Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

October 29,  2007  



More battles erupting over definition of family

By Thomas F. Coleman


Debates over the definition of "family" continue to erupt in various American communities. 

The stakes are high.  Whether a group of people meets the definition or not can hit their pocketbook or even prevent them from living together in the neighborhood of their choice.

Consider Yorkville, Illinois, where council members are debating whether to use $6 million in tax dollars to subsidize the building of a swimming pool at the Fox Valley Family YMCA.  At the heart of the debate is the propriety of using public funds to build a pool which will cost alternative families more to use than traditional families.

Only married couples and single parents are eligible for family discounts at the Fox Valley Family YMCA. 

In contrast, the Heritage YMCA, which operates in three other local communities, dropped a similarly narrow membership policy 10 years ago, and now gives family discounts to two adults who live in the same house.  That can save a household a few hundred dollars.

At the Fox Valley Family YMCA, family discounts are awarded to: a legally married man and woman with children in the home; a single parent with children in the home; a legally married man and woman without children.

At the Heritage YMCA, family discounts are awarded to: two adults living in the same home with children ; two adults living in the same home with no children; single parents with children in the home receive additional discounts.

The question of how to define "family" has emerged in a different context in Frederick County, Virginia.  On November 10, the Board of Supervisors will vote on a proposal to restrict the number of people who can live in a residence located in an area zoned for "single family" use.

The Planning Commission has recommended that "single family" should be defined as two or more persons related by blood or marriage occupying a dwelling, living together, and maintaining a household, which may include not more than one unrelated person.  But there is another proviso which stipulates that not more than three unrelated persons occupying a dwelling, living together, and maintaining a household shall be deemed to constitute a single family."

The expansiveness or restrictiveness of a family definition can have devastating consequences on a household, as Leyla Chavez found out the hard way. 

About two years ago a city inspector for Manassas, Virginia knocked on her door.  He handed Chavez a form, told her to fill it out, and explained that she could be prosecuted for lying.

The inspector wanted to know how many people lived in the house and how they were related to each other.

Chavez explained that she lived there with her husband, their two sons, and a nephew.  Also, a man and his girlfriend rented the downstairs.

"Your nephew, under our law, is considered unrelated," the inspector said.  The bottom line: two people had to go.

The battle over the definition of family has been going on for years, as evidenced by the friction caused when officials in White Plains, New York, challenged the development of a small group home for seniors.

A nonprofit housing organization was denied a permit to build a two-family house in a depressed neighborhood for use as a communal home for 12 elderly people. City officials opposed the permit because the occupancy violated a "single family" zoning ordinance.

The plans called for two groups of adults to live in two apartments inside the building, each group sharing household expenses and a common living and dining area.

A local judge sided with the nonprofit builder, ruling the city's limited notion of "family" was unconstitutional. 

"The type of congregate housing described bears the generic character of a family unit and should be recognized as a family equivalent," the justice said.

"The proposed group in no way detracts from the family values that residential zoning seeks to protect," he added. "To the contrary, it may actually support and further those values more effectively than certain traditional families."

In my opinion, the judge hit the nail on the head.  To avoid arbitrariness and discrimination, any definition of "family" should look primarily at how a group functions, not merely whether the individuals are related by blood or marriage.


To read other editions of Column One, click here.

Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.