Zoning, defining “family,” and exclusion

Zoning is a tool municipalities can use to control what kind of developments – and by extension, what kinds of people – can be in their community. A recent law review article looks at how zoning guidelines extend to defining families for the purposes of who can live in a residential unit:

Today, when courts ask “what makes a family?” they often look beyond blood, marriage, and adoption to see if people have made other meaningful, familial commitments that qualify for the obligations and benefits that family law provides. As functional family law developed, cohabitation became one of the most important factors, if not the determining factor, in these kinds of cases. The problem is that zoning laws often prevent these same functional families from living together in the first place. Through this underlying connection to zoning, functional developments in family law are much more vulnerable than they appear.

“Formal family” regulations in zoning are pervasive, and come with the imprimatur of the nation’s highest court. In the 1974 case Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that municipalities can legally differentiate between related and unrelated families. In the intervening years, courts in 14 states have ruled that “formal-family” zoning is permitted by state constitutions, and the issue remains undecided in an additional 30 states. Only four state courts, in New Jersey, California, Michigan, and New York, have refused to sanction this form of discrimination, and lawmakers in Iowa recently became the first legislators to ban it. The Supreme Court has only revisited the issue once, in 1978, to clarify that the zoning definition of family cannot prevent blood relatives from living together…

The good news is that formal family zoning is of surprisingly recent vintage. There is a long history of functional family approaches to zoning in American jurisprudence, dating back to the early 20th century advent of zoning law. The first zoning ordinances didn’t define “family,” at all, and throughout the first 50 years of their operation, courts often ruled that functional families of all kinds—from gay couples and religious adherents to cult followers and sororities—could live together in peace. Even as “blood, marriage, or adoption” ordinances became more common, courts continued to rule that functional families fell within their wide interpretive ambit….

Formal family zoning is a familiar song—the same legal mechanisms that famously reinforced housing discrimination on the basis of race, also discriminate against families that vary from the nuclear ideal of a heterosexual couple raising their biological children. There is also compelling evidence that low-density zoning, like formal family ordinances, is a significant driver of racial and class segregation. In short, formal family zoning discriminates against non-normative families, but it also reinforces the racial and economic segregation effects of low-density zoning in general.

When they want to be, communities can be creative in developing zoning and other mechanisms that bring in the kind of residents and businesses that they feel fits their community (often along the lines of race and class).

I wonder how these family guidelines are related to zoning restrictions on overcrowding and the number of people allowed in dwellings. Court cases have dealt with this and it seems like the conditions could be similar at times to guidelines against functional families.

If functional families are not as desirable for some communities, perhaps another trend in households is more to their liking: the rise in single-person households. On one hand, suburban housing can be too big and not provide certain amenities like walkable places and public transportation. On the other hand, people in single-person households may use fewer public services and may be willing to purchase smaller, newer units (many suburbs want to build and sell condos and townhomes near downtowns or community focal points). Or, does zoning truly privilege the formal nuclear family in ways that do not extend to any other kinds of household configurations?

Of course Tidying Up with Marie Kondo starts in Lakewood, CA

In watching one of the popular new TV shows, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I was not surprised to see the first episode take place in Lakewood, California. Here are several reasons this makes sense:

  1. Lakewood is a paradigmatic suburb. It does not quite receive the amount of attention as Levittown but it is known as an important post-World War II suburb of Los Angeles. Read more about the suburb’s unique history on the city’s website.
  2. The home depicted is relatively small compared to many of the suburban homes constructed today. This is part of the tidying issues the family faces: the American pattern is to accumulate more stuff over a lifetime (partly to express a certain status) and one solution for adjusting to this stuff is simply to purchase a larger home.
  3. The family is depicted as living an ideal family lifestyle: they have been married five years (if I remember correctly), have two small kids, and live in a suburban single-family home. This family/single-family home connection is strong in the suburban psyche.
  4. The emphasis of the episode is on the private life of the family inside the home. Even with the show focused on the belongings inside the home, there is very little connection to the outside world, whether neighbors, or the larger suburb, metropolitan region, or nation. All these privately-held goods and familial relationships look like they are in a small bubble that the participants prefer to stay in.

Given the suburban emphases on single-family homes and consumption, perhaps it makes all the sense in the world to start such a show in a well-known suburb.

News story suggests 40% is “Almost Half”

A Bloomberg story looks at the rise in birth in the United States outside of marriage and has this headline:

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

And then the story quickly gets to the data:

Forty percent of all births in the U.S. now occur outside of wedlock, up from 10 percent in 1970, according to an annual report released on Wednesday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest international provider of sexual and reproductive health services. That number is even higher in the European Union.

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

There is no doubt that this is significant trend over nearly 50 years. One expert sums this up toward the end of the story:

The traditional progression of Western life “has been reversed,” said John Santelli, a professor in population, family health and pediatrics at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Cohabiting partners are having children before getting married. That’s a long-term trend across developing nations.”

