How Zoning Laws Misunderstand the Modern Family

Updated at 4:15 p.m. ET on May 23, 2023.

You might say communal living runs in Julia Rosenblatt’s family. Her parents met in a six-unit house shared by college students and anti-war activists in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the 1970s and lived there until shortly before her birth. In high school, Rosenblatt heard stories about the commune and fantasized about the lifestyle, she told me. So when, as an adult, she decided to move into a house with 10 other people—her husband, her two kids, and six of her friends, plus one of their children—it wasn’t a big surprise to her family and friends. In 2014, Rosenblatt chose a nine-bedroom mansion in a wealthy enclave of Hartford, Connecticut, which cost, in total, a little less than half a million dollars. She knew the house was technically meant for a single family, but she didn’t think much of it. Her group was living together—sharing the living room and bathrooms; collectively preparing meals—much like a typical family.

A few months after moving in, Rosenblatt found a cease-and-desist letter in the mail from the city, demanding that the 11 of them vacate their house. The charge was an obscure zoning violation: Rosenblatt’s group had broken the definition of family in Hartford. More than two unrelated people, according to laws buried deep in the city code, could not live together under the same roof. Neighbors, Rosenblatt learned later, had filed a complaint after seeing the number of cars parked outside of her house.

Rosenblatt went to court, and eventually, in 2016, the city dropped its case against her. But laws like Hartford’s are widespread across the U.S., though they are unevenly enforced. A study from last year found that 23 of the 30 largest American metro areas placed limits on the kinds of groups who could buy or rent a single-family home. Most of these statutes define family as people related by “blood, marriage, or adoption.” Though some places permit additional “unrelated persons” (usually two to five) to live under the same roof, others don’t allow any at all. Yet this does not reflect how a lot of Americans live. Although 44 percent of households in the U.S. were composed of married parents and their children in 1965, just 19 percent were in 2020, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Much of the rest of the country lives with roommates, in multigenerational households, or with long-term partners they’re not married to.

For decades, “definitions of family” clauses have sculpted who is allowed to live with whom across America, entrenching the nuclear family through housing law. At times, these clauses have also become convenient vehicles for NIMBYism: Neighborhood groups have deployed them to block queer and extended-family households from forming. Limited definitions of family are all over the legal system. Laws for domestic violence, rent control, insurance, and—as I’ve written about before—inheritance rely on narrow understandings of the term, which often prioritize biological and marital relationships, and relegate other kinds of relationships. Yet efforts to reform zoning laws have also charted a better way to consider kinship in modern America—one based on how people act together and care for one another.

There are few good statistics on how often people are blocked from living together because they are not considered family. Some cases start with a complaint from a neighbor to a city’s zoning-enforcement officer, which might bubble up into a more serious sanction. Lincoln, Nebraska, which allows only families related by blood, marriage, or adoption, plus two unrelated people, to live together, sees about 20 to 30 complaints a year, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

Bryan Wagner, the president of the American Association of Code Enforcement, told me that the enforcement of these rules appears to be “variable” across the country. He speculated that college areas would field more complaints than quieter residential communities. But in his 10 years working as a code-enforcement official in the city of Westerville, Ohio, “I can probably count on two hands the number of complaints I’ve received alleging over-occupancy violations,” he said.

Complaints from neighbors do trickle in, though, and their outcomes sometimes feel cruel. In 2016, the town of Wolcott, Connecticut, refused to allow a group home for people with disabilities to open. A resident of Bar Harbor, Maine, fought the development of a home for seasonal workers (last year, the resident lost the case). Perhaps even more egregious, in 2006, an unmarried couple with three kids—including one from a partner’s previous relationship—in Black Jack, Missouri, were denied an occupancy permit for their home because the town’s zoning ordinance effectively banned unmarried couples from living with more than one child. (The couple sued and the city eventually settled with them.)

In several cases, the weight of these laws has fallen most heavily on immigrant families living in multigenerational households. After the city of Manassas, Virginia, passed a law in 2005 that restricted single-family households to only “immediate relatives,” zoning-enforcement officers largely wielded it against Latino households. In Cobb County, Georgia, 95 percent of investigations into violations of family-based zoning also focused on Latino residents. A similar pattern has appeared in the cities of Waukegan and Cicero in Illinois.

