out for me and checks up on me," he said. "It's the first time in three-and-a-half years I've been on my own that I can actually call a place home."
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