Yet, the headline oversells the change. A move from 10% of births to 40% of births is large. But, is 40% nearly 50%? When I hear almost half, I would expect a number between 45% and 49.99%. Claiming 40% is nearly half is going a little too far.

I think the reading public would better served by either using the 40% figure or saying “Two-Fifths.” Or, perhaps the headline might speak to the 30% jump in nearly 50 years.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue. The rest of the story does a nice job presenting the data and discussing what is behind the change. But, this is a headline dominated age – you have to catch those eyes scrolling quickly on their phones – and this headline goes a bit too far.

Asking for advice: my parents keep renovating their McMansion, my sister and I have debts

Would those who spend money renovating their McMansions be better served by helping their adult children with that money? From the one seeking advice:

My parents (mom and stepdad) are in their 70s, retired, healthy, and doing well financially. They spend their money on traveling the globe and constantly remodeling their new Florida McMansion. That’s fine. They can spend their money on whatever makes them happy…

My sister had joint-replacement surgery and has high medical bills. I am going through a legal fight with a previous employer, am unemployed for the first time in my life (I’ve had a job since I was 14), and legal bills are eating my 401(k). Our parents know the details. We’re not asking for any help.

But I don’t want to get on the phone with my mom and have to hear all the issues of remodeling rooms that looked perfectly fine when I visited a year ago. Plus they don’t even ask how things are going with their children and grandchildren. It’s all talk about superficial things and how awesome they are doing.

Advice columnist responds:

But let’s back up for a second. You’ve presented this as a two-item menu: either endure your mom’s affluenza, or stop calling your parents.

There’s a middle choice, though: truth. “Mom, [sister] and I are buried in legal and medical bills. I can’t sympathize over expensive renovations.”

It does not sound as though the McMansion is the actual problem. Yes, the letter writer is upset because the mom both spends money on their McMansion (which, in the letter writer’s opinion, does not need more work) and then spends a lot of time talking about it. But, it seems as though the McMansion could be replaced by a number of objects or hobbies associated with people with resources. It could be golf, fixing up old cars, buying collectible items, playing bridge, or any number of things that, according to the letter-writer, keep the mom from paying sufficient attention to her kids.

At the same time, the McMansion is a potent symbol here. Since it is such a pejorative and loaded term, it leads readers toward a particular kind of person: one with poor taste in architecture, lots of money, and an interest in flaunting their status through their home. Additionally, who would prioritize their expensive home over the real needs of their children? These are not just parents who happen to live in a McMansion; these are unlikable McMansion owners.

Are McMansion owners on the whole more generous with their family? Do they have money to spare and give it away? Others have argued McMansions are bad for children; it is not clear from this letter whether the advice seeker grew up in this home. Could a whole generation of Americans reveal hurts produced by or in McMansions? Even with the attention they receive, widespread tales of childhood McMansion woes are unlikely given the actual number of McMansions in the United States.

Why Americans love suburbs #2: family life and children

A consistent finding of researchers when studying day-to-day suburban life or asking people about their suburban aspirations is the belief that the suburban life benefits families and children. Living alone in the suburbs presents particular problems.

That the suburbs are preferable for family life had an early start in Anglo suburbs. Historian Robert Fishman argues early English evangelicals like William Wilberforce moved from London to Clapham to give their wives and children safer and purer spaces outside the city. While the men could commute to the city for work and other engagements, the women and children had their own domain in the suburbs.

This image of a safe suburbia for families perhaps reached its peak in the decades immediately following World War II. The birth rate jumped (hence, Baby Boomers) and families needed more space. The country and many major cities faced a severe housing shortage. The social scientists who wrote the ethnographic study Crestwood Heights, a study of a Toronto suburb in the postwar era, noted that suburban social life revolved around the children: “In Crestwood Heights the major institutional focus is upon child-rearing.” (4) Even as these new suburbs may have offered few opportunities for teenagers until they could drive (sociologist Herbert Gans said Levittown was “endsville” for teenagers), families flocked to new homes, more green space, and new schools. Television shows of the era depicting suburbia tended to show white nuclear families enjoying a comfortable suburban life (think Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Brady Bunch).

Today, many of these ideas about how much better suburbs are for children remain. The suburbs offer more green spaces. They are quieter. They have lower crime rates. There is less traffic. Kids get a more “typical” American upbringing (and the modal experience in recent generations is a suburban upbringing). Single-family homes in the suburbs allow a family to purchase more space for the entire family, acquiring separate bedrooms to extra rooms to larger yards.

