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Changes to unrelated-adult housing rules could bring intentional communities out of the shadows

The Minneapolis Coalition for Intentional Communities
Minneapolis Coalition for Intentional Communities
The Minneapolis Coalition for Intentional Communities group meets to work on proposed changes to the city zoning code.

At first glance, the term “intentional community” seems odd. It seems to me that most communities are somehow unintentional, that unless you map out your social structures ahead of time you’re dropping some kind of ball.

But in a way, that’s exactly right. Most families and neighborhoods don’t involve much forethought; as most teenagers would attest, you can’t choose your parents. Intentional communities — a form of housing co-operative where residents form a household organized around an idea — have a long history in cities like Minneapolis. But thanks to the city’s longstanding “unrelated adult” ordinances, these unique households have often been forced to remain off the books, technically illegal but overlooked by trusting neighbors.

That might change this year as people from Minneapolis’ intentional communities are pushing changes to the city’s housing ordinance. If the proposed change passes, intentional communities might be embraced not just culturally, but legally in Minneapolis.

Technically illegal idealism

“I originally got into them through things like couch surfing,” Lisa told me this week, describing her discovery of intentional communities. “I briefly lived in one when working in a Grand Forks grocery co-op and community garden. [It’s just] a house where people could live together all these different ways.”

Today Lisa lives in one of Minneapolis’ many intentional communities. (Note: I’ve omitted Lisa’s last name in order to protect the whereabouts of her intentional community household, which technically exceeds the city’s “unrelated adult” restrictions.)

The legal status of intentional communities in Minneapolis depends on the context. Some, like the Students' Co-operative on the University of Minnesota campus’ “frat row,” persist under antiquated zoning which allows for more residents. But most intentional communities in Minneapolis operate under the bureaucratic radar. It’s a tacit concept that doesn’t sit well with people like Lisa.

“My understanding of the law is that more than five unrelated folk can’t live together legally,” she said. “[Intentional communities] function because we don’t cause too much trouble, and people who live there know their City Council member or something. It has to function through people’s privilege, which is pretty messed up.”

Victorian morality and the nuclear family

“In our first zoning code in the 1920s, what they said about density was that dwelling units should be occupied by one family,” Robin Garwood, who is the council aide for Ward 2’s Cam Gordon, explained. “It didn’t really say anything more than that. It didn’t say what constituted a family, and didn’t have numerical limits. Later on, they adopted more stringent definitions."

Here’s what the actual Minneapolis city code says about unrelated adults:

546.50. - Maximum occupancy.

(a) Dwelling units. The maximum occupancy of a dwelling unit located in the R1 through R3 Districts shall not exceed one (1) family plus up to two (2) unrelated persons living together as a permanent household, provided that the family plus the unrelated persons shall not exceed a total of five (5) persons. The maximum occupancy of a dwelling unit located in the R4 through R6 Districts shall not exceed one (1) family plus four (4) unrelated persons living together as a permanent household, provided that the family plus the unrelated persons shall not exceed a total of five (5) persons.

 

(According to Garwood, domestic servants remain an exception to the “unrelated adult” rule.)

As zoning developed in the early 20th century, evolving from limiting industrial activities into focusing on single-family living, limits on unrelated adults became part of a package. These rules worked together to foster early suburban single-family neighborhoods centered on home ownership and the nuclear family.

For cities, the historical focus on the family has had unintended consequences. As demographic trends have changed, there’s a mismatch today between housing, age, and family types. Twenty-first-century families are far more likely to be smaller (often much smaller!) than those of past generations. More and more people are eschewing families altogether, living alone or not having children. Meanwhile, the average home size grows ever larger.

“People don’t stay with their families until they’re married anymore,” said Rebecca Orrison, who lives in the Students' Co-op at the university, and has been working with the Minneapolis Coalition for Intentional Communities. “They uproot and go off to college and live with their friends. It isn’t as much of a family environment. Part of what our culture gives us is this void of human connection. If you just live with two other people, maybe in a low-zoned area, you come home to an empty house. I’d much rather live with people around me to support me. It’s not just a young person thing.”

