Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sweetwater, TN Housing Authority official compares LGBT families to criminals

New evidence of troubling homophobia, transphobia, and racism surfaced in East Tennessee over the weekend.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development published new rules for equal access to housing in HUD Programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families last January.  The new rules included a request for comment and assistance from the public to “help the Department in its effort to craft regulations that will effectively ensure access to HUD programs by all eligible persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Within days, the Executive Director of the Sweetwater Housing Authority in Monroe County, Tennessee, Vicki Barnes, mailed a letter to the Department. Barnes objected to the new regulation’s definition of “family” writing that it would lead to program abuse. Barnes claimed:
This is not a matter of discrimination. In choosing to name a group of people such as the Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), you are choosing to group together a group of people who are not of the same race but have made a personal and moral life style choice. Other groups who make a personal lifestyle choice are drug users and sellers, gang members, prostitutes, cults, and murderers.
Rather than follow the Department’s request to help ensure that LGBT people face no discrimination in HUD programs, Barnes used the opportunity to compare LGBT people and their families to criminals. Additionally, she also implied that people of different races should not be considered a family.

Barnes’ response to the Department ‘s new rules raises questions about her ability as Executive Director of the Sweetwater Housing Authority to fairly apply the new and preexisting rules. Housing discrimination based on race was outlawed long ago.  Is Barnes ignoring or encouraging discrimination in housing programs for couples and families of mixed races? What about veritable lifestyle choices like religion? Can the people of Sweetwater be guaranteed equal access to HUD programs regardless of their faith tradition?

Barnes also took it upon herself to speak for landlords participating in Sweetwater’s Section 8 Rental Assistance Programs writing that they “will choose not be bullied into housing people who have chosen a lifestyle, which goes against their moral conviction, or groups of people who will damage their property.” Does Barnes realize that she’s insulted Sweetwater’s  Section 8 landlords? She essentially put in writing that 
Sweetwater’s landlords are bigots who share her prejudiced view of law abiding families who simply want to ensure they have a roof over their heads.

How systemic is homophobia in Monroe County?

Sweetwater is less than 50 miles from Vonore in Monroe County where a lesbian couple and their family suffered a horrible hate crime more than six months ago. Carol Ann and Laura Stutte believe that their home was burned to the ground by a next-door neighbor who had threatened their lives and property. The word “QUEERS” was spray painted on the wall of a structure near the ashes of their home. The Stutte’s continue to suffer the consequences of this crime. They must pay the mortgage on their burned home and premiums to the American National Property and Casualty Insurance company that has yet to honor their commitment to investigate and process the family’s claim. The FBI has still not completed their investigation of the hate crime.

The hate crime committed against the Stuttes and Barnes’ January letter point to a systemic problem of homophobia and transphobia in Monroe County. As law enforcement authorities in Monroe County, the FBI and the Stutte’s insurance company drag their feet, they are sending the message that Monroe County condones lawlessness and bigotry.

US Census Data show that at least 54 same-sex couples reside in Monroe County (0.35%). Vicki Barnes’s letter puts these families on notice that they should not expect fair and equal treatment from Sweetwater Housing Authority programs. The new HUD rules are sorely needed in Sweetwater and Monroe County. Can Vicki Barnes be trusted to abide by them?

If law abiding citizens like the Stuttes and consumers of Sweetwater HUD programs cannot expect fair and equal treatment from the public officials, landlords and businesses who serve them, these officials should be fully investigated and disciplined. 

- Jonathan Cole


Rebecca said...

I'm so glad others are as upset about this as I was and I'm glad you got the tweet I sent @tnequality on Friday.

I work for a housing agency in Buffalo, NY whose definition of family doesn't require household members to be's just one of more persons who intend to share a residence. We don't have problems with our Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher clients changing head of household every week.

Poverty itself is a destabilizing factor in peoples' lives and our clients suffer no greater instability and the children are at no greater risk because of our agency's definition of family.

Rebecca said...

I forgot to mention our agency is consistently rated as high performing in our Section 8 reviews (SEMAP) and our utilization rate is over 99%.

Jonathan Cole said...

Tennessee Equality Project filed a complaint this morning with the Dep. of Housing & Urban Development regarding the letter written by Vicki Barnes (the Exec. Director of the Sweetwater Housing Authority). We will keep you posted on opportunities to advocate for a full inquiry into the matter.

Naomi Goldberg said...

The current HUD definition of family is “two or more persons related by blood, marriage, adoption or other operation of law [such as guardianship or a custody order], or two or more persons who are not so related but will live together in a stable relationship and share resources.” This current definition is inclusive of LGBT families.

The proposed HUD regulations are merely meant to CLARIFY that for housing agency officials who obviously don't understand what the definition is.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Public Housing Occupancy Guidebook, June 2003.

Chuck said...

Vicki Barnes says these folks are the same because of "life style choices" and that mixed race families are not really families. She should follow the revised adage "Better to be thought a bigoted fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!"