Manassas Changes Definition of Family

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Manassas Changes Definition of Family

Newspaper article

By: Stephanie McCrummen

Date: December 28, 2005

Source: McCrummen, Stephanie. "Manassas Changes Definition of Family." Washington Post (December 28, 2005).

About the Author: Stephanie McCrummen is currently the head of the Washington Post African bureau in Nairobi, Kenya. She previously covered suburban and exurban issues for the Post from its Washington head office from 2004 until 2006. The Washington Post is a daily newspaper founded in 1877.


An understanding of the Manassas, Virginia, bylaw governing the nature and the number of permitted occupants in a single family residence begins with the general history of zoning by-laws.

The cities and towns that were constructed during the Middle Ages were not subject to any particular regulation concerning how lands could be used or what type of buildings could be constructed. A monarch or a local lord often dictated how they wished the locale to appear; many such cities were constructed around a prominent church or cathedral. With the rise of democratically elected governments, the planning of cities and towns fell to local municipal authorities. As a general rule in the countries of the Anglo-American legal tradition, a land owner could use land as they saw fit; the only regulation upon land use was the prospect that a neighbor might take legal action against the owner if the land usage was deemed to be a nuisance, such as the emission of a noxious product into the local environment.

A zoning by-law is defined as a regulation passed by a local government authority specifying how a particular parcel of land or a district within the municipality can be used or developed. The first zoning by-law was enacted in Frankfurt, Germany in 1891 as a means to regulate the growth of that city. The use of by-laws in Frankfurt was found to be so effective that in 1916, the City of New York became the first North American municipality to impose by-law control.

Within American cities, by-laws became the primary means by which a sense of orderly land use was created. Districts of industrial, commercial and residential use became the accepted manner in which cities were organized. With the growth of suburban developments in the vicinity of the American cities in the 1940s and 1950s, zoning regulation became a tool by which single family residential areas could be maintained as homogenous districts; as an example, zoning by-laws throughout the United States commonly prohibited the conversion of what were built as otherwise single family homes into boarding houses or other business uses.

The other form of land use control that was common from the early 1800s into the mid 1900s in the United States was the restrictive covenant contained in deeds of land. Restrictive covenants are a device where a party transferring title to a property includes a condition in the deed to the property that requires the purchaser to abide by a particular restriction as to the use of the land. Restrictive covenants concerning the ability of the new owner to subsequently sell the subject land to persons of a particular religion (such as persons of the Jewish faith) or race (such as African-Americans) were relatively common during this period. A number of appellate and Supreme Court of the United States decisions beginning in the 1950s held most such covenants to be unlawful, as a violation of the equality rights guaranteed under the constitution of the United States. In this respect the current Manassas zoning ordinance is seen as indirectly targeting immigrants in a fashion that the restrictive covenants once tackled directly.


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An important issue raised by the Manassas zoning ordinance is what constitutes a family for the purpose of legal single-family residency in that city. The strict adherence of the Manassas legislators to a rule based upon the second degree of consanguinity is more restrictive a definition of family than that accepted in many countries of the world. Further, the modern notion of an extended family, where the family structure includes various persons who have been added to the family as a consequence of divorce, remarriage, or an alteration in a common law cohabitation arrangement is not one that will likely be consistent with the Manassas definition.

Supporters of the Manassas by-law claim it targets the problems associated with illegal immigration, including housing, street congestion and safety, and additional burdens placed upon municipal services by such immigration, such as hospitals, emergency services, garbage collection, and schools. The family that is highlighted in the primary source article is composed of legal immigrants to the United States who subsequently became citizens, persons who exist within a cultural framework where residential support to one's extended family is accepted, if not expected. The more subtle implication of the primary source article is that legal immigrants will be more likely to house illegal immigrant countrymen or family members. As of 2006, the population of the United States stood at approximately 300 million persons, of whom one in nine was an immigrant. The Manassas approach to immigrant issues is therefore one of potentially wide application to the American urban environment.

As the article notes, the Manassas zoning ordinance is one that has been mirrored in other parts of the United States; many municipalities have passed similar restrictions on single family residence occupancy. A particularly noteworthy example is that employed in Black Jack City, Missouri, where as of February 2006, three or more persons were prohibited from sharing a residence unless they were related by blood, marriage or adoption. The family challenging the Black Jack City zoning by-law is headed by common law partners of thirteen years standing, where there are also children of prior unions living in their single family residence. This type of family structure is unconnected to the immigration issues that feature in the Manassas by-law; the Black Jack City ordinance is more directly tied to the regulation of the type of families desired by local legislators to be living in a particular residential area.

In the consideration of both the Manassas and Black Jack City zoning enactments, United States federal law does not prohibit marital status as a ground of discrimination in housing arrangements. It is also to be noted that twenty-three states of the Union have enacted Fair Housing laws that might otherwise render such practices illegal as discriminatory; the federal Fair Housing Act "prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of eighteen living with parents of legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of eighteen), and handicap (disability)." The state of Missouri has not enacted such a law.

In such instances, the only likely relief available to an aggrieved party would be an action based upon the constitutionally protected right to both liberty and the right to privacy in family relations. A by-law that limits the number of persons in a single family home is potentially liable to attack on the same grounds approved of by the Supreme Court of the United States in Lawrence v. Texas, where a sodomy prosecution that originated as an act occurring within a private home was ruled unconstitutional as violating the privacy of the home.

The use of the Manassas zoning by-law and similar devices elsewhere are contrasted by the fact that aside from the homeowners illustrated in the primary source article, there are six million unmarried couples living together in the United States, of whom forty percent are raising at least one child of their union in their home. It is an open question as to when local zoning by-law intentions will collide with the dynam-ics and the diversity of the modern American family unit.



Connerly, Charles E. The Most Segregated City in America: City Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920–1980. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Horstein, Jeffrey M. A Nation of Realtors: A Cultural History of Twentieth Century America. Raleigh, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005.

Merriam, Dwight. The Complete Guide to Zoning. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Web sites

Department of State Counsel's Office, State of New York. "Definition of "Family" in Zoning By-Laws and Building Codes." 2004. 〈〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).

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Manassas Changes Definition of Family

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