The occupancy debate centered on 68 Scarborough Street in Hartford is a conflict between the theoretical concept of “family” and practical implementation of the City of Hartford’s Zoning Regulations.
On one hand, everyone should ideally be able to define their “family” as they see fit. In the abstract, there is no need to create an official definition of “family.” The word can mean whatever one wants it to mean.
On the other hand, municipalities are empowered to regulate property use. They do this through zoning. Hartford’s zoning laws rely heavily on a particular definition of “family.”
• Allowed density is based on the numbers of “families per acre” for each zoning district.
• Residential buildings are labeled based on the number of “families” they may house.
• Dwelling units are designed for use by one “family.”
Because the term “family” is used pervasively throughout the Zoning Regulations, changes to the definition of “family” have the potential to be especially impactful on zoning in the City of Hartford.
Zoning regulations should evolve over time to reflect changing priorities and norms. Given the public outcry about this particular situation, and the language currently in the regulations, reviewing the zoning definition of “family” seems necessary.
However, demanding immediate changes based on a specific zoning situation is risky. The regulations are complex, and proposed changes should be thoroughly vetted to try to understand the implications and minimize unintended consequences. There are processes in place to make changes with appropriate checks and balances.
There are always going to be disagreements over where to draw an acceptable line between theory and practice. Abstract concepts can never be perfectly translated into real world applications. Ultimately there is a risk-reward analysis that determines the ideal balance between allowing all possibilities and imposing reasonable regulations.
The debate thus far has focused almost exclusively on the theory. The practical implications of a change to the zoning definition of “family” have not been raised. What follows is a look at how different interpretations of the current definition, or a broadened definition, could impact residential occupancy rules in Hartford.
Current Zoning Definition of “Family”
Independent of the debate about 68 Scarborough, the current definition of “family” in the Hartford Zoning Regulations needs to be updated. The definition appears to address the situation in question, but an alternative interpretation has been proposed.
This would be a good time to add the disclaimer that we are not real estate attorneys nor zoning experts. We work in the field, and are comfortable trying to read the Zoning Regulations, but our interpretations should not be considered official. We are laypeople trying to figure out next steps. One should always consult a real estate attorney with experience in zoning matters when making important decisions that involve zoning.
Section 2. Definitions
• one (1) person;
• a group of two (2) or more persons living together and interrelated by consanguinity, marriage, civil union, or legal adoption;
• or a group of not more than two (2) persons who need not be so related,
occupying the whole or part of a dwelling unit as a separate housekeeping unit with a common set of cooking facilities.
The persons constituting a family may also include foster children; the number of which shall be in accordance with general statutes as amended and live-in domestic employees.
For the purposes of determining density, a roomer, boarder or lodger shall not be considered a member of a family.
In all other zoning districts a family may consist of the number of persons designated to occupy a dwelling unit as described in the definition of “density” in this section.
The definition is straightforward until the final sentence. The last sentence begins with the clause “In all other zoning districts,” which is curious considering specific zoning districts have not been referenced.
The sentence then instructs the reader to reference the “number of persons designated to occupy a dwelling unit.” It points the reader to the definition of “density.”
Section 2. Definitions
Density (of population on a particular lot) consists of the number of persons permitted to reside on an acre of land or the proportionate number of persons permitted to reside on a portion of an acre of land in the B-3, B-4, RO-1, RO-2, RO-3, R-1, R-2 and R-3 zoning districts;
and shall consist of the number of families permitted to reside on an acre of land or the proportionate number of families permitted to reside on a portion of an acre of land in the R-4, R-5, R-6, R-7 and R-8 zoning districts.
When, in determining the number of persons or families, whichever the case may be, permitted to reside on an acre of land or the proportionate number of persons or families, whichever the case may be, permitted to reside on a portion of an acre of land, the result is a fractional number (of persons or families), any fraction up to and including one-half shall be disregarded and any fraction over one-half shall be considered to be one (1) person or one (1) family, whichever the case may be.
In determining the number of dwelling units which may be constructed to house the number of persons permitted to reside on an acre of land, or portion thereof in the B-3, B-4, RO-1, RO-2, RO-3, R-1, R-2 and R-3 districts, the following table I showing the average number of persons estimated to occupy a particular dwelling at the time of construction shall be used.
Dwelling Unit by Type Number of Persons Efficiency – Studio 1.5 1-Bedroom 2.0 2-Bedroom 3.0 3 or more Bedrooms 4.0
The definition of “density” does not provide specific guidance about the “number of persons designated to occupy a dwelling unit.” The final section excerpted, which includes Table I, is the closest that the definition comes to linking the Number of Persons to Dwelling Units. However, Table I is tied to specific zoning districts.
The 68 Scarborough property is in the R-8 zoning district. The definition of density does not address the “number of persons designated to occupy a dwelling unit” in the R-8 district. Therefore, the final sentence in the definition of “family” does not appear to provide an alternative criteria for the R-8 zoning district.
