My landlord says: couples need not apply
April 9, 2009 11:15 AM   Subscribe

My landlord baffles me. He has told me he will not rent my small one-bedroom to people who plan on single occupancy (i.e. no couples of any kind). I'm wondering if a) anyone else thinks this is odd, and b) if this runs afoul of any laws on housing discrimination (i.e. can you say, I will only rent my studio to one person, no couples allowed)?
posted by archofatlas to Law & Government (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's certainly not housing discrimination under any code I know. I think your wording might be backwards - you mean he'll ONLY rent to single occupancy, right?

I don't think it's odd.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:21 AM on April 9, 2009

We will need to know your jurisdiction.
posted by onshi at 11:21 AM on April 9, 2009

I don't think it's odd either. Twice the people means twice the wear and tear. If it's a really small space, I can understand why he'd want to limit the occupancy. (And yeah, I think you left out a "don't" in your first sentence.)
posted by mudpuppie at 11:23 AM on April 9, 2009

Response by poster: You're right, worded backwards. I meant that he'll ONLY rent to single occupancy.

Jurisdiction: Boston. Is that specific enough?
posted by archofatlas at 11:24 AM on April 9, 2009

It is possible he has had bad experiences dealing with groups of roommates (i.e. one faction complaining the other faction hasn't paid). This may or may not be legal depending on jurisdiction.
posted by mmascolino at 11:25 AM on April 9, 2009

Familial status is a protected class in Fair Housing laws. This generally refers to discrimination against families with children. However, this page from the DOJ states that landlords may not "place an unreasonable restriction on the total number of persons who may reside in a dwelling."
posted by chiababe at 11:29 AM on April 9, 2009

In Ontario, under the Human Rights Code, landlords cannot discriminate based on "family status", i.e. prospective tenants having or not having children. This is similar (insofar as a child is an additional person), but not quite the same. So there are related laws in some places.
posted by onshi at 11:30 AM on April 9, 2009

The answer is a definite maybe. The fair housing act prohibits discrimination on the basis of familial status; the landlord can only make "reasonable" limitations on the number of people who live there. The rule of thumb is that landlords can limit occupancy to number of bedrooms times two, but it's only a guideline, not a hard and fast law. I imagine that somebody going to court against him would probably win but it's not 100% clear-cut.
posted by phoenixy at 11:35 AM on April 9, 2009

I saw this in a college town (Champaign, IL) when looking at apartments. I thought it was odd at the time but I think it was to prevent students from cramming a bunch of people into one space. The lease would have a provision that stated the maximum occupancy of the apartment. I never ran it by the Tenant Union so I have no idea if it was legal or not in that jurisdiction.
posted by cabingirl at 11:37 AM on April 9, 2009

This might be helpful (.pdf, scroll up to the top of the previous page).

Oh, what heck:
410.400: Minimum Square Footage
(A) Every dwelling unit shall contain at least 150 square feet of floor space for its first occupant, and at least 100 square feet of floor space for each additional occupant, the floor space to be calculated on the basis of total habitable room area.
(B) In a dwelling unit, every room occupied for sleeping purposes by one occupant shall contain at least 70 square feet of floor space; every room occupied for sleeping purposes by more than one occupant shall contain at least 50 square feet of floor space for each occupant.
(C) In a rooming unit, every room occupied for sleeping purposes by one occupant shall contain at least 80 square feet of floor space; every room occupied for sleeping purposes by more than one occupant shall contain at least 60 square feet for each occupant.
posted by rtha at 11:38 AM on April 9, 2009

In California the landlord can set a maximum number of occupants based on square footage:

In order to prevent overcrowding of rental units, California has adopted the Uniform Housing Code's occupancy requirements, and the basic legal standard is set out in footnote 19. However, the practical rule is this: a landlord can establish reasonable standards for the number of people per square feet in a rental unit, but the landlord cannot use overcrowding as a pretext for refusing to rent to tenants with children if the landlord would rent to the same number of adults.

