Home Sweet Homo – A Puzzle with a Few Missing Pieces

The last year has brought about a sea change of civil rights for the LGBT community. But it’s a patchwork of rights nationwide, and as we know – somewhat of a mess.  As of this writing, same sex couples cannot get married in Oregon. But effective January 1st, 2014, “all state agencies must recognize the marriages of same-sex couples validly performed in other jurisdictions to the same extent that they recognize other marriages validly performed in other jurisdictions.” So, we can cross a bridge to the north, tie the knot, and get recognized in Oregon. But actually, it’s a temporary order set to expire on June 30th. In March, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has said the state will not defend the constitutional ban on gay marriage if a judge rules the ban unconstitutional. A judge will hear arguments set to begin April 23rd; fingers crossed!  Back in February on the federal level, the United States Attorney General Eric Holder expanded federal recognition of same-sex marriage in bankruptcy and survivor benefits. So, couples who feel like venturing outside their home state can get legal protection at home. And now they get some federal protections. Confused yet?

What does this all have to do with real estate?  A lot. It’s generally understood that our homes are our single largest asset (except maybe running shoes as in our household). And a rite of passage for many upon getting married is to buy a home together. For years, LGBT couples have been prohibited by taking title in the form of “Tenants By the Entirety” – a right that had been given to married couples only, as husband and wife.  While a number of states allow Joint Tenancy, Oregon allowed Tenants in Common with Right of Survivorship instead. And then there is the complication when a legally married LGBT couple in Oregon (but remember, only legally married because they went to another state) buys vacation property in a state that has a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, and their state still wants to defend that amendment. What is the process for property disposition in the case of death or divorce, in a state the doesn’t recognize your relationship? Ok, confused now?

Also percolating are the “Religious Freedom Bills” being proposed or threatened in no fewer than ten states. Oregon is not immune;  a group called the Friends of Religious Freedom is working to make it legal to refuse service to same-sex couples. Many agree that these bills, if passed, will get defeated in the courts – but it’s a huge waste of time. Within the National Association of Realtors (NAR), there has been tremendous leadership on the Issue of LGBT rights. Our Code of Ethics states that we “shall not deny professional services to any person for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identify.” But that puts the world’s largest trade association in a unique position. In many states, Code of Ethics offers more inclusive protection than actual laws. What happens when a less tolerant state passes religious freedom bills? And where does NAR fall on the issue same-sex marriage? Members can agree that they want to provide equal services to LGBT consumers, but can they agree to disagree on the issue of gay marriage – and not violate their Code?  After all, the Code doesn’t refer to marriage. Fortunately, as a profession, Realtors are forming the opinion that marriage equality and housing cannot exist in separate silos. Minnesota serves as an excellent example. Each state and local area has their own association; when the issue of gay marriage was on the state ballot, the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors took the position, “A culture of openness and acceptance is vital to a healthy real estate industry, and overall economy, in the Twin Cities.” So here is a local association of about 7,000 members – out of about 1,000,000 Realtor members nationwide, who took a stand to say yes, marriage equality and real estate are inextricably linked. For an industry that limits its political advocacy to housing and housing alone, this was a courageous step to delve into what detractors called social policy.

I wrote this article to raise more questions than provide answers, as it mirrors how we’re all feeling right now. We’re excited about the positive steps forward, but annoyed by the curve balls being thrown from the far right. I never thought when my partner and I bought our first home in our mid-twenties (yikes, seven homes ago), we’d even have the possibility of getting married. And now I know it’s just a matter of months, weeks, or possibly even days away!

Steve is a broker in Portland, Oregon and represents all types of buyers and sellers in the metro region. He serves as a local and state director for the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, a PAC trustee, and is Chair of the Global Business Council at the Oregon Association of Realtors. At the National Association Realtors, Steve serves as CIPS Advisory Board Chair and is a member of the Diversity Committee. When he is not working, he’s probably getting muddy on one of the bazillion running and hiking trails in the Pacific Northwest. He may be reached at [email protected] or 503-490-4116.