Housing Discrimination Against Unmarried Couples

Here's an overview of housing rights of unmarried couples.

Most landlords are interested in your money, not your morals. As long as you pay rent on time, keep the rental clean, and don’t fight with the neighbors, they don’t care in which beds you sleep. There are, of course, exceptions—people who still refuse to rent to unmarried couples. Some landlords (despite the divorce statistics) believe that unmarried couples are inherently less stable than married ones. Others may refuse to rent to you on religious grounds. Unfortunately, in most states, landlords can get away with these kinds of choices.

This article summarizes the law on housing discrimination against unmarried couples and provides practical tips on avoiding problems with landlords.

Housing Rights of Unmarried Couples

Do you have a legal right, as an unmarried couple, to rent a place? Not under federal law. The Federal Fair Housing Acts (42 U.S. Code § § 3601–3619) prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or color, religion, national origin, gender, familial status (having children and pregnancy), and physical or mental disability. Marital status is not one of the protected categories under federal law. (Public housing is an exception. Several courts have interpreted federal law to protect unmarried couples from discrimination there.)

State law is not much better. The majority of states don’t have any legal provisions protecting people from discrimination based on marital status, meaning landlords may legally ask questions about your relationship and may refuse to rent to you if you are an unmarried couple.

While some 20 states ban discrimination on the basis of marital status, most of these states’ laws extend protection to married couples only (meaning that landlords cannot treat married tenants differently from single tenants). Only a few states—Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey—have clearly ruled that the term “marital status” refers to unmarried couples. In these state, landlords cannot refuse to rent to you simply because you and your rooomate are not married. Oddly, courts in Maryland, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin have ruled that the term “marital status” protects single people from being treated differently from married people, and vice versa, but does not protect unmarried couples.

Your best protection against discrimination may be a city or county ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Although usually passed to protect the housing rights of gay and lesbian tenants, most local laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation also protect unmarried heterosexual couples as well.

If you suspect (or know for sure) that a landlord won’t rent to you because you’re not married, first find out whether your city or state has a law that has been interpreted to prohibit discrimination against unmarried couples in rental housing. If the answer is yes, you have a decent chance of winning if you fight back.

And keep in mind that even if you live in a state that prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status, it’s no guarantee you’ll get the place you want. Landlords may reject you for legitimate business reasons, such as a bad credit history or negative references from other landlords.

For more information on housing discrimination, see the Tenants section of the Nolo website.

Practical Tips for Dealing With Potential Landlords

If your state or city has no law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of marital status, you’ll have to decide how open you want to be with your landlord. Here are some suggestions:

• Act in a highly responsible and respectable manner. Be ready to present financial and credit information and personal references, especially from former landlords. If you convince a landlord that you’ll be excellent tenants, other factors, such as your marital status, will be less important.

• Don’t flaunt the fact that you’re not married. In an age when many married women use their own last name, many landlords will assume you are married and won’t ask. Most won’t care.

• In conservative parts of the country particularly, it may help to go with the flow. In every city, and most large towns, there are neighborhoods with lots of unmarried people. This often tends to be true near universities. If you are new to an area, ask around.

You may not want to rent from a landlord who obviously disapproves of unmarried couples living together. This is especially true if the landlord lives nearby. Life is too short for all the hassles you’re inviting by renting from someone who’s inappropriately interested in tenants’ private lives. If at all possible, look elsewhere.

Discrimination When Buying a Home

Few, if any, people selling a house will care about your marital status. But if a seller does refuse to sell to you simply because you aren’t married, you may have little or no legal recourse in most places. In a growing number of states and in some cities, discrimination on the basis of marital status in the sale of real property is illegal. However, in many of these states, courts have ruled that “marital status” applies to married couples (or sometimes single people) but not unmarried couples. If you run into problems buying property as an unmarried couple, contact your city attorney’s office, state fair housing office, or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for advice.

If you face a serious threat of discrimination, consider presenting the house purchase offer in one name alone, and then add the second name only when you are ready to close escrow.

In a few areas, you may face an unexpected obstacle: zoning ordinances aimed at barring unrelated people from living together. Most of these laws prohibit groups of people from living together, but a few also prohibit two unrelated adults from living together. Although it’s very unlikely you’ll run into this sort of problem, it still makes sense to check that the city—or neighborhood—in which you plan to buy isn’t zoned only for people related by “blood, marriage, or adoption.” Also, if you’re buying a co-op or a property subject to a community association, check the rules for any restrictions.

For more information on buying a house, see Nolo's Real Estate section.

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