From here. So at least in California, this is not likely to be housing discrimination unless the landlord is wording it as "no children allowed" or "no gay couples allowed" or the like.
posted by chez shoes at 11:38 AM on April 9, 2009

Part 109 of the HUD regulations ban the use of "single" and other associated terms in housing advertising. Many states and localities promulgate a list of words that may not be used in housing advertising that includes "single man" "single woman" "singles only" and many other similar constructs. Specific exceptions exist for student dorms and shared living areas.
posted by Lame_username at 11:39 AM on April 9, 2009

In my college town of Elon, NC, more than 3 unrelated parties living together was against the law. We got emails about this every year when housing changed. So maybe he just doesn't like unmarried couples? Single people are quieter? He's just weird?
posted by CPAGirl at 11:42 AM on April 9, 2009

Seems like it might be borderline under the Fair Housing Act; I remember something about not being able to discriminate against people who have children (which I always thought was misguided, since there are legitimate reasons why a building might be inappropriate for children but fine for adults), that might also cover couples.

You can read the FHA statute here. My reading of it is that you can only claim discrimination-protection on the basis of "familial status" if you are in a relationship that involves children; two adults living together don't qualify, and thus can be discriminated against, at least as far as the Federal government is concerned. You or someone else might read it differently, however, so you shouldn't take this as worth anything.

There is apparently a USSC case that might be relevant, City of Edmonds v. Oxford House, 115 S. Ct. 1776. There's some information on it here (crappily-designed webpage; requires JS to be enabled or for you to hit 'stop' before it redirects). It seems like the Federal-level regulations leave a fair bit up to state or local law, with appeals getting made when those more-local laws conflict with the general intent of the Federal ones.

Your best bet is probably going to be to ask a renters-advocacy group in your local area, since they're likely to be familiar with the local laws; in a place like Boston, they may go significantly further (and have a more progressive definition of 'family' that isn't quite so rugrat-centric) than the Federal statutes.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:44 AM on April 9, 2009

cabingirl: the law in Urbana actually prevents more than 2(?) unrelated people from living in one residence, it is an out of date law meant to prevent houses of ill repute. I think the situation in Champaign is similar. Of course the law is no longer helpful in controlling prostitution, but landlords find it convenient, especially figuring that it is a college town.
posted by idiopath at 11:51 AM on April 9, 2009

If it were the case that the landlord "just doesn't like unmarried couples", as CPAGirl suggests, then that might run afoul of the law in some places, but unless he were to say so directly then it would be difficult to clearly distinguish this prohibited discrimination (based on martial status) from an otherwise acceptable objective rule against 2 occupants based on sq. ft.

In addition to the speculative reasons given by others, the landlord might also be responding to past experience, where couples renting 1-bedroom apartments of a given size tend to be short-lived as tenants because they outgrow the space quickly and move somewhere more spacious. Some landlords are more interested in securing long-term tenants, while others will be happy to fill a vacancy as quickly as possible. On the other hand, renting a 1-bedroom unit to 2 occupants can be good for the landlord as it would mean two potential incomes and half the chance of eviction (or moving out voluntarily) due to job loss or other hardship.
posted by onshi at 11:52 AM on April 9, 2009

In New York, there are limits on the number of people who can live in an apartment, but I don't know whether it's the landlord or the fire department who set that. I do know that landlords cannot enforce single occupancy or even limit occupancy to the named tenant and his or her family (meaning an unrelated roommate and that person's dependants are allowed). I think similar laws exist in many large, expensive cities where living with unrelated persons is common.