Intentional communities

There are many types of intentional communities in Minneapolis, including Lisa’s example, which grows out of the co-op movements. There are vegan houses, grad student houses, international houses, houses focused on gardening, thrifting, or agriculture.

“Co-ops have been a big part of my life, very important to me for few reasons,” Devin Case-Ruchala told me. Case-Ruchala is on the board of a housing co-op and works managing loans for Shared Capital Co-Operative, a national co-op financing group. 

“Just personally, they have been functional,” Case-Ruchala said. “They’re a good way to meet people, to get exposed to new ideas and connected with a community by the nature of where you live. They’re also more economical when living with people sharing all the expenses and sharing the chores of cooking and cleaning and all that stuff.”

As I understand it, the typical intentional community might have four to 10 people who split the rent, divvy up chores, share with house maintenance and so on. Glancing at the intentional community websites, I see that most of them are governed by “consensus,” which sounds like it involves a lot of meetings, and intentional communities almost always have some sort of larger social focus. And often the intentional-communities home is owned by one or two of the members, but this is not always the case.

The proposed ordinance

For the last six months, prompted by the desire of intentional communities like the Students' Co-op to potentially expand, a group of Minneapolis intentional-community fans began meeting to discuss how to change city rules to begin officially permitting intentional communities.

(Given that intentional communities are often governed by consensus, I can only imagine how carefully and thoughtfully these meetings must have proceeded. As with Quakers, listening skills are highly valued within the intentional community social landscape.)

The proposed ordinance would allow intentional communities to register with the city, and allow them to bypass the unrelated-adults rules.

The Minneapolis Coalition for Intentional Communities table
Minneapolis Coalition for Intentional Communities
The Minneapolis Coalition for Intentional Communities had a table at an Open Streets event last summer in support of legalizing intentional communities.

“We define intentional community in a fair amount of detail,” Robin Garwood, the City Council aide, explained. “They would register with the city. The zoning code max occupancy would not apply to the unit. Instead the building and housing code occupancy based on the size of the structure and fire safety would apply. If you have a house that would safely accommodate five people, you could live in that house, rather than the three people under the existing code.”

Other provisions involve limiting intentional community registration to one per landlord (or property owner), and making the certificate revocable depending on noise or nuisance complaints. According to Garwood, the coalition has received pushback from both sides. Pro-density urbanists argue that maximum-occupancy requirements should be dispensed with altogether, while people who value low-density neighborhood remain worried about things like increased noise, traffic and parking. There is a meeting tonight (Tuesday, May 31)  at the Minneapolis Central Library (7:30 – 8:30) to discuss the issue publicly for the first time.

More flexible living arrangements

When I moved back to St. Paul from New York, just a few years out of college, I found myself working as a temp and living in my mom’s basement. Needless to say, it wasn’t ideal, but given my very limited means, it was the best I could do. That is, until a friend of mine offered me a room in her “student house” in the Grand Avenue neighborhood. The very small room was $250 a month, and I’d be living with five other people in a lovely house in the heart of St. Paul. It was the perfect situation for me at the time, and I still fondly look back on those years filled with collegiality and an improvisatory social life. The memories make me wonder: Why shouldn’t more people be able share homes, and live cheaply among friends?

“Right now intentional communities are not able to talk or promote themselves,” Devin Case-Ruchala said. “If they’re able to become legal by changing the ordinance to allow more than three unrelated people to live together, and call themselves an intentional community ... . Once we’re able to do that, I will be able to find them, and for my own personal purposes, and from a policy standpoint, that’s meeting a need that’s already out there.”

Given how influential Minneapolis’ environmental and social justice cultures have been, many of which were formed in intentional communities, it would be nice if they could find their way out of the bureaucratic shadows.

