Emory Report
February 14, 2005
Volume 57, Number 19


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February 14, 2005
Alexander: Housing laws can define 'family'

BY Eric Rangus

In the mid-19th century, the United States began writing housing laws to legally control structures. Through the years legislation evolved to affect what went on inside those structures, and now the laws can determine who can live in what building.

The history of housing laws and their effects on culture and families formed the theme of Frank Alexander’s
Distinguished Faculty Lecture, Monday, Feb. 7, in the Dobbs Center’s Winship Ballroom.

“Our housing laws have been used—directly and indirectly, consciously and unconsciously—as vehicles for the definition and control of families, of what relationships count, or what matters in determining what is a family,” said Alexander, professor of law and founder and co-director of the Law and Religion Program. He delivered “Life Together: How Housing Laws Define America’s Families” to more than 100 listeners.

“It is my contention that housing laws have been used in ways that do not make sense,” Alexander continued. “Instead of focusing on the creation of housing, some laws have been used to discriminate and deny. Instead of creating places of hospitality, they breed hostility.”

Alexander’s lecture spanned 150 years, beginning with the passage of the first laws regulating tenement houses in New York. Around the turn of the 20th century, the focus of housing laws shifted from limiting how many people could live in a structure—as the laws regarding tenements did—to how the structure could be used. Restrictive covenants, Alexander said, were written to prohibit commercial and business activities, such as the renting of rooms, in residential structures.

“As restrictive covenants became more and more specific in requiring that structures be used only by one family, this led inevitably into direct confrontations over the definition and meaning of family,” Alexander said.

Frequently returning to the phrase “blood, marriage or adoption,” Alexander said housing laws increasingly have used those guidelines to define who can live legally in a “single-family” home. He noted that many alternative relationships, immigrants and lower-income people are left out of that definition.

“A popular version of zoning laws today does not create a maximum number when the individuals are related by blood, marriage or adoption, yet they do impose a fixed limit on the number of unrelated individuals who live together,” he said. “This suggests that either we do not care about the health and safety of families, or we simply don’t want ‘non-nuclear’ families residing in our preferred neighborhoods.”

Limitations based on square footage, the number of residents per bedroom, and number of residents per “habitable” room (not a closet, bathroom or kitchen) often include questionable justification, Alexander said. However, such laws are on the books in most states; in Alexander’s opinion, they cater to higher incomes.

“In each instance, we are left hungry for the empirical or scientific justification for such standards,” he said. “In the absence of an explanation, the standards, I suggest, may well reflect the values, customs or prejudices of a dominant subclass of American culture.”

A leading scholar in the laws of homelessness and housing, Alexander is directing the Project on Affordable Housing and Community Development through the Law and Religion Program. It assists local governments and nonprofits throughout the country in areas such as property tax liens and tax foreclosures, predatory lending, and affordable housing.

Now in its 10th year, the Distinguished Faculty Lecture is sponsored by Faculty Council. The Council accepts nominees for lecturers; a committee that includes previous lecturers selects a speaker.

Following his lecture, Alexander invited to the podium Anita Beaty, executive director of the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, and Larrie Del Martin, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Atlanta, and presented each with a donation from Emory.