This site might be a starting point for you.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:54 AM on April 9, 2009

Are there utilities included in your rent? If so, one person is obviously going to use less water and electricity than two people, which in turn will save the landlord money. Maybe he's looking at it from a financial angle.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 11:55 AM on April 9, 2009

Maybe he's had problems with couples in the past? It's possible that together a couple could afford the place, but if they were to break up and one of them were to move out, the person left with the apt wouldn't be able to afford it on his/her own, leading to missed/late rent payments.
posted by Radiator at 12:11 PM on April 9, 2009

Ah, Boston. Are you by chance a student? Many landlords won't rent to undergrads, or if you're in an area where there are lots of undergrads looking for housing, it's likely his policy is to prevent multiple students cramming into a space that is way too small for them just to save some bucks.
posted by olinerd at 12:23 PM on April 9, 2009

To answer your original question, it's not discrimination unless he has specific criteria for saying "no". If it is purely numerical (he wouldn't rent to 2 people no matter what the situation) then it's fine.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:23 PM on April 9, 2009

Response by poster: I. Love. Metafilter. These are great responses.

To provide more specificity to this situation; my landlord and I had already discussed early termination of my lease - I'm moving out out of the city. His request was that I do some legwork to find a suitable replacement. When I told him I'd found a couple very excited to take over my lease, he apologized for not being clear, then said that he really didn't want a couple living there.

I did ask him why no couples: he said he'd had a couple years before, that they'd been fine with the size of the place, that they'd gotten "cabin fever" during the winter months and that their relationship deteriorated. "We don't want to be responsible for that happening again, it's safer just not to rent to couples." I pointed out to him that there are many couples who live happily in studios and places even smaller than the (relatively) small space that I occupy, but he said it was "safer" to rent for single occupancy.

I'm put out that after I did this legwork and identified potential suitable replacements, that he is turning them down. I also think this is weird - I understand not wanting additional people who use additional utilities, who cause wear and tear... but it seems a little strange to universally predict relationship failure in the case of small living quarters, doesn't it?

And then, I was wondering what would have happened if I had decided to move in with someone while living there - would he have been required to release me without penalty from my lease for not meeting his requirements (requirements, might I add, that he never made explicit to me)? He never asked me if I was dating, had a fiance, etc.

Anyway, thanks for the responses. I'm learning a lot about housing law here.
posted by archofatlas at 12:36 PM on April 9, 2009

Does the place have lead? If so, there are pretty tight rules around renting it. I'm also in the Boston area and our landlord would only rent to 1-2 adults, no children, no pets, because she has no plans of de-leading anytime soon.
posted by lily_bart at 12:37 PM on April 9, 2009

Is this an owner occupied two-family or three-family house? If it is, the owner has more flexibility with regards to choosing who lives there.
posted by alms at 12:50 PM on April 9, 2009

This is a great thread. My wife and I were looking for a place in Boulder, CO a year ago and nobody would rent us and our two small kids a 2 bedroom apartment, even though they share a bedroom. I just assumed it was their prerogative. I need to do more research next time I move.
posted by monkeymadness at 1:01 PM on April 9, 2009

Interesting. Based on your additional information, it seems clear to me that the landlord *is* indeed discriminating against couples, based on a perceived risk that the relationship will dissolve and jeopardize the tenancy. It is evidently not simply a mater of two people being too many (and probably only feigned concern that the small apartment would, in itself, damage a relationship). The only way he could have made this position more clear would have been to suggest that a married couple would be fine, but not a common-law or other relationship.

You're right that it is odd to "universally predict relationship failure", but I suspect it is just excessive risk-aversion. Couples -- even married ones! -- break of often, and this is a source of turnover for landlords, which can cut their profit. This is similar to a hiring manager's discriminatory suspicion (perhaps based on experience) that a woman of childbearing age isn't a safe bet as an employee. Dicey business rationale aside, it is unfair to members of the class of persons discriminated against in this fashion to treat them as though their potential "problems" are certain (or even likely), and hence the development of legal frameworks to prevent such discrimination.