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Comments (15)

A questionable regulation

The existing rule regarding "unrelated adults" could be challenged as an undue restriction on freedom of association.

Constitutional

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of zoning ordinances that limit the number of unrelated individuals who can live in the same residence. Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1 (1974).

Not just for the young

Many of us of the older generation were charmed by the movie - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - which looked at the subject of communal senior living. Really, what difference is there between a big building where everyone has separate apartments and a big building where people have their separate bedrooms (or living with a roommate) with common areas? The first is isolating and expensive - the second warm and reasonable.

With women outliving their husbands, shouldn't they have the option of a legal arrangement where they can live in a home with other women supporting each other than trying to maintain big, expensive houses or moving in buildings with small apartments with no outdoor space for a garden. Why wouldn't a neighborhood want to have such a house present, with these women sort of looking out for things, as often neighborhoods are deserted during the day with two adults working and the older kids at school? And who really cares of men and women are living together, when that is as much of a norm as marriage.

They would be a visible and useful part of a neighborhood, rather than tucked away in segregated spaces isolated from younger people. Particularly as more older people have no children or other family members living nearby, it is part of making senors an integral and useful part of their commuunities again.

Family undefined = loophole

As a "family" of any number can live together by the wording of 546.50(a), and family does not appear defined in the code, that seems to be a logical loophole.

and...

even if there was a definition, Minneapolis doesn't test people. They basically have to ask people "are you related?"

I think technically anyone could get around this rule by claiming to be cousins.

Family isn't undefined

The definition of "family" in the Minneapolis Zoning Code is:

"Family. An individual or two (2) or more persons related by blood, marriage, domestic partnership as defined in Chapter 142 of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances, or adoption, including foster children and domestic staff employed on a full-time basis, living together as a permanent household. This definition of family is established for the purpose of preserving the character of residential neighborhoods by controlling population density, noise, disturbance and traffic congestion, and shall not be applied so as to prevent the city from making reasonable accommodation where the city determines it necessary to afford handicapped persons living together in a permanent household equal access to housing pursuant to the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988."

Interestingly, it used to be much simpler, in the original code that passed in 1924:

"Family. A Family is any number of individuals occupying a single housekeeping unit not herein defined as a Boarding House, Lodging House, or Hotel."

If the definition of "family" had remained that general, this change would indeed not be necessary.

Thanks for finding definition

Its at 520.160 for those that would like the citation: https://www2.municode.com/library/mn/minneapolis/codes/code_of_ordinance...

The current zoning code

The current zoning code already provides for certain legal congregate living situations, where large numbers of single adults share a residence. Besides boarding houses, lodging houses, fraternities and sororities, convents, etc., cooperatives are allowed. The Student Co-operative near 18th and University Ave. SE, on the U of MN campus, is an example (contrary to what they may think, the Co-op was not created before current zoning code rules). So is the International House. And, huge families are also permitted: you can have dozens of relatives, from various generations and multiple branches, living in one house. It's not healthy for the structure itself, of course.

So, one questions the real need for this ordinance change.

This new ordinance, then, is about ersatz families, large informal groupings or "communities" of young people who don't want the loneliness of living with only two or three other people. According to comments here, they want there to be somebody home when they come home, more than one or two people to greet them. And, they want not to pay high rents.

Are older men and women clamoring for this kind of housing?

There are lots of requirements to this proposed ordinance, a necessity when one is proposing a body blow to the concept of low-density housing in Minneapolis. Cam Gordon's amendment addresses some powerful problems with "intentional community" exemptions to our density rules, to avoid abuses that landlords already commit with occupancy levels (they ignore them). He might want to include a rule about how many of these "intentional community houses" can be on one block, for example. Can they be clustered in a neighborhood, as a lot of group homes already are in certain parts of the city? Generally, there are so many requirements that a city not known for enforcing its existing housing rules would certainly not be able to control compliance for new types of group homes like these.

