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?