Municipal Limits on Property Rentals: Who Can Live with Whom?

Zoning regulations are a popular mechanism for local government to limit occupancy in residential areas to single families or a certain number of unrelated individuals that may live together. Municipalities have a well-established ability to regulate zoning in the exercise of their police powers, which allows them to promulgate regulations for the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens. Since the 1974 case of Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas,[1] the United States Supreme Court has consistently upheld zoning ordinances which purport to limit single-family property rentals to no more than a select number of unrelated individuals. Ordinances vary regarding how many unrelated individuals can live together depending on the goals of the municipality and the number they feel is appropriate for the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.

In the Belle Terre case, the Supreme Court held that unrelated individuals have no constitutional right to live together, thus upholding the city’s single-family zoning ordinance. Under the ordinance, no more than two unrelated individuals could live together in areas zoned for single-family residential use. In other words, no more than two college students (the plaintiffs in the case) had a legal right to cohabitate. The ordinance defined “family” as either one or more related persons or up to two unrelated people living together as a household unit. The Court found that the city did not unreasonably apply its ordinance by favoring some citizens or groups over others, and that the ordinance itself was not arbitrary and served a rational state objective. It therefore passed constitutional muster. For local governments that have followed this model, their zoning ordinances have uniformly been upheld.

Local zoning ordinances in Middletown, PA have recently come to the fore because groups of students enrolled at Penn State University’s Harrisburg campus have been attempting to rent single-family homes in the municipality as roommates. The concern of Middletown Borough is that there are simply too many college students attempting to live together in homes designed to accommodate single families. Middletown’s zoning ordinance prohibits more than two unrelated individuals from living together in a single-family home, which is problematic for Penn State students seeking more affordable housing than what their campus offers.

Middletown faces a common problem prevalent in college towns across Pennsylvania. Many students want to find cheaper alternative housing, so they turn to renting homes in the community en masse—such as in State College where the campus is notorious for having fewer on-campus housing options than are needed for students enrolled full-time. Space in these towns is at a premium—which affects parking, noise levels, and how frequently non-renting guests may come and go. College students may even appear without the knowledge of the landlord if students decide to sublease or add more roommates to the existing lease without obtaining the landlord’s consent. The concern is that homes designed for single families in quiet, residential neighborhoods may quickly transform into de facto fraternities or sororities.

Zoning regulations attempt to address the problem. The key definition in zoning ordinances to accomplish this is “family.” Depending on how this term is defined, the dreaded “de facto fraternity or sorority house” becomes impermissible. Following the Belle Terre rationale, “family” can be defined as either one or more related persons or up to two unrelated people. “Related” typically means individuals with some recognizable tie through either blood, marriage, or adoption, but could be defined more broadly if desired. Thus, since most college students are unrelated, their maximum occupancy per single-family home becomes two. This figure could change if the municipality is willing to accommodate more students living together.

The problem with defining a family, however, is that ordinances can often be arbitrary. For instance, under a zoning ordinance like the one in Village of Belle Terre or Middletown’s, three unrelated college students would not be able to live together either in a single bedroom, single bathroom home or a much larger home with five or more bedrooms if both houses were zoned as single-family homes.

To resolve this arbitrariness, ordinances could also be structured without defining what constitutes a family. This resembles the modern trend in reaction to the shift toward functional versus formal families (i.e., two unmarried individuals cohabitating and raising their children in one household). Many families are no longer traditional, nuclear families, and overly restrictive zoning codes may prevent functional families from finding housing. To remedy this situation, zoning codes should consider the health and safety limits of residential structures by imposing a maximum number of unrelated individuals that can live together based on the number of bedrooms or bathrooms in a single-family home. This would serve a substantially similar purpose as traditional zoning codes with definitions of a family but would be less arbitrary. It would also prevent numerous unrelated college students from piling into single bedroom and bathroom homes in residential neighborhoods. In other words, municipalities have options when crafting their zoning codes to avoid unsafe living conditions for their residents—particularly in college towns.

With contribution from Sarah Rothermel, J.D. Widener Law Commonwealth.

[1] 416 U.S. 1 (1974).

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