Last week we covered more of the social aspect of living with your polycule, essentially handling matters before they have a chance to turn into legal problems. Now we’ll address the other side of that coin.
Let me begin by saying something obvious – the current laws that affect people living together in America in general, and in Texas specifically, are not designed with non-traditional families in mind. They are a mishmash of tradition and common law rooted in some white protestant Christian societal norms and expanded by decades of legislative nostalgia for a nuclear family ideal that mostly existed on television sitcoms in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Twenty-first century people are realizing that living in a “traditional” nuclear family household – consisting of a cis-heterosexual married couple and their 2.5 kids in a single-family home – does not support a good life for them. Whether they are polyamorous or not, people are realizing that they need a different household structure to thrive. They want home that is less isolating, more economically sound, more diverse, and more flexible.
Living-together Agreements: Can I legally make my partner do their laundry?
In our previous article we discussed how conversations are important to head off problems when you start living together.
Once you have talked about and agreed on how you want to live together and how each person contributes financially, it is good to have a written, legal agreement that spells out the legal responsibilities. This would all be part of a lease or rental agreement, either between all of the renters and the landlord or the homeowners and the person paying rent. This is an important distinction because of the way that eviction laws work in comparison to other contracts.
A separate agreement could be drafted for chores. It’s common enough to have a handshake agreement on who does what sort of chores, and in some situations that can be pretty serious business. If a partner agrees before moving in that they are totally comfortable doing their share of the housework and after two months they completely change their mind, is there anything you can do to avoid that? Practically speaking, no. Any contract between renters that is not part of the lease doesn’t fall under the set of laws that are designed to affect landlords and tenants. Small claims court isn’t a great option here either – if no money or abuse is involved, a judge won’t usually care.
I always recommend making an agreement in writing – having everybody get together and put signatures on a page of agreed points is one way of using theoretical legal consequences to keep everyone honest. The key word there is theoretical. It doesn’t make sense to take people to court every time that there’s a breach of the rules – sometimes you just need to accept that you don’t have compatible lifestyles for living under the same roof.
One way that you could set up some consequences outside of going to court is if you set up a fund that you pool money into that would pay out a penalty if someone didn’t hold up their share. This money could go to hiring professional help to cover their share that wasn’t done. You would have to be super specific about what needs to be done, how often, and what “good enough” looks like. You would also have to find someone to be the arbiter of this contract – a trusted third party who can be the tiebreaker.
If there are financial damages that happen during a cohabitation, your endgame would be to take the offending party to small claims court, but this is not a fun or cheap thing to do. This might cost more time and effort than you would be getting out of it. There’s also the fact that this is basically a nuclear option – if you’re at the point where you’re taking a partner to court, that relationship is probably done for good.
As always, the best cure here is prevention. Getting a cohabitation agreement done before moving in can reveal problems like these before they ever show up.
What if one of my partners doesn’t pay their rent? Am I liable?
Yes, absolutely you are liable. It is possible for your lease contract to assign separate responsibilities to each person, but most of them have everyone jointly liable. The place where I have seen where you wouldn’t be liable is where you are each separately renting a room in a shared dwelling – you would each have our own lease and provisions to be evicted. Otherwise, if your roommate stops paying, you have to pay their share if you don’t want to get evicted.
This is where small claims court can come in and be an effective tool to recoup losses. If your roommate (or former roommate) didn’t pay their fair share and you have receipts, you absolutely can take them to court and have a decent expectation that you’ll be compensated.
Discrimination against a Polylcule: A Hypothetical Family
Let’s explore a hypothetical. Say for the sake of argument that you and your nesting partner are renting a one bedroom unit from a conservative landlord who is normally a very nice person, but nosy and has opinions about certain people’s lifestyles. You pay rent on time, you keep the place in great condition, and are all-around the perfect tenants. You’re both dating a third partner, who has been coming around more often and you all decide it would be a great idea for them to move in.
Your nosy landlord overhears this and says, “Nope, not in my house.” And when you ask him why not, because what’s it to him if you’ve got a third person staying in your home, he says, “It’s city ordinance!”
Is that true, or is he just being a bigot and talking out of his butt?
The answer to this is, like most things in law, that it’s complicated. States and counties and cities etc., can place limits on how many people can live in a particular dwelling. The typical limit is two adults per ‘bedroom’ in a home. And what counts as a bedroom can vary wildly from place to place. There may be minimum square footage, or there may a requirement that it has a closet directly attached, or a maximum number of entrances and exits. Another common hiccup is specific clauses in rental contracts, such as a requirement that anybody who stays more than five days out of a month needs to be included on the lease.
The law doesn’t always comport with reality. A converted garage might be a wonderful, spacious two bedroom apartment from the perspective of the people who live there, but if the rooms don’t meet certain legal definitions for that area, then the number of people who can stay there might be more limited than it would if it were technically compliant with the rules for a 2-bedroom.
These rules may also be almost completely ignored by landlords and law enforcement for people who fit inside the box, but conveniently remember they exist for folk they don’t like.
Wait, that’s discrimination. Isn’t that illegal?
That is absolutely, undeniably, textbook discrimination. Unfortunately for us, it is a form of discrimination that is completely legal. Certain types of discrimination aren’t allowed – race, religion, national origin, sex, disability, age, and familial status under the U.S. Fair Housing Act and Texas Fair Housing Act.
Don’t get your hopes up with that last one, ‘Familial Status’ really just means whether they have kids or not – it doesn’t apply to chosen family. And even that has loopholes, retirement communities can exclude families with kids.
There are a ton of non-protected reasons you can be discriminated against – including that the landlord doesn’t like you and your clan. Landlords can (and commonly do) use credit scores, criminal histories, and previous rental history to exclude people.
Also, even if someone discriminates against you for a prohibited reason, this can be really hard to prove and can cost a lot of money, time, and energy to sue for. Landlords often know this and use illegal threats to intimidate people that they know can’t fight back.
So what can we do?
Let me say again – the legal code in America is a hodge-podge of old ideas codified into norms and bylaws that made perfect sense to someone, somewhere, but now are finding new and interesting ways to make things difficult for poly people. That doesn’t mean that they’re impossible to work around, it just means you have to think ahead and get creative sometimes.
One good first step when you’re thinking of moving in with multiple partners is to inform yourself of your rights. There are tenants’ organizations that will have the rules and regulations for your town/city/county and can help you find stumbling blocks before you run into them.
If you’re a local, the Austin Tenants Council (https://texaslawhelp.org/directory/austin-tenants-council) is an excellent first point of contact if you think you’re going to run into trouble with housing. This information may also be applicable for your area, not just people living in Austin.
Be up front with your landlord about how many people are actually going to live there when you move in. People are noticeable and there can be steep fines and the threat of eviction if you’re breaking contracts. Corporate entities that own apartment blocks aren’t going to care that you’re a big polycule living together, but they are going to care that their rulebook says that any guest staying more than five days needs to be on the lease.
We’ll talk more about living together, choosing not to live together, what to do when things go wrong, and other possibilities in a future blog. Next time we’ll be talking about the possibility of buying property with your people and the ups and downs that can include.
If you are in Texas and have questions about legal issues that are specific to your situation, contact me at www.chosenfamilylawtx.com for a short free consult or a longer “legal coaching” session.