Emily Stephenson couldn’t find a place to live for four and a half weeks. It wasn’t due to a lack of trying or a lack of finances or a lack of availability. Stephenson had one problem: She was lacking a marriage license.
Little-known to residents in the bountiful land we know as Utah County, many apartment complexes, privately owned condominiums, duplexes and other rental properties have problems with people renting from them that are not legally married, which is otherwise known as cohabiting. Stephenson was looking for a nice, affordable place to live with her boyfriend while they were both attending school and working. She was shocked at the responses she received.
“I called places on Craigslist, and when they found out we weren’t married, they said ‘No,’” Stephenson said. “If I can pay and be a good tenant and can keep the place clean, then I don’t know what the big deal is.”
Well, apparently Stephenson isn’t alone in her thinking. According to recent statistics, 60 percent of couples live together before legally getting married. And in many states, couples are considered legally married after living together for long enough under certain “common law” contingencies.
I decided to undergo an experiment to discover the reason behind the discrimination of cohabiting couples. I called 15 different housing developments including apartment complexes, duplexes, condos, townhouses and basically anything that offered “married” housing for students and non-students.
The responses I received from these establishments and their landlords were similar to Stephenson’s dilemma. Of these establishments, about half didn’t even respond to my inquiry if tenants actually needed to be married. And 50 percent of the ones that did respond said “No.”
I asked for specific reasons for their policies or guidelines on denying couples that aren’t legally married. One apartment complex responded that it was because of the “BYU Honor Code.” Yet, another apartment had previously informed me that the BYU Honor Code did not require married couples or non-BYU students that were living off campus to abide by their housing standards. The inconsistencies in their responses seemed startling.
Further research proved that it is not illegal to live together as boyfriend and girlfriend in Utah. The only states that legally penalize cohabitation are Mississippi, Virginia, Florida and Michigan. So, it seemed that if there were no legal issues regarding the matter and half of these residences that denied cohabitation were not BYU housing, then Stephenson was justified in feeling discriminated against.
“Maybe in this culture, people don’t condone my behavior, but I don’t know if that is right,” Stephenson said.
Although I have moral and religious views that disagree with people cohabiting, I also hold moral and religious views that say it is wrong to shun someone because they don’t live the way that you prefer. It doesn’t seem right for someone to be denied a living space simply based on the fact that they don’t have your same standards. They aren’t making you cohabit and their “lifestyle” isn’t rubbing off on you just because they happen to rent your basement apartment!
Now, legally, if an apartment or townhouse is privately owned, the landlord does have the right to choose or deny whomever they want. And it does appear that being “single” isn’t one of the categories that is lawfully protected against discrimination.
“As a land lord you have rights too,” said John Spencer. “You can choose to rent to those you choose as long as you don’t discriminate based on age, religion, race, genetic background, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability. You’re OK not to rent to someone if you prefer married couples. Being single is not protected.”
But, it sure does seem completely wrong and judgmental.
“I think it doesn’t matter,” said Sierra Branscomb. “As long as the rent is being paid and all other agreements of the rental contract are being upheld (no smoking, no pets, etc.) then what difference does it really make between a couple who is co-habitating and a couple that the state recognizes by a piece of paper as legally married?”
So, whether someone is legally married and paying their rent on time or still boyfriend and girlfriend and paying their rent on time, it shouldn’t make a difference. But, sadly and unfortunately for Stephenson, it does to some in Utah County.