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What does the new rent stabilization ruling in West 49th St. LLC v. O’Neill mean for New York City families? How do you know if your family qualifies to pass on a rent stabilized apartment?
What was the ruling in West 49th St. LLC v. O’Neill?
NY Civil Court Judge Karen May Bacdayan held that two potential partners of a deceased man could each be eligible for his rent stabilized apartment to pass to them.
The ruling called for a more expansive definition of a family-like relationship for rent stabilization purposes, and explicitly mentioned multi-partner relationships, platonic partnerships, and non-cohabitating partners.
In her discussion of the multiplicity of modern family relationships, Judge Bacdayan mentioned a New Yorker article in which both Executive Director Diana Adams and Senior Legal Director Andy Izenson were interviewed about their own family structures and their pioneering legal advocacy at Chosen Family Law Center for non-nuclear, chosen, and multi-partner families.
Judge Bacdayan also prominently cited the multi-partner domestic partnership ordinances passed in three Massachusetts cities as a legal basis in US law for a more inclusive definition of family to support the ruling; these ordinances were drafted and passed by the pioneering work of Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, which is a project of Chosen Family Law Center with other partnering organizations.
What is rent stabilization succession?
The law allows a tenancy to pass to another occupant (who meets certain criteria) when the original person named on the lease dies or permanently vacates the apartment. When the new tenant acquires the lease, the rent rate remains the same.
Which occupants are eligible to be passed down a rent-stabilized apartment?
Any occupant with a “family-like” relationship to the tenant of record.
What is a “family-like” relationship?
“Family-like” relationships include traditional designations such as parent, child, grandchild, sibling, and spouse. Since 1989 in the Braschi case, life partners who were legally unable to marry, particularly same-sex couples, also qualify for rent stabilization succession. This decision explicitly expanded this to other family relationships beyond a romantic dyad.
A judge may determine that other relationships are sufficiently “family-like.” Factors that are considered are:
How does West 49th St. LLC v. O’Neill affect rent stabilization succession?
This case acknowledges that leaseholders may have more than one life partner. That a leaseholder may have a life partner living separately does not eliminate the succession rights of another life partner who lives in the apartment and otherwise meets the criteria. In other words, the courts recognize that the definition of “family-like” includes relationships other than the monogamous two-person model.
What is the monogamous two-person model family?
This term describes the traditional legal and social conception of a family based on romantic ties between two individuals. Throughout its history, American law has consistently intertwined the definition of “family” with marriage, regarded as a near-sacred liberty, and serving as the foundation for modern parental rights, parentage, adoption, birth control, and abortion law. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision that overturned state laws that limited marriages to individuals of the opposite sex, the Court referred to the right to marry as fundamental “because it supports a two-person union unlike any other.” (Emphasis added.)
What other kinds of families are there?
Not all families rest upon a marital commitment. The New York Court of Appeals recognized this in its 1989 decision that two cohabitating life partners may be sufficiently “family-like,” even if they are not legally married. In 2020, nearly 8 million households were identified as a “cohabitating couple” – meaning unmarried and living together(1). Over 19 million people identified as parents were living with no partner at all.(2)
Other families comprise more than two partners or parents. Some are referred to as polyamorous families, which contain three or more committed partners, some of whom may share a partner and familial bond without being romantically connected. Some polyamorous families include children, co-parented by all of the partners, or sometimes by two parents with the remaining partner(s) acting as loving adults to their children like aunts and uncles, but not parents.
Multi-parent families may consist of biological birth parents, with each birth parent bringing in additional life partners such as step-parents. In other cases, pregnancy surrogates or gamete donors act as third or fourth parents to the children they helped a couple conceive. For more on the movement for inclusive families, you can watch our Executive Director Diana Adams’ TED talk on the topic.
What does this decision mean for multi-partner families?
In concluding that family-like relationships encompass more than just two committed partners, Judge Bacdayan cited multi-partner domestic partnership ordinances that we recently helped pass in three Massachusetts cities. Being registered under one of these multi-partner domestic partnerships would strongly favor a triad’s or quad’s designation as a family-like relationship entitled to rent stabilization succession rights.
Does this mean all polyamorous or platonic family types are automatically entitled to rent stabilized apartment succession rights?
No, this not automatic. The ultimate determination of a “family-like” relationship is made by a trial court judge on a case-by-case basis. Such courts, including the one in West 49th St. LLC v. O’Neill, do not have binding authority over other courts and judges in New York. However, this decision encourages other judges in New York City to follow suit.
Also, note that rent stabilized apartments are a New York City local issue.
What should I do to make it more likely that my partner or partners would be able to inherit my rent stabilized apartment?
We suggest you consider doing the following, if right for your family:
To determine what’s best for your family, you may want personalized legal advice. If you are in New York City, contact Chosen Family Law Center for referrals or to see if you may qualify for our free legal services to support low-income LGBTQ+ families.
This article does not constitute legal advice.