In discussing the family of five that bought a house in Black Jack, Missouri, but then learned they couldn’t get an occupancy permit because the man and woman weren’t married, several people e-mailed to ask why, after 13 years, they weren’t considered common-law husband and wife.
I didn’t know the answer until I looked at this site, which explains, “There is a common misperception that if you live together for a certain length of time (seven years is what many people believe), you are common-law married. This is not true anywhere in the United States.”
In the Black Jack case, the local government is sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong, all in the name of legislating morality. The ordinance bans three or more individuals from living together if they aren’t related by blood, marriage, or adoption.
This is a mom, dad, and three kids, who would fit comfortably into the five-bedroom home they purchased. Whether or not the parents have a piece of paper legally bonding them to one another is much less important than whether the three kids have two loving parents to take care of them. The law would actually allow a single woman to live in that house with three kids, as long as the guy wasn’t around. What good would that do?
When I was in college, some friends and I decided we didn’t want to live in the dorms anymore. One of us found a three-bedroom house a few blocks from campus. To be honest, once we saw that there was an in-ground pool in the backyard, we didn’t really care much about the inside of the house, but that was nice, too. We moved in, eventually getting some sheet rock and — with the landlord’s permission — building two more rooms in the basement for other friends to move into. Thus, there were five of us living in a five bedroom house. We didn’t cause any trouble, weren’t blasting our stereos all night long, just living a normal life (and enjoying the hell out of that pool!).
It’s a good thing the town we lived in didn’t have the same occupancy laws as Black Jack does, because we could never have moved in.
Even worse was what happened when my wife and I moved to Washington, DC. We weren’t married yet, but had lived together for several years. We went looking for an apartment, and found a nice garden apartment complex in Alexandria, Virginia. When we spoke with the rental agent, she asked us if we were married. When we told her we weren’t, she replied that she couldn’t rent us a one-bedroom apartment because of the local occupancy laws — two unmarried people living in a space that small might lead to, well, you know, and apparently the narrow-minded hypocrites of Virginia frowned upon that.
But wait, it gets better. When I heard the agent say she couldn’t rent us a one-bedroom apartment, I jokingly asked, “Oh, so you could rent us a two-bedroom?” She immediately replied, “That’s correct.”
Yes, Virginia, there is a hypocrisy loophole!
The two-bedroom apartment was much nicer than the one-bedroom we’d seen, and since it was only another $10/month, we took it. I don’t think I need to explain that, law or no law, we didn’t sleep in separate bedrooms.
Occupancy laws have their place, particularly to prevent overcrowding. You wouldn’t want 20 people crammed into that house, of course. But the city of Black Jack discriminating against this couple simply because the parents aren’t married should be against the law.
Then there’s the question of the realtor’s role in this. Did they buyer’s agent inform the family of this local law? If not, is the realtor liable now that they can’t move into the house they have purchased?