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The call came in to Tower 41 Condominium, a salmon-pink set of buildings on Pine Tree Drive, on February 22, 2006. Why, asked real estate broker Ricardo Herran, had his client's application to live there been rejected?
In a hushed voice, a curly-haired secretary told him: "It's two men.... Residents are conservative."
Herran's client, Steven Bloomfield, is gay. He is also a dream tenant. The slight, bespectacled 48-year-old makes six figures, has stellar credit, and is about as imposing as a granny in a rocking chair. "My face got hot with humiliation and rage," he says. "I felt like a piece of shit."
The Miami-Dade Equal Opportunity Board (EOB) found this past August 22 that the Tower 41 Condominium Association had discriminated against Bloomfield and his partner Jose Gonzalez based on sexual orientation. This finding might cost the condo owners money in court. And on gay-friendly Miami Beach, it could damage the building's reputation as a peaceful, welcoming place.
This case is just the beginning. Even as complaints about discrimination against gays have increased in Miami-Dade — up from five to a record 29 last year — county commissioners have chopped the board's annual budget from about $600,000 to $300,000. Administrators recently laid off half of the discrimination investigators, bringing staff down to five. All of this comes at a time when "we're up to our ears in cases," says EOB Director Marcos Regalado.
The county began tracking complaints only in 1998, when commissioners overwhelmingly approved a human rights ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. In describing the vote, the New York Times cited as a catalyst civic leaders' belief that "intolerance was bad for an economy that depended on tourism."
Almost immediately, reports about gay discrimination spiked. People complained they'd been turned down for apartments, fired from jobs, and treated badly in stores. The task of investigating went to the EOB, which handles about 380 cases per year related to housing, employment, and public accommodation discrimination for all minority groups.
The board has no power to penalize those who behave badly, but its findings have strong influence in court. Many property owners and others settle cases in mediation rather than have the findings made public. The board often recommends offending businesses take sensitivity classes.
The EOB has considered about 160 gay-related cases over the years. Among the recent ones:
• In May 2006, Nicole Waters and Viviana Villagra were turned away from Creative Weddings, a Coral Gables boutique, after requesting their names be printed on a wedding invitation. Owner Erasmo Cruz allegedly stepped back from the counter and stated, "I am a Christian." After mediation, Cruz was required to pay $300 and take classes.
• The next month, handyman Jorge Sarasti claimed bosses at The Grand Condominium, near the Venetian Causeway, repeatedly harassed him. In one instance, he said, a boss brought a black dildo to work and told him: "You like the big dicks." Sarasti was fired soon after that. The case is still open.
• In March 2007, Nelson Bernal was fired from Cosmetic Dermatology in Coral Gables for complimenting a male co-worker in an e-mail. His bosses interpreted the statement as a come-on and terminated him without proper procedure. After mediation, he took home a $2,000 settlement.
• In June 2007, Renita Holmes said she was threatened and kept out of a public meeting by Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation in Liberty City because of her butch appearance. A group of "good old boys" kicked her out, she says. The case is still open.
The Bloomfield case is among the most clear-cut conflicts the EOB has seen, says board investigator Bennie Barnes: "It's like finding a four-leaf clover." In most gay discrimination cases, he says, "manor and methods are more subtle," which makes evidence harder to come by.
In fall 2005, Bloomfield learned that a job transfer would soon bring him and Gonzalez to Miami from New York City. On January 18, he drove by Tower 41 and liked the neighborhood. The next day, he returned and found elderly Jewish folks speaking Yiddish in the lobby. He felt safe and appreciated the quiet, calm atmosphere.
A scrawny 80-year-old condo association member wearing a yarmulke gave Bloomfield a tour, he recalls. While he was viewing a living room, a woman in the building questioned him about a roommate. "She asked me in a very nosy way," he says. "It made me nervous."
Though he's openly gay, he answered, "I'll be living with a friend."
Ten days later, he submitted a rental application and followed it up with a payment of $7,500, for five months' rent and deposit. One thing he thought was odd: Board members asked for photographs. The couple reluctantly submitted head shots.
The condo association ran multiple credit reports and criminal background checks. They even requested Gonzalez's immigration papers. Everything came up clean.
By February 16, Bloomfield learned he had been approved to rent, so the couple paid made arrangements to move in March 1, 2006. Gonzalez quit school in New York and canceled his gym membership. Bloomfield cleaned out his office desk at American Express and hired movers to pack up his New York condo.
A week later — three days before they were scheduled to leave — their agent Ricardo Herran phoned a secretary named Kate at Tower 41. She informed him "they" had not been approved. She said the association was looking for dirt on the couple, had found nothing, but denied the pair anyway.