I just read in the Hartford Courant that the city’s zoning board is forcing a family out of their home by upholding city official’s ruling regarding a ridiculous policy declaring that residents of a single-family home must be related by blood, marriage or servitude. The family, which is comprised of three couples, two with children, and two other adults, shares bank accounts, household responsibilities, and a nine-bedroom home in Hartford’s upscale West End.
Apparently, late last year, some neighbors complained to the city, saying that despite being “nice people,” the nontraditional arrangement doesn’t meet the city’s definition of family. According to the Courant, there was fear about opening up a “Pandora’s box” that might suddenly make the wealthy neighborhood a haven for fraternity houses and apartment buildings. Mmhmm.
Let’s be very clear: This is not an issue of crowding, nor is it specifically an issue of nontraditional families. I suspect that a married white collar gay male couple with one set of gracefully aging parents-in-law, a handful of kids and a couple of servants moved into this this nine bedroom, 6000 square foot home, the neighbors would be quite pleased. No, this household is a problem because it isn’t organized around one married couple. The neighbors complained not because of reservations regarding the size of the household or the sexuality of its owners, but rather it looks a bit too much like a commune. This is about class, wealth, and control, and this story demonstrates one of the fatal flaws of placing marriage at the top of our sexual rights social change agenda.
Marriage is a conservative institution whose conventional definitions are all about protecting the passage of property and enforcing at least the appearance of monogamy, and while I support the freedom for any couple to marry if they choose, making marriage the principle source of family legitimacy deprives many of us of our human right to form the families we choose. It is absurd to say that a household of adults and children who love each other and are committed to one another’s well being are not a family when we affirm the legitimacy of families where abuse and neglect run rampant. it is preposterous to say that it’s okay to house people because they provide live in service but not people who serve each other’s needs for free. This is especially ridiculous when you consider all of the feminist criticisms of marriage that identify the unpaid servitude so frequently associated with the role of wife.
At least a couple of Hartford City Council members see reason and support this family’s right to live together. David MacDonald and Larry Deutch are both quoted in the Courant, with MacDonald pointing out that it’s silly to say that the same number of people could live at this address as long as some of them were servants, and Deutch calling the zoning board’s ruling shameful.
I hope that lawyers for this family will be successful in appeals. They are clear that their desire is not to change zoning law, but instead to change the definition of family. In a nation that used to be built on extended family households, and which claims to revere family values, this doesn’t seem like it should be such a stretch. There’s a strategic reason to support such a redefinition too: as the population ages, and the small families of the baby boomers face the needs of their greying parents, we will see great potential social benefit from encouraging nontraditional arrangements like this one (granted, these three kids could be quite busy when their 8 collective parents get older).
I fully support the push to redefine family so that the law respects our human right to form families that we choose. The institution of family is supposed to function as the primary source of care and support and nurturing for members of a society, and the ability to provide that care, support and nurturance is not guaranteed by blood, marriage, or servitude. It is guaranteed by intention, resources, and mutual care. That’s what this family demonstrates, and they should be allowed to live in their mansion in peace. Instead of fighting over whether or not they can stay, Hartford’s ruling class should spend more time figuring out how to support the many families who can’t lay claim to great jobs, expensive houses, and an adult-to-child ratio that would be the envy of policy makers almost anywhere else.
The image that accompanies this post is not of the family in Hartford. It is of a communal meal at Can Masdeu, a living space and community garden in Barcelona, Spain. I’ve used it to illustrate what I think the complaining neighbors fear. Who’d want all that joy living right next door? There goes the neighborhood! The photo is called “Sentados a la mesa en Can Masdeu” by Brinerustle – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons