Changes in the makeup of Saint Paul households have prompted the city to consider changing its definition of family in the zoning code. The Saint Paul Planning Commission held a public hearing on November 13 on several possible new definitions before voting to extend the public comment period to 4:30 p.m. on Monday, December 14.

The City Council asked that a new definition of family be studied back in 2018. While fair housing advocates, district councils and groups representing culturally diverse communities agree with the need for a change in the definition, they asked for more time for other people to comment.

Some groups view the city’s current definition of family as archaic and discriminatory. “Our board feels pretty strongly that the definition of family should be eliminated from the zoning code,” said Simon Taghioff, chair of the Summit Hill Association’s Zoning and Land Use Committee.

“The city’s definition of family limits households that don’t closely conform to a nuclear family,” city planner Michael Wade told the Planning Commission. “And it could violate fair housing laws.” The definition is also viewed as limiting access to affordable housing, he added.

Since 1975, Saint Paul has defined family as one or two people “with their direct lineal descendants and adopted or legally cared for children (and including the domestic employees thereof) together with not more than two persons not so related, living together in the whole or part of a dwelling comprising a single housekeeping unit. Every additional group of four or fewer persons living in such housekeeping unit shall be considered a separate family for the purpose of this code.”

 

The city has used the definition to regulate the number of unrelated occupants allowed in one dwelling. Currently, up to four unrelated people can live in a single-family home or apartment. That has been viewed as a way to prevent overcrowding, a longstanding concern in neighborhoods surrounding colleges and universities.

However, the 45-year-old definition of family has been met with pushback in recent years. According to city planner Michael Wade, who led the city’s study, the 1975 definition is believed to have a disproportionately negative impact on households of color.

 

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“The city’s definition of family limits households that don’t closely conform to a nuclear family,” Wade told the Planning Commission. “And it could violate fair housing laws.” The definition is also viewed as limiting access to affordable housing, he added.

Larger households, households that include cousins or other relatives, and households that care for vulnerable children or adults could benefit from a change in the definition of family. So could temporary residents, recent immigrants, college students and others in a transitional phase of their lives.

Three years ago the Twin Cities Fair Housing Implementation Council found Saint Paul’s 1975 definition of family at risk of being discriminatory or arbitrary. It recommended that the city revise its definition to more closely correlate to the neutral maximum occupancy restrictions found in safety and building codes. It urged greater accommodations for nontraditional families, and possibly the creation of a case-by-case administrative process to determine whether a group that does not meet the definition of family is nonetheless functionally equivalent.

How should city define family?

The Planning Commission is considering three possible definitions of family:

• “Any six,” which would allow six or fewer adults and the minors in  their care to live together as a single housekeeping unit.

• “Family of five,” which would allow five or fewer adults—or any number of adults who are all related to each other by blood, marriage, guardianship or domestic partnership—and the minor children in their care to live together as a single housekeeping unit.

• “Family plus four,” which would allow any number of adults who are related to each other by blood, marriage, guardianship or domestic partnership, and up to four additional adults, and the minor children in their care to live together as a single housekeeping unit.

None of the definitions would limit the number of minors in a household. All of the definitions would still limit to four the number of students allowed per dwelling in the University of Saint Thomas’ housing overlay district, but they may open the door to additional non-students in those dwellings.

For more information or to comment on the city’s definition of family, call Wade, at 651-266-8703 or email michael.wade@ci.stpaul.mn.us.

— Jane McClure

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