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In Written Testimony, Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke Argues Proposed Changes Replacing Broad Definition of Family Member With the Term “Spouse” Undermine Support for Diverse Family Structures and Amount to Marital Discrimination

Media Contact: Public Affairs, 212-854-2650 or publicaffairs@law.columbia.edu

New York, November 6, 2013—The New York City Department of Housing and Preservation Development should not be allowed to limit succession rights of affordable housing for low- to middle-income tenants to legal spouses, Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, argued today in written testimony to the department.

The department has proposed eliminating a broad definition of “family member” used by the city in the Mitchell-Lama housing program, which was enacted in 1955 to support the development and building of affordable housing for low- to middle-income tenants. In a notice dated Oct. 4, the department proposes substituting “spouse” for the functional definition of family member that has been in place for almost a quarter century.

“We are well beyond the day when a public entity can limit access to a program such as the Mitchell-Lama program with such a narrowly defined conception of family. The proposed amendment’s limitation in the ability to gain or retain access to Mitchell-Lama housing rights marks a step backward in the well-accepted recognition of a broad diversity of families in New York City,” Franke said in her testimony.

Rather than limiting the notion of family to people who are related by blood or marriage, the current definition of “family member” contained in city law provides a set of factors such as the exclusivity and longevity of the relationship, the level of emotional and financial commitment, the manner in which the parties have conducted their everyday lives and held themselves out to society, and the reliance placed upon one another for daily family services. Franke was part of the legal team that established the broad definition of “family member” under the New York State Constitution in 1989 in a case decided by the New York Court of Appeals, Braschi v. Stahl Associates.

Franke argues recent judicial rulings in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples should not be used to justify the rule change. In fact, many heterosexual and non-sexual families will be negatively impacted as well if the proposed changes go into effect.

“Gains in the right to marry for same-sex couples should not entail a contraction in the rights enjoyed by New York City residents – whether gay or straight – who have formed other non-marital partnerships and families,” Franke wrote. “It is wrong-headed for the City to collapse the right to marry into a requirement that people must marry in order to gain or retain benefits for their partners.”

Submitted jointly with Queers for Economic Justice, a non profit organization located in New York City that advocates for the economic rights of a broad array of families, the testimony urges HPD to withdraw the proposed regulations limiting property rights in the Mitchell-Lama program to legal “spouses.”

Read the testimony.

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