Should the U.S. Census Bureau ask citizens about their sexual orientation and gender identity, or is that information best kept private? This question might seem simple, but it includes homeownership nuances that could influence our understanding of who buys houses in this country.

  • U.S. Census Bureau has decided not to ask individuals about their sexual orientation or gender identity in 2020.
  • Advocates say that the lack of data on LGBT citizens could shortchange those people when it comes to community programs and resources.

Should the U.S. Census Bureau ask citizens about their sexual orientation and gender identity, or is that information best kept private?

This question might seem simple, but it includes homeownership nuances that could influence our understanding of who buys houses in this country.

Last week, the Census Bureau said that it would not include a question in the 2020 census asking Americans to identify their sexual orientation or gender identity. It said that it mistakenly proposed including the question and has “corrected” that mistake.

“Adding these questions should not be viewed as a partisan or political task. Doing so merely acknowledges the fact that LGBT people live in the United States and have unique experiences and struggles,” said John Graff, a Los Angeles-based real estate broker who heads the NAGLREP (National Association of Gay and Lesbian Real Estate Professionals) Policy Committee.

What the census counts — and what it doesn’t

Right now, the Census Bureau counts LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) households — so it collects data on households headed by two men and by two women, as well as households helmed by traditional couples, single-parent households and many other lifestyle configurations.

However, as a September 2016 Census Bureau webinar points out, same-sex couple data does not “represent a comprehensive measure of the LGBT population.”

Any lesbian, gay or bisexual person who was not currently involved in a “head of household” same-sex relationship, for example, would not be “counted” as LGBT by the census. The Decennial Census (the comprehensive survey held every 10 years) and the annual American Community Survey questionnaires don’t currently ask individuals any questions about their sexual orientation and gender identity (also referred to as “SOGI”).

The September webinar noted that the bureau had included SOGI question on a few bureau surveys, and said that the bureau had formed a team of SOGI subject-matter experts. “This team will ensure the agency is prepared to implement SOGI questions on our surveys should we be tasked with doing so,” stated the webinar.

Without SOGI questions on the census, we will continue to collect data on how many gay and lesbian couples are homeowners — but we won’t be able to count, for example, how many opposite-sex couples include one or more bisexual partners, or how many opposite-sex couples include one or more transgender partners, or how many single gay men or lesbian women are homeowners, or any number of “non-traditional” household configurations.

Census Bureau director John H. Thompson explained why the bureau didn’t include SOGI questions in a blog post.

“In preparation for the 2020 Census, we conducted a detailed review of decennial census and ACS [American Community Survey] content, ensuring the data are appropriate to meet a wide range of federal needs — from providing apportionment and redistricting data as part of our representative democracy, to helping distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds annually,” wrote Thompson.

“In April 2016, more than 75 members of Congress wrote to the Census Bureau to request the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity as a subject for the American Community Survey,” he continued. “We carefully considered this thoughtful request and again worked with federal agencies and the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] Interagency Working Group on Measuring Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to determine if there was a legislative mandate to collect this data. Our review concluded there was no federal data need to change the planned census and ACS subjects.”

Back up: What is the census, and why does it matter?

The Census Bureau executes a number of surveys — including the SIPP (Survey of Income and Program Participation) and the AHS (American Housing Survey). Probably the two best-known surveys, though, are the Decennial Census, which attempts to collect data from every single person in the United States every 10 years, and the American Community Survey, an annual survey “which provides communities with reliable and timely demographic, housing, social, and economic data every year,” according to the Census Bureau.

A number of those surveys collect information about same-sex couples, as noted above — but not individuals.

According to the news release that accompanied the news about the 2020 census questions, the bureau released a statement that explained why people should care about census data.

“The American Community Survey, which started in 2005, provides data that helps all levels of government, community organizations and businesses make informed decisions,” read the statement.

“Census Bureau data directly affect how more than $400 billion per year in federal and state funding are allocated to local, state and tribal governments. The data are also vital to other planning decisions, such as emergency preparedness and disaster recovery,” it added.

This is why activists are concerned about the decision; if the census doesn’t collect data on which citizens are LGBT, then it won’t be able to say definitively whether LGBT citizens have been disproportionately affected by a policy or event, for example.

What does this mean for LGBT homeowners and their real estate agents?

“Data is the enemy of bigotry,” said Graff. “Data is so powerful because it brings marginalized communities out from the shadows and makes it harder to claim anti-LGBT laws will impact an insignificant minority.

“The government uses census data to direct vital government funds to people who are most struggling in the economy. Because the LGBT community isn’t even considered in data collection, the population inevitably loses out on important government support that could make the difference between economically surviving or failing,” he added.

Graff offered examples of a few ways that more granular SOGI data could help real estate agents and their consumers navigate the housing market.

  • Monitoring compliance with law. Questions on SOGI could provide critical information for monitoring compliance with existing anti-discrimination and affirmative action plan requirements that may exist in various states and municipalities.
  • Assessing economic well-being. Accurate census data are critical for developing accurate assessments of economic well-being for the nation as a whole as well as for different minority groups.
  • Assisting families and low-income populations. Accurate census data are critical for programs that aim to identify areas eligible for housing assistance and rehabilitation loans, housing subsidies, energy cost assistance and community economic development.
  • Product development and marketing. Accurate census data on where people of different ages live helps businesses of all kinds to develop and market their products. For example: Architects, contractors and real estate firms need accurate information on the size and composition of households and their housing as they design, build and sell houses and apartments.
  • Forecasting demand. Businesses forecasting demand for their products require accurate census data to develop these forecasts.
  • Location decisions. A variety of business location decisions are improved by accurate census data. In particular, building developers and contractors selecting sites for new housing developments that may affirmatively target the LGBT community.
  • Providing equal opportunities and achieving compliance with the law. Accurate census data help businesses set up and monitor affirmative action and anti-discrimination plans. And they help companies to comply with various anti-discrimination legislation.
  • Location decisions. Individuals can make better choices about homebuying or job relocation if they can take advantage of accurate census information.
  • Academic uses. Accurate census data are vital to researchers in a wide variety of endeavors connected to housing and real estate.

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