Polyamorists Deserve Same Rental Protections As Monogamous Couples, Says NYC Judge In Controversial Housing Case
Written by Oonagh O’Sullivan, edited by Gabrielle Alexa Noel
Last Friday, New York City Judge Karen May Bacdayan decided that polyamorists (and others in multi-partner relationships) should receive the same rent protections that monogamous couples have. Such protections guarantee that when a tenant dies, the family members living with them at the time are legally entitled to take over the lease instead of getting evicted.
What Does ‘Family’ Mean Anyway?
West 49th Street, LLC hoped to strike tenant Markyus O’Neill’s noneviction protections and remove him from his apartment following the death of his partner, Scott Anderson. While Anderson and O’Neill lived together as a couple, Anderson was the rent stabilized tenant on the lease –– and legally married to a man named Robert Romano, who was living in a separate apartment to allow them to prioritize their independence. A “non-traditional family member” living with Anderson would’ve been entitled to take over the lease, but the landlord in this case argued that O’Neill was not actually part of his family and had no legal rights to be his successor.
As Gay City News points out, landlords in the 1980’s were making similar arguments about queer people who lost partners to the AIDS epidemic. They claimed that a same-sex partner couldn’t be considered ‘family’ because same-sex marriage didn’t exist; by forcing those partners to vacate the apartment, they could increase the rent for incoming tenants and decontrol apartments. In 1989, Braschi v. Stahl Associates Company was the first appellate decision in the United States to recognize that a same-sex couple living together could be considered a family with regards to noneviction protections.
READ MORE: What The &#*@ Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
Judge Bacdayan concluded that a hearing should move forward to explore whether or not Anderson’s non-traditional relationship with O’Neill was familial. She found that it’s incredibly possible for both O’Neill and Romano to be considered Anderson’s legal family members, and therefore O’Neill deserves to receive noneviction protections.
This is a small, housing court decision, but it suggests that judges have become more aware of non-monogamy, and are allowing that awareness to guide how they interpret the law. In fact, prior to this decision, there were only two reported New York decisions discussing multi-partner or polyamorous relationships on the online legal research platform Westlaw.
“What was “normal” or “nontraditional” in 1989 is not a barometer for what is normal or nontraditional now,” Bacdayan opines in their decision. “Indeed, the definition of “family” has morphed considerably since 1989. Specifically, many articles have been written about multi-person relationships in recent years, revealing a preference that for some has long been known.”
Wait, did Judge Karen May Bacdayan just question mononormativity!? Ethical non-monogamy can present in a limitless number of ways for a limitless number of reasons. With roughly 4-5% of Americans self-disclosing as ethically non-monogamous, it is becoming increasingly more prevalent to forego norms and design your own relationships. However, being married to more than one person is still illegal in all 50 U.S. states and non-traditional relationships receive little to no legal protections. As more people consider non-monogamy, especially in a world that has been irrevocably changed by the pandemic, it is clearly time to reassess the definition of what a “family” is –– which is what we’ve been saying all along!
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In fact, she acknowledged that today, we need a much broader vision of what ‘family’ actually looks like, citing a New Yorker piece that explores how polyamorists are reimagining familial norms, and two important family law cases –– Braschi, where the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the legal term ‘family’ shouldn’t be restricted to people who have formalized their relationship (i.e. through marriage, adoption, etc.), and Obergefell, where the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed for same-sex couples.
“The problem with Braschi and Obergefell is that they recognize only two-person relationships. Those decisions, while revolutionary, still adhered to the majoritarian, societal view that only two people can have a family-like relationship; that only people who are ‘committed’ in a way defined by certain traditional factors qualify for protection from one of the harshest decrees known to the law—eviction from one’s home,” Bacdayan wrote. “Those decisions, however, open the door for consideration of other relational constructs; and, perhaps, the time has arrived.”
New York Isn’t The Only Place Reimagining ‘Family’ To Include Polyamorists
Non-monogamous people, rise up! Allegedly, our time has arrived. In fact, we’d argue that it arrived when three Boston-area municipalities — the city of Somerville, followed by Cambridge and the town of Arlington — became the first in the country to extend the legal definition of domestic partnerships to include polyamorous relationships.
The Cambridge city council now defines domestic partnerships as encompassing two or more persons not related by blood “in a relationship of mutual support, caring and commitment [who] intend to remain in such a relationship” and who “consider themselves to be a family.” They also assert that domestic partners are no longer required to live together to be considered family. And along with similar legislation in Somerville and Arlington, these changes represent a new paradigm in how kinship is viewed and understood.
READ MORE: Ask Amy Schooled This Mom Who Wanted Her Son To Stop Being Polyamorous
“Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary defines relationship as ‘the state of being related or interrelated’. Here, Mr. Anderson, Mr. Romano, and Mr. O’Neill had a relationship to one another. There was knowledge of all persons about the others and, at least, passive consent, even if they did not all like each other,” Bacdayan wrote in her decision. “Was the relationship a ‘good’ one? Mr. Romano describes Mr. O’Neill as ‘intimidating’, and Mr. O’Neill describes Mr. Romano as ‘abusive’. It seems equally as unimportant as considering sexual relations to delve into the level of happiness in a relationship. Is one stripped of their rights to “marital property” on the basis of having a ‘bad’ marriage? Would noneviction protections not devolve to an emotionally abusive spouse?… The existence of a triad should not automatically dismiss respondent’s claim to noneviction protections.”
The fact that a court of law even mentioned triadic relationships is blowing our minds, although it’s unclear if the tenants are actually a triad in this case –– perhaps calling it a “V” relationship is more accurate.
This news in New York combines with Atlanta City Council member Lilana Bakhtiari’s announcement earlier this week that they are in a polyamorous triad, according to NBC. Bakhtiari is already a trail blazer in U.S. politics, being the first queer Muslim person elected in the state of Georgia and the first nonbinary councilmember of a major U.S. city. They initially kept their shared, non-monogamous life private to protect Bakhtiari’s political campaign but a year after being elected, and with the triad wishing to start a family, the three of them are now “#openly showing [their relationship] and proud!”
This is exactly how we can love the player(s) and change the game! After all, mononormativity discredits the deep and meaningful bonds that are brokered outside of it; here at #open, we’re ready for a new paradigm. And if people in power are considering non-monogamy in domestic partnerships and noneviction protections, maybe we’ll start to see similar considerations elsewhere.