Emory Report
February 6, 2006
Volume 58, Number 18


Emory Report homepage  

February 6, 2006

Of families & housing laws

BY Frank S. Alexander

In recent years, and especially in the last state, local and national political campaigns, two topics seem to be at the top of our cultural agenda: families and housing.

Everyone seems to be speaking of families: the advancement of “family values,” the preservation of the autonomy and sanctity of the family, the relationships that count as creating a family. There is also a great emphasis on housing, and pride in the fact that the rate of homeownership in America is now at a record high, with roughly 68 percent of Americans now owning the home in which they live.

What is both intriguing and puzzling about the dual emphasis on families and housing is not the importance of each, but rather the manner in which they have been tied together. Housing laws should focus on the production, maintenance and ownership of residential units. Concerns with our families, our lives together, our relationships and commitments to one another, seem oddly out of place as we look at housing laws. But upon examination of the variety of our housing laws of the past 150 years, one sees something quite different, quite surprising—and quite troubling.

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 in determining what is a family. If you have three sons, and they all happen to share one large bedroom, you may well be in violation of a local building code. If you have a basement or garage apartment that is occupied by the grandparents as they become advanced in their years, there is a good chance that you are also in violation of the law. If you elect to share a house with four college roommates, or one or two professional friends, you may find yourself facing the wrath of your neighbors and fighting eviction.

Housing laws have been used, and are being used, in ways that simply do not make sense. Instead of focusing on the creation of decent housing, some laws have been used to discriminate and deny. Instead of creating places of hospitality, they breed hostility. Instead of providing support, they serve to segregate. It is much easier to build houses; it is much tougher to build families.

Professor Ellen Pader, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, recently offered a profound critique of the very way in which our culture has chosen to interpret the goal of “safe and decent” housing for every American family. She related the story of two women sharing a room during their first night at college. Neither could fall asleep. Realizing that her roommate was still awake, the first student said, “I’m lonely and can’t sleep—I have never slept alone in a bed.” To this the other student responded, “I can’t sleep either—I’ve never shared a room before.”

This story illustrates Professor Pader’s core argument: that the minimum room sizes and overcrowding standards of our building codes explicitly derive from “upper-class, English and Anglo-American definitions of “reasonable” which are inconsistent with a broader conception of cultures and subcultures.
In 1949, anthropologist George Murdock created the term “nuclear family,” characterized by a married man and woman with their offspring.

The emergence of this definition occurred at the same time that our housing laws shifted away from a functional definition of a household unit to a definition of the family as persons related by blood, marriage or adoption.

We can only surmise the reasons for the profound shift in housing laws by the adoption of this narrow definition. Perhaps it was a reaction to judicial decisions that permitted groups of individuals (whether fraternities or religious orders) to live in single-family neighborhoods. Perhaps it was a mirror of cultural acceptance, as a normative proposition, of Murdock’s nuclear family. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it was a reaction to the open emergence in the 1960s of collectivist and communal lifestyles in which marriage was absent or incidental.

Whatever the motivation or justification, the consequences were profound. Four, five, six or more individuals not related by blood, marriage or adoption simply could not qualify as a “family” or live in a “single family” area, regardless of their personal, emotional, religious or cultural commitments to one to another.
From a brief review of housing laws in the United States, we may conclude first that such laws carry tremendous normative assumptions, resulting in tremendous normative consequences. Second, housing laws are not capable of bearing the weight of such profound social judgments. Third, housing laws should focus on function and use, not on relationships. Fourth, if there is to be a social and cultural judgment—enforced by laws—as to the relationships that “count” in deciding who lives in our neighborhoods, then let us present these moral convictions openly for debate, and not hide them in our various housing laws.
Residential restrictive covenants may have arisen first out of a desire to separate homes and apartments from hotels and boarding houses, but they quickly emerged as tools to segregate by wealth and race. Occupancy standards were first created to address health concerns of inner city tenements, but they have remained on the books without empirical validation for more than a 100 years. For the past 60 years, zoning has been the dominant tool with which we’ve defined and controled “single families,” and these laws have embraced the rubric of “blood, marriage and adoption” as the talisman for that which constitutes the family.

The vision of the American family, at least in housing laws, increasingly narrowed during the second half of the 20th century. Conceptions of extended families, of friends taken in because they had no other place to go, of housing as sustenance to be shared, have been replaced by conceptions of exclusion, control, rejection and denial. Reliance on a narrow concept of the nuclear family has come at great cost to the society at large, and to specific subcultures in particular.

From the birth of this country and its first census in 1790, until the census in 1950, we did not count “families”; we counted households—groups of individuals living as a dependent single housekeeping unit. It was not until the 1950 census that we saw for the very first time the definition of a family as persons related by “blood, marriage or adoption.” As we rely upon this narrow definition, consider the fact that the most recent census data disclosed that, for the first time in American history, traditional families—husband, wife and children—make up less than one-fourth of all households.

The preservation of the family and the relationships which lie at the core of familial bonds is not to be achieved by trying to do indirectly what we are uncomfortable doing directly, or unable to do with accuracy. In the context of housing laws, the task should be to provide housing—housing that is described and defined according to use and activity, not according to genetics or custody. Living arrangements premised on the bonds we cherish, the commitments between persons to care and to nurture, will allow our society to affirm the presence of such bonds in relationships of blood, marriage and adoption, as well as to accept such bonds in relationships borne of simple commitment one to another.

It is in this much broader vision that we may indeed pursue the ideal of safe, decent and affordable housing for every family, and treasure our lives together. The houses we inhabit are not solely the fruits of our labors, and the houses we build are not for us alone. As we work towards a dream of affordable housing for all families, let us always recall that we are given “…flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant…” [Deut. 6:10-12].

This essay is excerpted and adapted from Alexander’s 2005 Distinguished Faculty Lecture.