“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.

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

  1. Justin

    This just seems like good intentions gone wrong. Relax the occupancy standards everywhere, don’t require a special registration system to have dwellings with a large number of unrelated adults. Would be a bureaucratic nightmare, stereotypical bad “liberal” government overreach.

  2. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

    I would have less of a problem if we relaxed zoning occupancy regulations *and* approved the intentional communities ordinance. Even if we didn’t abolish zoning occupancy altogether, we could at least raise the ceiling from “no more than three unrelated people” to “no more than eight unrelated people.” This is a compromise that would at the least expand housing choice for everyone. If you want more than 8 people to live in a house, then you have to do the intentional communities paperwork. But the IC ordinance alone will do exactly what you suggest, which is to create yet another opportunity for the selective enforcement of laws.

    Getting rid of, or easing, the zoning occupancy requirements would allow some of the large, 4+ bedroom houses we have around the city to be used by more than three people. It’s especially baffling that we haven’t done this a basic first step when rental vacancy rates have been less than 3 percent over the last 5 years.

    Allowing more capacity in older buildings built prior to the zoning code would also help create a market for these buildings, so perhaps preservationists would be in favor of this change as well.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    For a more positive take on the IC ordinance, check out my column on it: https://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2016/05/changes-unrelated-adult-housing-rules-could-bring-intentional-communities-out-shad

    Personally, I think that the ordinance is a good step forward, if maybe a bit too exacting about regulation (as Magrino points out in the video above). There are few things the city could do to make sure this is equitable in how it’s used in the future, like why not have an nonprofit or center that helps less advantaged groups work through the paperwork or something?

    It’s easy to pick on hippies, I suppose. But I think Minneapolis’ existing (illegal) intentional communities are both huge assets to the communities where they are located, and also a great example of how we need to think differently about how we live together in a sustainable future. The city should support these houses.

    Would it be better to simply ditch occupancy limits? I’d be OK with it, but there are likely a great many unforseen consequences to that kind of approach as well. Ask anyone in a neighborhood with lots of overburdened rental housing and you’re likely to get a different reaction. In general, though, we should focus our regulatory approach on safe and humane housing conditions and not police family units and family structures

    1. John EdwardsJohn Edwards Post author

      Not picking on hippies. I truly appreciate the concept of intentional communities, and believe they’re an asset to neighborhoods and the people who live in them. But hippies/intentional communities are a largely white group, and the benefits of this law have been targeted at them. Let’s go back to the liberal 1924 definition of a family; if that requires more housing inspectors, let’s hire them.

    2. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

      I’m pretty sure the rest of the council does not see this as a “step” forward; this resolution will be the end of the discussion. That’s why it’s important to bring up these zoning occupancy limits now.

      I don’t think anyone is “picking on hippies” either, and I think saying such is disingenuous. I support ICs, but I don’t think this resolution addresses the real issue: zoning occupancy laws currently on the books prevent people from living as they’d like to. Instead of addressing that, this very narrowly addresses a small subset of people who are impacted by that law. In addition, if this resolution passes unamended, IC folks are less likely to continue to fight for equitable housing reform, making it even less likely that we’ll see real change in the future.

      As for the unforeseen consequences, Lisa Goodman outlined many of these during the CDRS hearing. Parking, noise, “neighborhood deterioration” (whatever that means). We have laws on the books to deal with noise and nuisance properties. We have ways of handling parking problems (I hear parking meters are quite popular in St. Paul!). Let’s enforce laws that govern quality-of-life issues if they arise, rather than arbitrarily deciding certain people can’t live together as we do now.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        “I’m pretty sure the rest of the council does not see this as a “step” forward; this resolution will be the end of the discussion. That’s why it’s important to bring up these zoning occupancy limits now.”

        I am curious why you think this? Honestly asking.

        Also, do we know that people living in Intentional Communities would or would not support a larger effort to get rid of occupancy limits? You can guess about it, I suppose. Maybe this could be part of a larger movement, and I don’t see why not. People who live in ICs are politically active, in my experience, and aware of social justice issues. They might be strong allies in a campaign to get rid of this rule and others like it.

        In general, I appreciate using this moment and proposed policy as a way to focus in on a problematic ordinance. The 1960s origin of the rule, as well as CM Goodman’s comments about “rooming houses”, betray part of what I’d guess were the original intentions of the rule, a way to geographically limit the livelihoods of certain groups of people, like extended immigrant families or single itinerant men. Many many rules on the books in Minneapolis and other cities are aimed at fostering a particular kind of way of living: the single-family middle-class (white) residential neighborhood. There’s all sorts of stuff to unpack there…

        To me, the argument that “this doesn’t go far enough” is a compelling one. It reminds me of the troubling student housing ordinance debate that we had in Saint Paul. (see: https://streets.mn/2012/04/24/the-problem-with-the-problem-of-student-housing/) That said, this particular IC rule change might end up becoming a big deal for students, a group of people who are almost always at the lower income levels in the city and come from many different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

        Just because many people who currently live in one of these communities are white doesn’t mean that everyone will be. I’d guess that 90+% of people currently living in ADUs are white. Does that mean they are a bad idea?

