In a recent court case over housing law, a New York judge has ruled that familial tenant rights do not have to be restricted to one partner. Not only could this signal an expansion of how “family” is defined under the law, it may represent a legal recognition of polyamorous relationships.
According to Gay City News, the case revolves around the apartment of Scott Anderson. Anderson passed away in October of last year after sharing the apartment with Markyus O’Neill for a decade. Because the two were not blood relatives or partnered, the landlord is now disputing O’Neill’s claim as successor tenant and is seeking to evict him. O’Neill is arguing that he was Anderson’s family regardless and should be entitled to inherit the apartment.
There is one complicating factor in O’Niell’s case: Anderson had a partner of 25 years, Robert Romano. Court documents show that they were an “exclusive” couple, though they did not live together (which means Romano cannot claim the apartment). O’Neill knew all of this, and he is seeking to prove that Anderson’s existing partnership does not rule out their own familial relationship.
The case hinges on an earlier precedent, the 1989 Braschi v Stahl Associates Company decision which ruled that same-sex couples could be considered family under New York housing law. At the height of the AIDS pandemic, it became common practice for landlords to evict surviving partners after their spouses had passed away, given same-sex partnerships were not legally recognized. The Braschi ruling expanded the definition of “family” to put an end to this practice. Crucially, the factors it established for determining “family” did not necessarily rest on a proven sexual relationship.
In O’Neill’s case, Judge Karen May Bacdayan considered that the 1989 definition of family may no longer be relevant. In her court opinion, she posed several important questions on what truly constitutes family. “Why … is the limitation of two persons inserted into the definition of a family-like relationship for the purposes of receiving the same protections from eviction accorded to legally formalized or blood relationship?” she wrote. “Why does a person have to be committed to one other person in only certain prescribed ways in order to enjoy stability in housing after the departure of a loved one? Why does the relationship have to be characterized by ‘exclusivity’? Why is holding each other out to the community as a family a factor?
“Perhaps, as in the instant case, the triad has chosen to closet their relationship from others? Perhaps the would-be successor is not ‘out’. Maybe they do not believe their ‘real’ family is open to alternative kinds of relationships. ‘Holding out’ discounts the existence of prejudice and misunderstanding about communities and people that are not ‘normie.’ Do all nontraditional relationships have to comprise or include only two primary persons?”
Essentially, the ruling allows the case to go forward—meaning O’Neill still has to prove his familial relationship with Anderson before a court of law in order to stay in the apartment. But the judge’s ruling has established that his case can’t be dismissed on the basis that nonexclusive relationships are illegitimate. Should O’Neill’s case succeed, this may open the door to a more inclusive legal recognition of families, at least as far as New York housing law goes.