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Monday, April 13, 2009

That 'Damn Lesbian' Roberta Achtenberg Thinks Now May Finally Be the Time for Executive Order Barring Sexual Discrimination

Posted By on Mon, Apr 13, 2009 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge Roberta Achtenberg - CSU-SAN LUIS OBISPO PUBLIC AFFAIRS
  • CSU-San Luis Obispo Public Affairs
  • Roberta Achtenberg
You can't bar the disabled from federal housing. Ditto that for racial or religious minorities, the aged, or nearly any other group -- but homosexuals. Amazingly, in 2009, one can still be barred from a place in federally funded housing based upon his or her sexual orientation.

In fact, San Francisco's Roberta Achtenberg was nearly prevented from being the federal official overseeing fair housing because of her sexual orientation; Sen. Jesse Helms famously referred to the former city supervisor as "a damn lesbian" prior to her confirmation hearing. And though she was confirmed, Achtenberg was unable to eliminate federally funded bigotry against homosexuals.

Fast-forwarding 18 years, another San Franciscan, John Trasvina, has been appointed  to serve as assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). And Achtenberg is optimistic that this straight male may be able to do what she, a lesbian activist, was not in a position to do: End federal housing discrimination against the LGBT community.

"I do think the times have changed," says Achtenberg, a city supe from

1990 to '93, when she was appointed HUD assistant secretary. Now a

consultant, she recently finished up a stint heading up the HUD agency

review team, surveying the wreckage that Trasvina will inherit.


demurs when asked if Trasvina should prioritize ending discrimination

against LGBT folks in federal housing, but notes that the time may be

right to push for it: "I do think the Obama administration might indeed

be amenable to issuing an executive order to prohibit sexual

orientation discrimination in federally financed housing."

Such an executive order is on the wish-list of a number of fair housing advocates, including many locally based organizations.

Achtenberg said that such a move was not in the cards in the early 1990s when she served at HUD -- "The major goal of the Fair Housing Enforcement Effort at HUD was to re-invigorate a bureaucracy that had been so depleted and demoralized because of 20 years of a lack of civil rights enforcement of any kind. My job was a very different job."

In other words, spurring enforcement of the existing protected classes (women, minorities, etc.) was already a major task. "I did get a presidential order -- which, by the way, took a lot of wrangling to get -- that created a presidential fair housing council that made it clear to other agencies of the federal government that they, too, had fair housing responsibilities."

Meanwhile, Achtenberg thinks Trasvina will have his hands full getting HUD moving again as George W. Bush was not exactly benificent to the department.

"I can tell you that the Bush Administration did a tremendous amount of damage to civil rights enforcement as it did to every department at HUD," she said, noting that this was "willful."

"They essentially eviscerated the fair housing enforcement division. As people retired they didn't fill jobs. They froze appropriations at the 1990 levels -- and didn't even ask Congress for increased  amounts of money despite increased prevalence of racial and ethnic-based housing discrimination. They didn't pursue one fair-lending case related to the subprime mortage debaucle. Let's put it this way -- John Trasvina has a big job ahead of him."  

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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