“Intentional Communities”: A Path to Legal Status for White People

Over time, average family sizes get smaller, and old houses get emptier. But in Minneapolis’ lower-density zoning districts, no more than three unrelated people can live together as a household; in higher-density districts, the limit is five unrelated people. For people who want to live with three or more friends in a big old house, this is a problem. As a targeted fix, the City Council is on the verge of removing occupancy restrictions for a select group of residents who live in what are called “intentional communities.”

Intentional communities are “a form of housing co-operative where residents form a household organized around an idea.” In researching a proposal to legalize these communities, City staff found that Minneapolis “is fairly unique in that occupancy is regulated in both the Zoning Code and the Housing Maintenance Code.” No other city defines the special legal category of “intentional community,” and many peer cities don’t specify maximum occupancy in their zoning codes.

Minneapolis' 1924 definition of a family was surprisingly liberal.

Minneapolis’ 1924 definition of a family was surprisingly liberal.

Though it’s an improvement on the status quo, the proposed ordinance legalizing intentional communities uses some odd criteria in order to limit the kind of household that qualifies. If it passes the full City Council in its current form, here are some of the hoops you’ll have to jump through if you want to legally live together with a handful of unrelated people in Minneapolis:

  • A requirement that households have “an adopted set of rules covering democratic governance, maintenance responsibilities, and other household issues.”
  • A provision against groups that are “transient or temporary in nature” requiring intentional communities to remain together for “a period in excess of one calendar year.”
  • A requirement that “members of the household share expenses for food, rent or ownership costs, utilities, and other household expenses.”

Additionally, the city would require multiple notarized statements from the property owner and a member of the intentional community, as well as submission of “legal documentation establishing the existence of the intentional community as a recognized and legal entity.”

The Chair of the Zoning & Planning Committee, Lisa Bender, expressed concerns about trying to “control, as a city, who gets to live together and who doesn’t.” Council Member Jacob Frey, the lone voice of dissent on the Community Development and Regulatory Services (CDRS) Committee, asked “Why does it make it a better household if people are sharing expenses for food?” Frey also spoke about the unlikelihood of enforcing these very personal aspects of people’s living situations: “If we’re not gonna get involved in these areas, and it sounds like we’re not, let’s not have them in the ordinance.”

As a thought experiment, you might wonder about the effort it would take to become a pretend intentional community. You’d find the right page on the city’s website; download the right set of pdfs; print those pdfs; but maybe you don’t have a printer, so you attach those pdfs to an email, and send it to the FedEx store; realize you need to figure out how an adult gets a thing notarized; spend a few hours on Wikipedia researching the world’s most respected parliamentary systems; appoint a Finance Minister to buy the groceries; then finally send your constitution to the city for approval.

This pain-in-the-ass level of effort is made more ridiculous by the fact that–aside from requiring you to submit the paperwork–these rules won’t be enforced. Nobody truly cares how you govern your household; in the same way we don’t care how the traditional married-with-kids family next door governs their household. Your chores, your bills, your business.

The city isn’t likely to monitor the intimate details of intentional communities. Despite rules mandating “democratic governance,” city inspectors won’t be entering homes like a bunch of hyperlocal Jimmy Carters ensuring free and fair elections. These unenforceable requirements aren’t about democracy; it’s about making sure the person who rents a room in the house next door is the Right Class of Neighbor: someone savvy and persistent enough to register her household with the city.

The only thing we’re really ensuring is the people who get access to this category of housing have the time and aptitude for paperwork. This ordinance leaves in place a barrier for many people who could benefit from sharing space with unrelated people in an unintentional community: people who aren’t comfortable navigating their local government bureaucracy; immigrants, new residents, and others without extensive pre-existing social support networks; lower income people who really, desperately, and without delay, need an affordable place to live.

I think Minneapolitans would strongly object to arbitrary barriers to voting. We recognize that voter ID laws have the impact of reducing the number of poor, minorities, and students who are able to cast votes. We naturally understand that the process of obtaining government ID is easier for some than for others. By this same logic, we shouldn’t accept arbitrary barriers to housing.

At a public meeting back in May, Council Member Cam Gordon, co-author of this ordinance, described how, many years ago, he lived with a bunch of roommates in a situation that was illegal. I assumed he told the story to illustrate the need for an ordinance to ease occupancy restrictions. You can’t deny Gordon’s good intentions, but the ordinance he’s proposing doesn’t legalize the situation he described; it simply sets out a path for clever people with time to game the system.

During the November 29th CDRS Committee hearing, Gordon mentioned that it’s taken him a long time to get to the point where he “doesn’t have the opposition of a single neighborhood association.” That he negotiated with his most privileged constituents (white, single-family homeowners), and they find this plan won’t cause them any discomfort, does not necessarily mean it is the right or equitable solution.

At a Zoning & Planning Committee meeting on December 1st, Council Member Lisa Goodman (the other co-author) addressed concerns about the ordinance by saying “we’ll know an intentional community as regulatory staff when we see it.” The City of Minneapolis shouldn’t be applying a “know it when we see it” standard for deciding which Minneapolis households are legal. For the largely white constituency this plan is designed to help, getting the benefit of the doubt from people in authority may come easy; but not everyone in our city enjoys that privilege.

At the CDRS Committee, Goodman cited “deterioration” caused by old-style “rooming houses” in the 7th Ward’s wealthy single-family neighborhoods as a reason not to have a less restrictive ordinance: “You’d have an outcry of people in R1 neighborhoods.” She went on to say that “people who already have problems with rental housing, potentially could have more problems, and we already have so many problems and not enough staff to deal with it, for example on the north side.”

Those very nice, very exclusive neighborhoods of Goodman’s Ward 7 could use some less expensive housing options. And it would be a shame if we capped the number of available housing units simply for a lack of housing inspectors; we can always budget for more housing inspectors. If the health and safety of tenants and neighbors is at stake, we should regulate landlords. But let’s stop using the zoning code to regulate how people form communities, and what constitutes a family. Minneapolis should go back to the 1924 legal definition of a family: “any number of individuals occupying a single housekeeping unit” that isn’t a boarding house or hotel.

We need to be blunt about this: Minneapolis is about to reform housing occupancy limits by legalizing largely white, hippie communes made up of people who are up to the task of paperwork and process. This ordinance will have the impact of opening up housing opportunities for some groups and not for others. When you consider that so many other cities don’t see the need to regulate the definition of family in this way, it’s a real shame that Minneapolis won’t go further.

If you live in Minneapolis, contact your Council Member with feedback before Friday’s vote.