Guide to the Proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Amendments
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) seeks to insure that all Houstonians have equal access to the opportunities provided by this vibrant, world-class city. The ordinance addresses issues of discrimination in housing, public accommodation and employment based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity or pregnancy.. Much of the policy in the draft ordinance is a codification in ordinance of executive order and departmental rule, or a re-codification of existing ordinance (the provisions regarding city employment and contracting are substantially similar to the current provisions in executive order I-50 and the housing provisions are substantially similar to current city ordinance chapter 17 and existing fair housing office policy). The most recent draft of the proposed ordinance is available on the City of Houston website.
Eleven amendments to the ordinance have been offered. Many offer techinical corrections or are attempts to address concerns raised by different communities. For each proposed amendment a brief discription is given along with Equality Texas' possition on the amendment: either in support, in opposition or "will of the body" (meaning we have taken no position).
Cohen - 01
Sec. 1 exempts the leasing office, visitor parking area and model units of multi-family housing facilities from the definition of public accommodation. This removes duplication that put elements of rental properties under the aegis of both the inspector general and the fair housing office.
Sec 2 exempts from the prohibition against housing discrimination discrimination based on age and includes a prohibition against bad faith reporting of alleged discrimination. The age exemption is to address the concerns of senior housing facilities. The bad faith clause mirrors language elsewhere in the ordinance.
Sec 3. Exempts the prohibition against discrimination based on familiar status, age and pregnancy for senior housing facilities. In this ordinance family status refers only to the presence of minor children and not to the marital status of couples.
Sec 4. Clarifies that the requirement of the ordinance for the Housing office to refer complaints to federal or state agencies with jurisdiction does not apply to a complaint that was referred by a federal or state agency. This eliminates a previous potentially endless loop.
Sec 5. Clarifies that the requirement of actions that the fair housing administrator must undergo within 10 days of a complaint do not apply to complaints referred by a state or federal agency (as the initial date of complaint to that agency might be some time before referral).
Will of the Body
Green - 01
Clarifies that the HERO does not conflict with, or override the city’s minority, women and small business enterprise program.
Davis - 01
Clarifies that businesses that offer senior or military discounts are not in violation of the ordinance.
Gallegos - 01
Restructures the threshold under which companies would be subject to the employment protections of the ordinance. For the first year the ordinance is effective only companies with 50 or more employees would be subject to the ordinance. For the next year it would apply to businesses with 25 or more employees. After the second year it would apply to businesses with 15 or more employees.
Gonzalez - 01
Changes definition of “Gender Identity” and adds a definition of “Sex.” The definitions perpetuate the gender/sex binary model and are not ideal, but is consistant with current state law. States clearly that it is unlawful to deny entry to sex segregated space to a person if that person’s gender identity are consistent with the intended use of the space but provides a defense to prosecution if the person denying access to the space believes “under all facts and circumstances” that the person is entering the space for unlawful purposes. Replacing the “affirmative defense” of the previous draft with a “defense” changes the standard of proof and makes it more likely that people accused will cooperate with the conciliation process. It is always a defense to a criminal charge that the person was acting to prevent a crime, this amendment does not change or add to that. As the ordinance is designed to avoid prosecution as the outcome of complaints it is likely that most incidents of gender identity based discrimination will still be resolvable under this revision.
Pennington - 01
Moves the effective date of the ordinance from immediately to Sept 1, 2014. Since the deadline for collecting signatures to repeal the ordinance is 30 days after the effective date this increases the time to collect signatures and means that signatures will not be collected in time for the repeal to be placed on the Nov 2014 ballot, moving the repeal vote to the Nov 2015 ballot when CM Pennington is anticipated to be running for mayor.
Pennington – 02
Removes affirmative defense to denying access to gender-segregated space. This amendment is contains “good faith” language, but not an affirmative defense making the pursuit of public accommodation discrimination claims easier.
Pennington - 03
Creates a system by which a “good faith” belief can be used to justify denial to sex-segregated space. Those accused of discrimination may submit a form, and the inspector general may dismiss those cases if they believe a good faith situation exists. If dismissed the case may not be brought back up. If a form is not submitted the person accused of discrimination may not use “good faith” as a defense in court.
Pennington - 04
Moves the threshold from 4 units to 8 units for exempting owner occupied multi-unit rental properties from the ordinance. The exemption does not apply to rental properties that use a rental agency to find tenants.
Will of the Body
Penningon - 05
Requires 1 year deferred adjudication for 1st offenses under the public accommodations protections. This gives everyone "one free discrimination" - by tying the hands of municipal courts to prosecute a first offense, no matter how severe (courts can already show leniency if it's warranted).