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Published September 23, 2013, 07:57 PM

Housing discrimination ban given preliminary OK at Grand Forks City Council

In what seems like a rare occurrence, thundering applause followed a Grand Forks City Council committee decision Monday night.

By: Brandi Jewett, Grand Forks Herald

In what seems like a rare occurrence, thundering applause followed a Grand Forks City Council committee decision Monday night.

More than 40 people watched as a city law proposing a ban on housing discrimination was discussed and ultimately given preliminary approval by a unanimous vote of the council’s Finance and Development Committee.

If signed into the books, the law would be the first in the state to prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identify, according to council members. The law is up for final approval from the full council on Oct. 7.

Of those in attendance at Monday’s meeting, UND student Kyle Thorson was one clapping for the decision.

“I am a gay man. By saying that, I could potentially be removed from my apartment. There could be a notice on my door when I go home.” he said before the vote. “Fear is something that is driving this ordinance. I have little fear that I could be evicted.

“But that fear is still something I carry with me.”

Right and wrong

The law’s preliminary approval did not receive applause from all in attendance.

“I am deeply offended by the proposed ordinance,” said Grand Forks landlord Janet Hanson. “The whole thing is extremely offensive.”

Hanson claimed she has never discriminated against a tenant and never will, but she does not support the lifestyle of gay men and women.

Others have opposed the law on the basis of religion. The law would exempt churches and other legitimate religious institutions, along with religion-based housing units.

Other exemptions include rooms for rent in single family homes occupied by the owner, federal and state-run housing, motels, nursing homes and homeless shelters.

At an Aug. 26 meeting on the proposed ban, residents indicated even with these exemptions, the law would still encroach on their religious beliefs.

UND professor Jim Whitehead told the crowd and committee members religion has nothing to do with enacting a law against discrimination, but is instead a civil matter.

“And the testimony we’ve heard makes it clear this is a need for this ordinance,” he said.

Part of that testimony he referenced included opponents saying there is no evidence of discrimination to support a law prohibiting it.

Grand Forks resident Lowell Nelson said he conducted an informal survey of area apartments and said he found no instances of discrimination being reported.

“They’re worried about credit ratings and housing references,” he said of the building owners.

Council member Hal Gershman said he didn’t need statistical data to prove there was a problem.

“The testimony of the people here is all I need,” he said.

Anecdotal evidence

While no one had statistics of discrimination incidents to share, some had stories of a personal or a friend’s experience of being singled out for their sexuality.

Grand Forks resident Nancy Hennen said she had experienced discrimination because of her sexual orientation in the city, noting she was uninvited from events and asked to leave establishments after revealing she was a lesbian.

Others who hadn’t experienced this discrimination firsthand spoke out against it.

Nikki Berg-Burin said she came to speak not as a UND professor and historian but as a mother.

When her five-year-old son asked about her plans to attend the meeting, she told him she was there to speak out against people that treat others poorly because they can.

“I asked him what he thought about that and he said, ‘That’s mean,’” she said. “I asked him what I thought I should say and he said ‘Tell them to be nice.’”

Though simplified view of the situation, other speakers voiced their agreement with it.

The city’s decision to pursue the creation of this law stems from a resolution of support the council signed for a similar statewide anti-discrimination law.

That law, proposed this year in SB 2252, failed 21-26 in the Senate.

Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks — a sponsor of the bill —said Monday she is a roommate, friend and neighbor of people who would be affected by the law and has heard their stories.

“Discrimination is happening right here in Grand Forks,” she said.