Notwithstanding the fact that he rejected the replacement tenants, your legwork seems to have satisfied his request. Unless he is withholding his side of your agreement, why be "put out"? You might also provide him with some literature about housing discrimination, but mind that this may affect his usefulness to you as a reference in the future.
posted by onshi at 1:36 PM on April 9, 2009

I should clarify my post above, it's clear to me that the landlord is acting in a discriminatory fashion, but it is not clear that this discrimination is illegal in your jurisdiction.
posted by onshi at 1:41 PM on April 9, 2009

Response by poster: Onshi:

Interesting. I probably won't bring this to his attention, as you're correct that it can only harm my existing relationship with him, but I am put out because my ability to vacate without penalty is contingent on him finding another tenant. I did the legwork, found a suitable tenant, and I'm not happy that he's chosen to bring this issue up now. Puts me in a tough spot, and potentially out another month's rent.

I unfortunately don't have the option of simply leaving without paying - I gave him a month's rent for a deposit on signing, and have paid up through April; I am nervous that he will simply choose to not refund me my security deposit.

Alms - Actually, you're right that this is an owner-occupied place of residence - landlord lives in the main house; there's an apt on the side (mine) and then another apt in the back.
posted by archofatlas at 2:18 PM on April 9, 2009

Given your additional information, it's likely that he can indeed set those parameters without consequence (owner-occupied places of residence are subject to much different laws than multi-residence buildings). I would call the Boston Fair Housing authority to make sure it's actually ok (because if it isn't, his objection to your legwork is totally bogus and you should be released without penalty).

If it is legal, unfortunately I think you might have to do some more legwork to get out of your lease without penalty, but you should ask him to give you all of his requirements up front.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:36 PM on April 9, 2009

Response by poster: I think I might be up a creek without a paddle here.

We discussed this all over the phone; he's never given to me any of this in writing, and it's not in my lease. At least, I don't know if it's in my lease; I have to go back and look. Plus he already effectively has the amount for May's rent. What groundwork do I have to lay in order to ensure that I maximize the chance that I can get my deposit back from him?

I hate this. What a headache.
posted by archofatlas at 2:44 PM on April 9, 2009

You've already gotten some great answers here. I'll just quickly add that I was about to sign the lease for a wonderful one-bedroom apartment when I asked if my boyfriend would be able to live with me. It seemed like it would be a deal-breaker because the landlord said that two people would be twice the wear & tear on the apartment. An hour later though, he called back and said we could take it if we paid a little bit more. We agreed because it was still a great bargain for us. So, perhaps a small rent increase would help with your landlord's concerns?
posted by val5a at 2:50 PM on April 9, 2009

Response by poster: val5a:
* Agreed on the great answers - again, mad love to the Metafilter community.
* I like your potential solution of a slight rent increase. Will broach it with him and see if it might alleviate his concerns/risk aversion.
posted by archofatlas at 2:58 PM on April 9, 2009

There are people who won't rent to undergrads in Boston? Wow, in my city, students are a protected class and you can't discriminate against them in housing.

Have you checked with your local tenant's rights agency? That would definitely be the best way to get a real answer, rather than speculation.
posted by fructose at 4:16 PM on April 9, 2009

Does the place have lead? If so, there are pretty tight rules around renting it. I'm also in the Boston area and our landlord would only rent to 1-2 adults, no children, no pets, because she has no plans of de-leading anytime soon.

Strictly illegal for the landlord to do this in Massachusetts, and some landlords go to great lengths to avoid renting to families with kids because ...

A lead inspection is mandatory if there's a kid in the apartment, and if the inspector recommends deleading instead of containment, it can cost many thousands of dollars (think: replace every window, set up a sealed-off HEPA-filtered negative pressure area for the deleading work, and find alternative housing for your tenants while the work is going on).
posted by zippy at 8:27 PM on April 9, 2009

You want to get out of contract early and don't want to do the leg work to find a replacement suitable to your landlord's preferences. Sounds like you're screwed. Either do the work to find the man a replacement that fits his preferences or pay the price to get out of the lease. If his disinterest in couples was based on emotional empathy for breakups (a VERY valid point for a small apartment) then what makes you think greed is going to be an effective enticement to change this mind? The man seems pretty decent and deserves to be treated the same.
posted by wkearney99 at 7:27 PM on April 12, 2009

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