One of the strongest indicators regarding the importance of families and children in suburbia involves the importance of school districts for the desirability of communities, property values, and helping determine where people move. Schools are important because they are viewed as the one sure thing that can propel children to greater heights: going to a good school district leads to a good college which leads to a good job and then a high income and a comfortable life. These school boundaries must be defended at all costs. Examples abound. This includes both the busing issues of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the recent case of students in the failing school district serving Ferguson, Missouri who for one year had a shot at a better education at a whiter and wealthier district until the law was changed. This includes a debate chronicled by anthropologist Rachel Heiman among New Jersey suburbs about which kids should go to which high schools (and the wealthier families were able to keep their kids in the better-performing schools and limit which other kids were able to come to their schools).

Whether suburban children always come out ahead compared to kids from cities or rural areas is less clear. Even if the suburbs can be exclusionary, some upward social mobility is possible, such as one study that suggested DuPage County offered more opportunities than other counties or programs from the federal government, such as the Gautreaux Program or the Moving to Opportunity program, that aimed to move kids from poorer urban contexts to wealthier suburban communities. Part of theexcitement about a return of Americans to cities involves the choices by some families to stay in major cities, such as the influx of families to Battery Park in Manhattan. But, many Americans associate the suburbs with kids playing in the yard, multiple institutions that help nurture children and family life, and successful family outcomes decades later.

Comparing the suburbs in S1Ep02 of “Father Knows Best” and the Pilot of “Desperate Housewives”

I recently showed two episodes of suburban TV in a class involving the study of the American suburbs. I asked students to look at five dimensions of the two episodes in question – “Lesson in Citizenship” of Father Knows Best and the pilot of Desperate Housewives – and I’ll add some comments below:

Where do most scenes take place? How do we know this is the suburbs?

The majority of scenes in both shows take place in and around single-family homes. Outside of a few short scenes, everything in Father Knows Best takes place inside the Anderson home. Desperate Housewives is a little more varied, particularly with neighbors going back and forth between homes on one short block, but the action is still centered in single-family homes.

How important is family life to the plot?

Very important to both though the family form is quite different. Father Knows Best shows up in the research literature as a prototypical 1950s suburban show with a nuclear family, a father who works outside the home, a mother who stays at home, and kids of various ages. Desperate Housewives features a variety of families though the women still hope to have some semblance of happy family life.

What are common activities for the characters?

Characters are rarely working or going to school – primary activities for adults and children, respectively – and seem to have plenty of time to interact with each other and in local organizations as well as tackle issues that arise in the home.

How do the characters resolve conflicts?

There is a big difference here: the problems presented on Father Knows Best wrap up nicely with the characters coming together again. In contrast, the conflict in Desperate Housewives is endless and the resolutions rarely bring characters together and run the gamut from arguments to violence to inner seething. From the beginning of the pilot, the show establishes that the four main housewives are desperate and their actions suggest as much.

Are these depictions of the suburbs realistic?

These two shows perhaps represent opposite poles of suburban depictions and each have a grain of truth to them. Father Knows Best maintains the happy facade where families rarely encounter truly difficult issues. At the same time, the emphasis on pleasant family life seems attractive to many who move to the suburbs. Desperate Housewives suggests the suburbs are not a perfect place – and plenty of American suburbanites encounter major difficulties, including women who receive little attention in the early suburban shows – yet likely goes too far with the levels of action and harm the residents of Wisteria Lane inflict on each other. Real suburban life is likely somewhere in the middle and is likely not as exciting enough to be a regular television show.

Conclusion

These two shows are good representatives of two eras of suburban television: the 1950s suburban sitcom and the 2000s shows that challenged suburban ideals and promoted complicated heroes. Both shows are built around similar themes of family life and single-family homes. Yet, their aims are very different: Father Knows Best is viewed as reinforcing a particular image of suburbia while Desperate Housewives challenges common narratives (and really extends a lot of suburban critiques present since the era of Father Knows Best). Thus, the two shows may not be that different than they appear and both were popular in their own day.

The tipping point income for men getting married may be $40,000

Amidst more Americans living alone, here is some discussion regarding at what income point men are more or less likely to be married:

Instead, analysts said, the decline in both marriage and partnerships is likely a result of the declining ability of men to earn a salary large enough to sustain a family.

“All signs point to the growing fragility of the male wage earner,” said Cheryl Russell, a demographer and editorial director at the New Strategist Press. “The demographic segments most likely to be living without a partner are the ones in which men are struggling the most — young adults, the less educated, Hispanics, and blacks.”

Russell pointed to data that shows marriage rates increase for younger Americans in connection with salaries. Fewer than half of men between the ages of 30 and 34 who earn less than $40,000 a year are married. More than half of those who make more than $40,000 a year are married, including two-thirds of those who make between $75,000 and $100,000 a year…

The Pew data underscores the economic marriage gap: Adults who do not live with partners are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than those who have partners.

“Our surveys show us that one of the things that’s holding unmarried adults back from getting married is that they feel they’re not financially stable enough,” Parker said.

While there are likely additional reasons for this (one example: the development of the idea that marriage is about two economically stable people coming together), marriage in American is increasingly tied to social class.