        1. John EdwardsJohn Edwards Post author

          This is what leads people to think this ordinance is not meant as an incremental first step: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjduWg7J6pY

          To your point about this being good for students: the ordinance singles out “transient” communities for exclusion. The ordinance says intentional communities “shall be expected to remain in place for a period in excess of one calendar year.” This is the kind of anti-student rule that makes neighborhood groups happy, especially in Ward 2; remember Gordon bragged not a single neighborhood association was in opposition.

          As for the problem of whiteness. The cost of privately funded new construction makes it largely the domain of higher income white people; that’s bad but we know it’s not created by the fact that Minneapolis allows ADUs to be built. There are a vast number of necessary solutions, including more public money for low-income housing, true equity and economic opportunity for all, and just generally lots more housing.

          With intentional communities and occupancy restrictions, the problem is something the City Council can easily solve by re-writing the ordinance without exclusionary language and voting for it this Friday.

        2. Morgan

          If people in intentional communities are politically active and aware of social justice issues and support a larger effort to get rid of occupancy limits why aren’t they doing that *right now*?

          1. Rosa

            so many different groups have tried! It’s a lot easier to carve out a small exception for a posterchild group (didn’t this all start with a church-owned and sponsored group living situation? Seminary students or something?) than to get the council and the vast, loud, “only single family home owners are worthy citizens” constituencies to make any sort of general change.

            1. Leslie MacKenzieLeslie

              It started with a communal living situation for Lutheran Volunteer Corp – young people who get paid very little money and come to work in the community for a year.

    3. Rosa

      I live in a neighborhood with lots of overburdened rental housing, and I’m all for relaxing the occupancy limits. Rents are insane, houses are big and old, and everyone I’ve ever known who rented in South Minneapolis (including the younger version of me!) lived in an illegally over-occupied unit at least part of the time.

      In the meantime I do think this is a step – it’s a step that doesn’t challenge the inherent racism and classism of the code, but it’s still a step. The racism and classism are baked into the code and the voting public. It’s not the people pushing for this law change that put it there and most of them would definitely support a wider loosening of the rules. But that’s just not going to happen – Ventura Village tried, tenants groups have tried. It takes real time and some institutional power – including white privilege – to get this kind of change through.

      And things that look ridiculous – like the food sharing rule – are both discriminatory and also a part of the knee-jerk hatred of SROs and rooming houses. I’m sure it is an attempt to address issues raised by apparently objective, professional people. I have had people in the comments here say that if we relax occupancy limits everyone will be running hot plates in their own bedrooms and causing fires, overrunning the sewers (??!!), illegal parties, etc. Safe and humane is always SUPPOSEDLY the goal, but the effect is sky high rents, homelessness, and tenants who can’t do anything about bad landlords because their tenancy is inherently illegal.

  4. Daniel ChomaDan Choma

    I really don’t have any problem with intentional communities. I think in practice, it’s a really great idea and can open one’s mind as to different and more cost effective ways to live. I do think that John brings up a good point here.

    Making people in intentional communities fill out a bunch of paperwork in order to justify their “different” lifestyle essentially defines something that has been widespread throughout the course of human history as “deviant.”

    This is dangerous. Humans have shared resources since the dawn of society. We’ve lived in groups of varying definition as long as we’ve had written history. And as long as we’ve been writing down what the definition of community is, we’ve not been able to do it effectively. (1)

    Even with that known inability to define what our community is, we’ve defined it with our zoning code. The nuclear family is essentially written into the NAME of the zoning: “Single Family Unit.” Although I don’t agree with Wilhelm Reich in saying that the nuclear family breeds fascism, I do think that making the nuclear family normative *can* be the breeding grounds for authoritarianism as it makes people be afraid to be “different.” (2) Realistically, since we can’t define what a community IS in the first place, “different” is just an arbitrary term. But it still breaks up coalitions by making people think they are are subdivided into groups instead of in solidarity as humans.

