Lisa Latoni and Andrew
Jorgensen, an unmarried couple living together in New York City,
had their hearts set on moving into a two-bedroom unit in a
housing cooperative known as Sherman Square. Although it
had a big price tag of $880,000, they knew they could afford it.
Each of them had
individually purchased a co-op apartment before, so they knew it
wasn't quite the same as buying a house or a condominium.
When someone "buys" a co-op,
they become a shareholder in a corporation. Unlike a
condominium or a house, the purchaser does not actually own the
real property. Instead, they own shares of stock and a
proprietary lease allocated to a specific apartment. Because
they do not own the building, shareholders have a
landlord-tenant relationship with their co-op.
Like any corporation, co-ops are run by a board of directors
elected by the shareholders, along with the assistance of a
managing agent. Shareholders may be subject to special
restrictions imposed at the co-op board´s business discretion (e.g.,
subletting, having pets, carpeting their floors). These rules
and regulations, however, must not violate any existing rights
under local, state, or federal law.
So in the summer of 2003, Latoni
and Jorgensen jointly applied for
a mortgage, signed a contract to buy
the apartment and, at the request of the Sherman Square co-op
board, filled out two co-op applications. They interviewed with
the board in mid-September, scheduled a closing for Sept. 24 and
began boxing up everything they owned.
But a few days before the
closing, the seller's broker informed the couple that the board
was concerned about Mr. Jorgensen's finances and would not
approve the sale to them jointly. Sherman Square would
sell to Lisa Latoni, but not to Andrew Jorgensen and Lisa
Had they been a married couple,
they would have been approved or disapproved as a couple based
on the strength of their joint finances. But because they
were unmarried, the board decided to evaluate their finances
individually even though they were willing to be jointly liable
on the mortgage.
The mortgage company could not
and did not engage in marital status discrimination. The
federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act forbids such bias and
requires lenders to consider the joint finances of two unmarried
people who apply jointly for a loan just as it would a married
But could the co-op legally
refuse to do business with Latoni and Jorgensen as a couple and
insist that only Latoni could be named on the lease?
Latoni and Jorgensen did not
think so and therefore sued Sherman Square in state court.
Two months ago, a judge rejected the co-op board's claim that
it's decision was normal business judgment and not
discrimination. As a result, the case will now proceed to
It would seem that the couple
should have a good chance of winning their case, since New
York's fair housing law prohibits marital status discrimination
as does New York City's local Human Rights law.
But would Latoni and Jorgensen
prevail if they lived in another state? Maybe, maybe not.
There are more than 5 million
unmarried couples living together in the United States.
Although they pay taxes like everyone -- some of which are used
to fund the operations of the Department of Housing and Urban
Development -- unmarried couples cannot obtain help from that
agency if they are victims of marital status discrimination.
You see, our federal fair housing laws do not protect unmarried
Americans from marital status discrimination.
So unmarried renters or real
estate purchasers must look to state laws for protection from
Only 23 states prohibit marital
status discrimination in housing transactions.
But in some of those 23 states,
such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, the state supreme courts have
ruled that unmarried couples are not protected by
nondiscrimination laws which do include "marital
status" as a protected categogy. In contrast, the supreme
courts of Alaska, California, Massachusetts, and Michigan have ruled
that such fair housing laws do protect unmarried couples.
With nearly half of all
households in the nation now headed by unmarried adults, it's
time that we have a national policy protecting unmarried individuals,
couples, and families from marital status discrimination in
Federal law already prohibits marital
status discrimination in credit transactions. Why not in
housing transactions as well?
Lisa Latoni and Andrew
Jorgensen, and the other five million unmarried couples like
them, work hard and pay taxes just like married couples do.
The right to fair housing is too important to depend on which
part of the country they live in.
forget, Americans are supposed to be part of one nation,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Unmarried America 2005
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
firstname.lastname@example.org. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and