Zoning Boards Go Nuclear on Too-Traditional Families

Photo Credit: Erin Williamson

The people in 68 Scarborough St., in Hartford, Conn., make an unlikely band of outlaws. The eight adults and three children live in a 6,000-square-foot house in a wealthy residential neighborhood, and pass their time with family talent shows. A photo of the crew in the Hartford Courant shows a dog in a maroon coat and a record player with actual records.

The adults in the house are longtime friends who “intentionally came together as a family,” as one of them told the Courant. They share chores and expenses. They also share, now, a cease-and-desist order: If their appeal fails, they’ll have to vacate or sell the house. They live in an area zoned for “single-family” housing, with family defined as people related by blood, marriage, civil union, or adoption. Friendship, no matter how devoted, is not a legally-recognized form of kinship.

The Courant story describes 68 Scarborough St. as a “nontraditional household,” but in fact their problem is that they’re too traditional. Up through the early modern era in Europe, it was normal for married friends to join their households, creating a common economic life and a common dwelling. These friends made a wide range of commitments: Some were deeply spiritual bonds, sealed when the two male heads of household received the Eucharist together, while others were more purely economic arrangements. But all were based on the idea that commitment, care, and common responsibility—not solely a parental or sexual relationship—makes kin.

Through the modern and postmodern eras, the definition of family narrowed: first to the nuclear family, and now to a postnuclear family in which, depending largely on your class background, the central family unit is either a romantic couple or a mother and child. This means that adults have far fewer people to rely on, far fewer relationships which can provide care and shelter. It also means that religious people, who believe God calls us to give and receive love, have far less support when we’re called to vocations of friendship and “chosen family” rather than sexual relationships or parenting. Countless institutions in contemporary America, from health-insurance benefits to zoning laws, are set up as if the only important chosen relationships between adults are marital. Friendship—the form of love shared by the unmarried Jesus and his disciples, to take only one obvious example—is invisible and unsupported.

The relationships these laws and policies ignore include other Biblical models of devotion. Ruth and Naomi might not be protected by Hartford’s zoning laws, since the marriage which linked them as daughter- and mother-in-law has ended with the death of Ruth’s husband. Jonathan and David certainly wouldn’t be protected, although I doubt Jonathan would be intimidated by a Connecticut zoning board.

On a very different level, those who grew up on The Golden Girls will note that under the Hartford law only Dorothy and Sophia would legally “count” as family. But who will argue that Blanche and Rose weren’t their kin? Many of us remember an “aunt” or “great-aunt” who wasn’t actually a blood relative, but who was our actual aunt or grandmother’s best friend. Many women best friends would move in together after one or both of them were widowed, and when one of the best friends died, the survivor would be taken in by her friend’s family.

Our understanding of who counts as “family” is shaped by economic necessity. When times are tough we cling together. When the fat years come we long for independence. (After World War II’s hardships of bombing and rationing, one British housewife proclaimed, “I want a fur coat and a villa and a cat.” No more living with Mum!) But the laws we make in the fat years, with their middle-class expectations and valuing of independence over interdependence, stay on the books when the locusts come. Hartford’s familial rebels may not be acting out of economic need (although it does sound like they’re trying to live out their vocation, their call to love one another). But many too-traditional families face zoning challenges because they have too many kids or too many cousins—too many needs.

There’s an ongoing dispute in Northern Virginia about the families of immigrants. Many Hispanic immigrants come from cultures where the extended family is still the basic family unit—they haven’t yet gone nuclear—and the economic pressures of migration make mutual support especially important. So in 2005, Manassas, Va. tried to redefine the family.

Before, family had been all those related by blood or marriage—the still-restrictive definition causing the current controversy in Hartford. But Manassas wanted an even narrower definition, limiting “family” to immediate relatives of the homeowner. “Parents, children and siblings were family; uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews were not,” as Christopher Caldwell wrote in the New York Times. This ordinance was repealed, but the fight goes on: Local discussion boards still bear thread titles like CALL ZONING ON IMMIGRANTS THAT SUBLET THEIR HOUSES. And the group Help Save Manassas argues for restrictive housing code enforcement to keep big, uncles-and-cousins families out of town. “It was very common in this neighborhood to have 15 people living in a three-bedroom house,” one Help Save Manassas member told National Public Radio. “So we went to them and said maybe we can limit the number of people based on how many square feet for bedrooms … and then say a certain number of people can occupy a residence based on that.”

The more kids you have, the more adults you might want around to help pay bills and mind babies. Families who live together support one another. They share resources; they take in strays, the people who otherwise would add to our nation’s growing population of isolated singletons.

I respect the conservative desire to keep the neighborhood culture of the past. Culture clash often flows from the fear that hard-won order and peace will be disrupted. But preserving suburban mores shouldn’t come at the expense of truly traditional families.

There may be ways to reconcile the conflicting sides in at least some of these disputes. The Courant‘s editorial supporting “the Scarborough 11” notes, “Poughkeepsie, N.Y., offers an example. Under its zoning ordinance, a group of four or more unrelated people living in a single dwelling are presumed not to constitute the functional equivalent of a traditional family. But the group can rebut the presumption by showing the zoning administrator that it shares the entire house, lives and cooks together as a single housekeeping unit, shares household expenses, and is permanent and stable.”

This approach may not help poorer families, who may lack the resources to mount a time-consuming defense of their household. And “permanent and stable” is a standard many poor nuclear families have a hard time meeting, let alone those in more complex households. Our overall goal must be supporting all vocations to care and kinship—even the ones which look new, but are really ancient.

From the Cross, Jesus looked down at John, the disciple whom he especially loved, and entrusted his mother to John’s care. “Woman, behold your son,” he told Mary, meaning not himself but John. And to John: “Behold, your mother.” John records in his Gospel, “And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”

Fortunately, Roman Judea was not zoned for single-family use.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington D.C., who blogs at the Patheos Catholic portal. She is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

Photo Credit: Erin Williamson

Leave a Reply