In many communities, zoning codes prohibit apartments, require people to live on large lots or set minimum square footages for dwellings. These rules have the effect of excluding low-income people, regardless of the intent of the people who wrote the laws.

Instead, their plans should target one of the most significant, insidious and legally vulnerable barriers to flexible and inclusive zoning codes: the definition of “family.”

Almost every zoning code across the country defines “family” in a traditional way: people who are legally related by blood, marriage or adoption. Sometimes, the definition allows a small number of unrelated people (say, two or three), who are functioning as a “housekeeping unit” to be considered a family.

Such definitions exclude people just as committed to each other as members of “traditional” families, but who don’t satisfy legal conditions. These “families of choice” consist of unrelated adults who decide to share finances, child-rearing responsibilities, home repairs, chores and meals. They include groups of single moms, households that have merged and older adults forging new lives together after the deaths of their spouses.

The definition of family matters because zoning codes typically have a “one family per housing unit” policy. These policies are most strictly enforced in the neighborhoods with single-unit detached homes — 64 percent of neighborhoods, according to the 2013 American Housing Survey. It’s in these communities where housing affordability tends to be low, and racial segregation high.

Read more in the New York Times.

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