How zoning legislation became concerned with the definition of family probably traces back to a Berkeley, California, real-estate developer named Duncan McDuffie. In 1916, McDuffie successfully lobbied the city to implement one of the earliest forms of single-family zoning laws, which restricted development to stand-alone homes only, as opposed to duplexes or apartments. Single-family zoning, he argued, would “prevent deterioration and assist in stabilizing values” in the city. Another effect—this one largely unstated—was that it would prevent Black residents from moving into developments adjacent to his properties. McDuffie’s properties included stipulations that they not be sold to nonwhite residents, and citizens soon petitioned to use the new regulations to stop a Black-run dance hall from opening nearby.

In other words, single-family zoning was exclusionary from the start. But the term family was not. Zoning laws spread across the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s, but Kate Redburn, a historian at Columbia Law School who has written about these laws, told me that it was surprising “to find how willing courts were to interpret the term family and these statutes extremely broadly.” Courts kept an open mind: Sorority sisters and temporary roommates, for instance, had little trouble living together in houses meant for single families. Michigan’s supreme court even remarked in 1943 that “the word ‘family’ is one of great flexibility.”

By the end of the 1960s, however, the rising political power of homeowners and a growing fear of communes encouraged local governments to restrict the word’s definition. “One of the ideal ways to respond to that moral decline in their view is to legislate the ideal social force, and that’s going to be a nuclear family,” Redburn said. In 1976, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, wielded its ban on unrelated people living together to order out a pair of men—whom press reports implied to be gay, according to Redburn—from their home. Even foster parents were affected: Newark, New Jersey, won a case against several of them because they had too many “unrelated persons”—meaning their foster children—in their home.

Parallel to these efforts, restrictive definitions of family were entering other parts of the law. When states began passing domestic-violence statutes, for instance, they largely excluded same-sex couples, and in some cases even unmarried partners, from protection. A similar phenomenon has played out in rent-control and accident-insurance cases, where people who consider themselves family are surprised to find that they don’t meet the legal definition—and therefore can’t receive insurance coverage or inherit a rent-controlled apartment.

Today, definitions of family are slowly expanding again—and, in some ways, becoming even more capacious than those from the early 20th century. Recently, a court in New Jersey recognized that half-siblings who didn’t share a home but who were frequently together at family functions counted as “household members” in the context of domestic violence. In zoning law, too, some officials have attempted to purge definitions that, in many cases, have not been updated since the 1960s: In recent years, both Iowa and Oregon have done away with family-based occupancy limits.

Other cities have chosen to update their laws in a more interesting way—measuring family based on how people act together. These so-called functional-family rules allow groups who do traditional household acts, such as making meals together and sharing expenses, to count as a family, regardless of biological or legal ties. Burlington, Vermont, for instance, allows groups who share furniture, expenses, and food preparation to live together. In Mount Pleasant, Michigan, functional families merely need to prove a permanent “demonstrable and recognizable bond.” In its rent-stabilization laws, New York City defines a family member as any person “who can prove emotional and financial commitment, and interdependence” with the main tenant—wording so expansive that, late last year, a New York court suggested that people in polyamorous relationships should qualify as family.

Gradually, definitions of family focused on mutual care are entering other parts of the law. In its sick- and family-leave policy, for instance, Colorado now allows workers to take time off to care for any “person for whom the employee is responsible for providing or arranging health- or safety-related care.” Solangel Maldonado, a law professor at Seton Hall University, also pointed me to the rise of “de facto parent” legislation, which recognizes parentage based on action—for example, for an unmarried partner of the biological parent. Roughly two-thirds of states have these laws on the books, either by court mandate or explicit legislation. “It is very much this idea that families are not created necessarily by blood or by law, but rather by what people do for each other,” Maldonado said.

In the context of zoning, functional-family rules are still a half measure. In the midst of a housing crisis, why restrict living arrangements to any kind of family at all? Still, though in many cases imperfect, these definitions are clearing a path toward a bigger, vital idea: A person’s relationships with their loved ones, irrespective of biological or marital ties, can and should be enshrined in law.

The article originally misstated that the couple in Black Jack, Missouri, were forced from their home.


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