Family Unity for Noncitizens

2012-06-21 14:03:58

When a local government zones, it typically classifies land uses according to use type (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.), and then regulates uses within each classification according to height and density. Residential zones are generally designated as either single-family or multi-family. Zoning ordinances therefore must define the word family for purposes of regulating the density of residential zoning districts. The Village of Belle Terre, New York, limited all development within its jurisdiction to single-family dwellings, defining the word ‘‘family’’ to mean ‘‘one or more persons related by blood, adoption, or marriage, living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit, exclusive of household servants.’’ A homeowner in the village, who was cited for violating the ordinance when he rented his house to six unrelated college students, challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance, claiming that its definition of family violated constitutional rights of equal protection, privacy, association, and travel. In Belle Terre v. Boraas, the Supreme Court upheld the ordinance as a reasonable means of furthering a legitimate public purpose.

Justice Douglas, writing for the majority of the Court, noted the Court’s long history of deference to legislative discretion in zoning decisions, citing to its landmark decision in Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., which sustained the validity of zoning as a legitimate means of furthering the public’s interest in protecting single-family uses from the threats to health and safety posed by higher-density uses. Expanding on its holding in Berman v. Parker, the Court said that ‘‘the police power is not confined to elimination of filth, stench, and unhealthy places’’; it is also permissible for cities to ‘‘lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people.’’ The Court rejected the argument of the petitioners that it should apply a heightened level of scrutiny because the ordinance infringed on fundamental constitutional rights of privacy and association. Because the Court found that the ordinance was not ‘‘aimed at transients,’’ it concluded that no right of travel was implicated. It also found that no right of association was violated since ‘‘a ‘family’ may, so far as the ordinance is concerned, entertain whomever it likes.’’ In answer to the claim that the ordinance intruded into the privacy rights of individuals by discriminating against unmarried couples, the Court found that because two unrelated persons could live together under the ordinance there was no such discrimination.

Justice Marshall dissented from the majority’s opinion, believing that the ordinance did violate the plaintiff’s fundamental rights of association and privacy. As such the majority’s application of a rational basis test was inappropriate. Marshall argued that the ordinance could ‘‘withstand constitutional scrutiny only upon a clear showing that the burden imposed is necessary to protect a compelling and substantial governmental interest.’’

Although the Belle Terre Court was willing to sustain an ordinance regulating the number of unrelated persons who could constitute a ‘‘single family,’’ two years later, in Moore v. City of East Cleveland, it was unwilling to allow local authorities to regulate the number of related persons who could live together in a single-family zone. In the latter case, the Court applied strict scrutiny because the ‘‘special sanctity of the family’’ was at stake.


References and Further Reading

  • Ginzburg, Rebecca M., Altering ‘Family’: Another Look at the Supreme Court’s Narrow Protection of Families in Belle Terre, Boston University Law Review 83 (2003):2:875–96.
  • Juergensmeyer, Julian Conrad, and Thomas E. Roberts. Land Use Planning and Development Regulation Law. St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 2003.
  • Mandelker, Daniel R. Land Use Law. 5th ed. Newark, NJ: LexisNexis Publishing, 2003.

Cases and Statutes Cited

Berman v. Parker, 348.U.S. 26 (1954)

Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365 (1926)

Moore v. City of East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494 (1977)

See also Family unity for Noncitizens; Privacy