In Most U.S. Cities, Archaic Laws Limit Roommate Living

Critics argue laws preventing unrelated adults from living in the same home fail to understand the modern American household.

2 minute read

May 24, 2023, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Red on white 'Room for Rent, Inquire Inside' sign

Michael / Room for Rent sign

If you’ve ever lived with a group of roommates, it’s possible that the arrangement was technically illegal in your city. As Michael Waters writes in The Atlantic, many U.S. localities have restrictions on the books that limit who can live under one roof. Yet the typical ‘nuclear family’-based household is quickly disappearing, with only 19 percent of U.S. households composed of married couples with children in 2020, down from 44 percent in 1965.

Waters reveals that “A study from last year found that 23 of the 30 largest American metro areas placed limits on the kinds of groups who could buy or rent a single-family home.” And “Though some places permit additional ‘unrelated persons’ (usually two to five) to live under the same roof, others don’t allow any at all.” 

These rules, haphazardly enforced, can have serious consequences. “In 2016, the town of Wolcott, Connecticut, refused to allow a group home for people with disabilities to open. A resident of Bar Harbor, Maine, fought the development of a home for seasonal workers (last year, the resident lost the case).” The laws have even affected unmarried couples with children and, in some places, disproportionately affect multigenerational immigrant families or targeted minority groups. “In 1976, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, wielded its ban on unrelated people living together to order out a pair of men—whom press reports implied to be gay, according to [historian Kate Redburn]—from their home.”

Waters concludes, “In the midst of a housing crisis, why restrict living arrangements to any kind of family at all?” More broadly, why should family or relationships be legally defined?

Monday, May 22, 2023 in The Atlantic

Red on white 'Room for Rent, Inquire Inside' sign

In Most U.S. Cities, Archaic Laws Limit Roommate Living

Critics argue laws preventing unrelated adults from living in the same home fail to understand the modern American household.

May 24, 2023 - The Atlantic

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