    Normalizing SFUs forces mechanical solidarity, and I personally think that healthy cities need to normalize organic solidarity. (3) To get nerdy (but not grad school nerdy): Mechanical solidarity is like the Borg from Star Trek. Yeah, they’re super effective but only if everyone is the same and is co-opted into the same goal. The city I want to live in is more like the Federation Starfleet: They have an intentional goal to study and understand cultural differences but not engage in cultural imperialism. (Also the Star Trek marathon on BBC over Thanksgiving was awesome. My next post will be about Tribbles. Y’all been warned)

    Personally, I think it’s important to have simple legal solutions that let human beings define their own culture and narrative organically. Having a bunch of paperwork so that people can live together over occupancy limits seems to be “over-organizing.” (4)

    I say just let people be people: raise the occupancy limits in small measurable increments and see what happens. I think over-organizing this is just gonna lead to the same nonsense that rent control led to. The simple solution is often times the best. (5)

    (1) http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/TEXTS/DISCUSSI.pdf
    (2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mass_Psychology_of_Fascism
    (3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanical_and_organic_solidarity
    (4) https://www.huxley.net/bnw-revisited/
    (5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_razor

  5. Shaina B

    Like no liquor sales on Sunday, such a narrow definition of “family” and “unrelateds” is moralistic, ethnocentric and has no business being codified by city law.

    My childhood family was made up of an adopted sister of a different race, our older brothers, step-parents, often my mom’s best friend and her daughter, and many, many pets. Lots of different last names.

    For my first 4 years living in Minneapolis, my family (including my emergency contact) consisted of my best friend and my dog, which we co-parented. My friend and I could pass for brother and sister without trying, and once the dishwasher repairman incorrectly assumed we were romantic partners. That was the family that was meaningful to me at the time.

    Either way, it’s supposed to be a free country, and a progressive city that values diversity and strives for equity. I have lived in an intentional community in Minneapolis and in New York state. I support them, but I also support extended families or acquaintances with compatible living habits living together the way they see fit. Let’s undo this government over-reach.

    1. Rosa

      the problem is, it’s already there in the law, has been for a long time, and the council (and most of their electorate) have really, really resisted changing it. This is a tiny reform we can actually pass.

  6. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    So a quick thought . Many of the points in the article, and thoughts expressed in the comment section, argue what the goals of the city should and shouldn’t be as spelled out in our zoning code.

    Of course, the status quo defenders will quickly point out that the ability for local governments to regulate unrelated individuals was upheld by the US Supreme Court in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas. The arguments against doing so (in the linked wiki article) read just like everyone is saying.

    So. Someone should write a post along the lines of “Just Because the Supreme Court Says Local Governments CAN Do Something Does Not Mean They Are Required To.” I think it applies here. I think it applies to a *lot* of land use regulations given what we know now about their impacts on segregation, housing costs, public & private transportation costs, the environment, etc.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Maybe we can eventually remind the City of Minneapolis that they don’t need to exercise the power authorized in Euclid v Ambler either.

  7. cdelle

    The current occupancy limits are wrong, and the way the city council is going about fixing the problem is racist and classist. I hope someday we stop letting a subset of vocal and privileged white homeowners (#notallwhitehomeowners) override the needs of renters, low-income people, and POC like myself who need an even playing field right now.

    I have no faith that if this Intentional Communities ordinance becomes law as written that we’ll ever get a chance to address the problem of occupancy limits in the zoning code. Once white IC advocates have moved on, I don’t know where the influential activist energy would come from. The urgency certainly won’t come from a city council that’s running scared from neighborhood groups on this issue.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      “IC advocates” are a tiny subset. They’re not a large group of people. Politically speaking, I am cautiously optimistic that this could serve as a gateway to a larger conversation. I don’t really know why people don’t share this optimism… Why not? Maybe this is a way to broach a topic. Never mind what politicians say at the moment to get something passed…

      1. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

        I actually spoke with Cam about this ordinance and I got the impression that reducing occupancy limits was his initial thought. Apparently that was politically infeasible, and so he pushed this very limited ordinance, co-authored with Lisa Goodman, instead. I don’t doubt that IC folks perhaps wanted more, but if Cam Gordon won’t support it, who will? Are we supposed to rely on Lisa Bender to do *everything* related to progressive housing policies in this city?

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          You’d think Cano would be a sure voice for something that increases housing affordability and, by extension, racial equity. But she seems silent on this, instead preferring to grandstand on wrongheaded policy like organizing a “Rent Control” chant at the end of a meeting.

        2. Evan RobertsEvan

          That’s my memory too. Around 2012 he proposed getting rid of the occupancy limits, with predictable opposition from neighborhood associations.

          I tend to agree that a more maximal effort to repeal would be a better political strategy, but who knows

      2. Peter Bajurny

        There’s also an email I received last year from the IC advocates looking for people to support them. One of the selling points is that once Intentional Communities have passed, the group would dissolve and there’d be no more commitment needed.

        So the reason we say that IC advocates have no desire to go further is because those very same advocates have explicitly said at public testimony and when looking for supporters that they have no desire to go any farther.

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