There are weaknesses: If the intentional community breaks up, please tell the city about it? Really? If the landlord (person or Limited Liability Corporation) owns more than one such intentional community residence, please tell the city? Really? If you present a floor plan to Inspections, does it include rooms you or the landlord have created out of the basement and attic and front porch, beyond the original nature of the structure? Is it possible to limit the number of vehicles owned by members of this community in one house? Should there be a lot-size requirement? How quickly or often can the membership in the "intentional community" change before it loses its certificate--a percentage of residents? a time frame criterion?

The ordinance as proposed does not seem to require the kind of commitment-to-explicit-community-values tie that seems to bind the groupings in the "intentional community" movement. Sharing the vacuuming and gas bill is not enough. Especially when a good part of the attraction of this kind of grouping of young single adults is the "social" aspect, the fact that the group is always, by definition, just an inch this side of a perpetual party.

I wish I could be convinced that this elimination of legal occupancy levels in low-density residential units is something needed in Minneapolis.

A Body Blow?

Why is "low density housing" so important? It drives up housing costs, uses more land and resources than is necessary, and is based on a social paradigm that seems to be shifting. Perhaps its universality is an idea whose time has come and gone.

"Especially when a good part of the attraction of this kind of grouping of young single adults is the "social" aspect, the fact that the group is always, by definition, just an inch this side of a perpetual party." I've got a strong suspicion that the existing noise or nuisance ordinances will remain untouched. If a community housing unruly people who want to save money on rent gets out of line, there are ways to deal with that, just the same as if a single, low density family decided to throw a loud, albeit expensive, shindig.

"I wish I could be convinced that this elimination of legal occupancy levels in low-density residential units is something needed in Minneapolis." A lot of us think that finding ways to limit the growth of housing costs in the city is a good thing.

One way to limit the cost of

One way to limit the cost of rental housing in Minneapolis would be for the city to require that any residential unit be rented only by the unit. Not by the bed.

In areas around universities and colleges, real estate investors some twenty years ago decided, en masse or as an industry, if you will, to advertise and rent out rental spaces by the bed. Not by the bedroom, and categorically not by the traditional rent-the-unit of single-family homes, duplexes, two-bedroom apartments, and so forth. They made bedrooms (or, room for beds) everywhere they could in the rental unit, and then rented beds to individuals at a monthly cost that didn't look too bad (today, anywhere from $500 a month per bed to $1500 a month per bed, around the U of MN). The house, or duplex unit, though, was thus rented out for double, triple, or quadruple what its previous rent had been (multiply $500 per month by 7 young adults, and the house rents for a cash-flow of $3500 a month, versus the $1500 or $2000 max that it had pulled in when rented entire. Young people never stop to think how they're getting . . . cheated by greedy landlords.

Destroying occupancy level rules for low-density areas of Minneapolis does not equate to lower housing costs. Ask any savvy real estate investor.

I Did the Math

You are confusing the landlord's gross revenue with the cost to an individual renter. If I pay $500/month for a bed (I presume I get more than that--access to a chair, perhaps?), I am still paying only $500/month for a place to live. This is significantly less than what an apartment or house would cost me.

... it needs work

Constance, I appreciate your skepticism, though when you say "I wish I could be convinced" it sounds a bit like you've already decided not to be. I wonder if you've had some bad experiences with group living situations that you want to share? I think we should know about them, if you are comfortable explaining the problem more in depth. You shouldn't be at all ashamed to talk about those problems directly and express your concern, even if you have to change names to protect yourself.

As someone who had never lived in one of these communities myself, I was pretty concerned about noise levels and abuses too, but I was given the opportunity to live in one when I had few options available to me and I was blown away by the maturity and responsibility and care with which they managed a larger home without neighbors even knowing what amazingly responsible and social agreements existed within. Minneapolis has been the home of some wonderful communities.

