By: Elijah Gullett
Despite its noble origins, zoning in the United States has often acted as a means of exclusion. Instead of implementing regulations to protect the health and safety of community members, zoning has been used by local homeowners and NIMBY groups to enforce a particular vision of who belongs in society. This has taken form, and continues to appear to this day, in the form of class and racial exclusion under the guise of protecting “property values”. This exclusion is only furthered by “single-family” zoning, which enforces a normative view of what counts as “family” and, in practice, excludes the millions of Americans who live in multigenerational households, communes, chosen family kinship groups, and foster families.
Visions of white suburbia made of small nuclear families are not, and have never been, the reality of America. Since America’s inception, as everywhere else in the world, people have formed family groups in as many ways as there are families. And, despite the increasingly restrictive family zoning laws of the late 20th century, this has only become increasingly true. America’s demographics are rapidly changing, and with those changes come fundamental shifts in what it means to be a “family”.
The Shifting American Family
The current American family structure looks nothing like the nuclear families of 20th advertisements. Currently, only 46% of children are living in this “traditional” nuclear family, defined as living with two, married parents in their first marriage (Pew Research, 2015). As the population ages, more people will seek to live with other retirees or grand/children. Immigrant families often continue to live multigenerational, and currently 20% of Americans live in multigenerational households, the highest it has been since 1950 (Pew Research, 2018). Furthermore, as housing prices continue to rise, people are living with roommates for longer and longer.
Another often less discussed shift in American families is the rise of LGBTQ+ acceptance. Many LGBTQ+ families do not look all that different from their heterosexual counterparts, and anti-discrimination policies can protect their ability to access housing. However, LGBTQ+ people often find solace and safety in chosen families, made up of unrelated people who choose to build their lives together. These chosen families may be denied access to housing where laws restrict the ability of more than 2 or 3 adults to live in a household together. Prohibitive zoning policies restrict the large, chosen family many queer people choose to have.
Responding to These Shifts
These shifts in family structure will require an overhaul of America’s restrictive zoning laws. Much ink has been spilled on how single-family zoning restricts housing supply, increases housing costs, enforces class and racial segregation, and contributes to environmentally disastrous urban sprawl – all of which is true. But beyond these issues, single-family zoning is a simple question of liberty – the liberty to form family bonds that make the most sense to the individuals within them.
Local governments can begin the process of liberalizing their housing restrictions by upzoning single-family housing zones. This upzoning process does not have to be all at once, nor does it entail that suburban neighborhoods will be overrun with apartment complexes. Even small changes, such as permitting duplexes and triplexes, allowing for additional dwelling units (ADUs), and medium density “cottage clusters”, would all have massive benefits for nontraditional families and communities.
Single-family zoning is not the only problem facing non-nuclear families. HOAs, realtors, landlords, and community members all contribute to both legal and social restrictions on where non-nuclear families are allowed to live. In order to allow for liberty and justice for non-nuclear families all of these problems will have to be addressed, but ending the reign of single-family zoning is the systematic place to start.
As America continues to shift and our understanding of family expands, we must ensure that our housing and zoning policies are accommodating for the full range of human family structures and contributing to an environment of inclusion.
The American family today. (2015, December 17). Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/17/1-the-american-family-today/
D’Vera Cohn, & Passel, J. S. (2018, April 5). A record 64 million Americans live in multigenerational households. Pew Research Center; Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/05/a-record-64-million-americans-live-in-multigenerational-households/
Elijah Gullett is a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Public Policy with minors in Urban Studies and Environmental Justice. His academic interests include fair and affordable housing, sustainable development, and LGBTQ+ urban life.
Edited by William Anderson