Contrary to what you speculated, zoning is not something all young intentional communities are unaware of. Rather, they are aware that zoning has existed for a long time. (Did you know the University was incorporated before the City?) Their knowledge that it's very difficult to be given a Group Home license now is genuine. There are other examples of previous legal opportunities changing with the times.

Forgive me if I am misreading you, but there also really is no need to put the social aspect in quotes as if it means something else. The genuine social value of urban intentional communities that presently exist, and which are presently illegal because of old laws (laws that include language about servants!), is a genuine reflection of the value of not living as an urban hermit, getting into snits with neighbors because communication has broken down to the point that only legal language can be used to maintain mature working relationships with fellow citizens one lives among. Social living nurtures relationships between people with quite diverse opinions, it creates alternative economies and it gives opportunities to the disenfranchised. People who live in communities go to jobs, travel, shop and eat food just like real human beings. They even car pool and negotiate other travel arrangements such as Light Rail, bicycles and shoes. Parking hasn't really been a major issue at any of the ones I've visited. Often times, none of them even owns (or wants) a car. Shocking as it is.

It tells me that there should be some kind of language change to acknowledge these communities, as well. Did you know that one community, the Students Cooperative, spearheaded a neighborhood beautification project in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood (and got an award for it), while running their own house, keeping a plot in the nearby community garden and all while members pursued various degrees at the University which require boundless energy on top of that? Their "parties" (often to coincide with academic achievements or breaks in the school year) were often laid back affairs compared with the Frats and Sororities -- involving rooms for conversation, a strict limit of drinks with a drink ticket system, and self-appointed "police" walking their home. Also, contrary to popular belief, cooperative residences are not all rental situations. Some are owned by the homeowner residents, and "rent" is paid to a pool of money in order to maintain the house and upkeep it, as is the case with them. Presently, the Students Cooperative occupies a 100+ year old house for its 76th consecutive year.

Another community regularly creates artistic works that the public enjoys and which is celebrated in local write ups in newspapers. Others are owned by a single owner, who maintains the standards that attract prospective members, and if someone leaves it doesn't damage the integrity of the system.

There are so many ways that people have been living together just fine.

You may be right that the language may need tweaking based on community feedback, but the point is to not shame people or make them use undignified loopholes for living responsibly, because of a generally agism (or anti-social philosophy that would characterize society and culture as merely the auspices of such), any of which is errantly preserved in legal language.

So how about those bad experiences you've had with them? I want to know which communities to avoid!

As I said, there are already

As I said, there are already legal ways for people interested in congregate living arrangements to set up in Minneapolis. Nothing "shaming" about applying for legal permission, it seems to me. And no need to eliminate our occupancy limits for low-density neighborhoods for loosely-formed "intentional communities."

I live in an area of Minneapolis that has been savaged by real estate investors who routinely rent to too many single young adults per unit, for profit only (most of those investors live in suburbs, themselves). After they have owned a single-family home for a few years, the property is fairly well trashed from the hard use by too many occupants, and frequently by cheap creation of extra bedrooms, so the house can be rented to more people. These investors thumb their noses at the city's rules, tell renters not to let Inspectors inside.

There is little chance that the house will ever again be bought by an owner-occupant, because the sale price is now based on the rich rental cash flow and net profit (renters usually pay all utilities in our area, so it's just taxes subtracted from gross cash flow). Instability for the neighborhood, destruction of viable housing, no access for families--they still exist!--because of high purchase cost. Aside from noise, etc.

Perceived loneliness in the city from living alone or with only two or three roommates seems not really to be enough to change carefully-thought-out zoning rules.

Over - occupancy

The 2 person per bedroom rule should still apply. Any additional bedrooms must be code compliant. The codes were written to solve problems. Over - occupancy is always a nuisance in a single family home neighborhood. Leave it alone Cam Gordon.

Rooming houses and more..

Codes determines the capacity of the following systems: plumbing, mechanical and electrical. Parking is the least of their worries.