Supporters of the 68 Scarborough residents cite the “families per acre” statement in the definition of “density” as the relevant term. They read the regulations as allowing various “families per acre” and then reference a table in Section 182, Summary Schedule of District Requirements, stating that the R-8 zone allows 3.6 “Families per Acre.”
Collapsing the information from the definition of “density” and the “Summary Schedule of District Requirements” into a single sentence, this interpretation of the definition of family becomes…
Family: A family may consist of 3.6 families per acre.
This statement is meaningless, as the definition is circular.
• How would one count the 3.6 “families?” Using the main portion of the definition of “family?”
• Would Section 3 of the Zoning Regulations, which says that “When any provision of these regulations conflicts with any other provision of these regulations, the stricter of the provisions shall apply and govern” apply here?
• Are there other regulations/codes/laws/ordinances/rules that would come into play?
Although the definition of “family” appears to be definitively defined for the R-8 zoning district, the Planning & Zoning Commission should review the definition of “family” to clarify the language.
Impact of Occupancy Using Families per Lot
One interpretation of the definition of “family” in the Hartford Zoning Regulations that has been circulated is that properties in the R-5, R-6, R-7 and R-8 allow multiple families per acre.
Using the size of individual parcels, the number of families per acre can be converted to the number of families per lot by multiplying the acreage by the appropriate number of families per acre. For example, consider a single-family home on an 0.386 acre lot in an R-7 zoning district. This lot would allow (0.386 acres) * (5.8 families per acre) = 2.24 families, which would be rounded down to 2 families.
The Hartford Data website has a dataset called “CAMAGIS_Property_Details” that contains real estate property information. According to the November, 21, 2014 version of this dataset, there are 5,676 homes in the R-5, R-6, R-7, and R-8 zones with single-family residential uses.
Over 25% of those “single-family” properties would be allowed to house 2 or more families under this interpretation of the definition of “family.”
Most of the single-family homes in the R-5 zone, and the majority of the single-family homes in the R-8 zone, would be reclassified as multi-family homes. Many of the properties would allow 3 or more “families” per property. A total of 1,429 properties would be impacted.
This interpretation of “family” would affect 10 neighborhoods throughout the City. The West End would have the most individual properties impacted.
How the definition of “family” is interpreted by the Zoning Board of Appeals, and potentially the court system, will have a significant impact on the potential use of single-family homes throughout Hartford.
Impact of Broadening the Zoning Definition of Family
Another idea that has been proposed to bring the current use of the 68 Scarborough property into zoning compliance is to broaden the definition of “family” in the Zoning Regulations.
Examples of how other cities and towns define “family” have been circulated as potential templates for changes in Hartford. East Hartford, for example, uses the following definition.
Family: Individuals living together as a single, non-profit housekeeping unit occupying a dwelling unit that has complete housekeeping facilities.
The East Hartford definition of “family” appears to allow any group of individuals to self-identify as a family regardless of their relationships. This definition would allow the residents of 68 Scarborough to meet the zoning definition of “family” and continue occupying their single-family home.
If the definition of “family” were changed in Hartford’s Zoning Regulations without other changes, then the permitted density of all residential property types would increase. The change would apply equally to apartments, condominiums, single-family homes, and multi-family homes.
The City of Hartford’s Municipal Code contains language in Article V of Section 18 that appears to speak to the maximum number of occupants per dwelling unit.
Sec. 18-117. – Size of sleeping rooms.
In every dwelling unit of two (2) or more rooms, every room occupied for sleeping purposes by one (1) occupant shall contain at least seventy (70) square feet of floor space, and every room occupied for sleeping purposes by more than one (1) occupant shall contain at least fifty (50) square feet of floor space for each occupant thereof.
Rephrasing, a room of at least 70 square feet is required for one person. Rooms between 100 square feet and 149 square feet may sleep two people. Rooms between 150 square feet and 199 square feet may sleep three people, etc. A “sleeping room” is defined as a room with direct access to both a bathroom and an exit.
Using these guidelines, a typical 3 bedroom dwelling unit with average sized rooms (12’ x 13’) would likely allow 9 occupants in the bedrooms. Potentially other rooms could even be used as bedrooms given the minimal definition of “sleeping room.”
Hartford’s Zoning Regulations rely heavily on the word “family.” Its formal definition plays a pivotal role in determining residential density in the City. The current definition appears to speak to the 68 Scarborough situation, but should be revised to improve clarity.
If done in isolation, broadening the zoning definition of “family” to allow groups to self-identify as a “family” eliminates the City’s ability to impose any reasonable limits on the number of occupants per dwelling unit. Therefore, if the definition of “family” is broadened, then a more substantial rewrite of zoning regulations would be required. Other regulations would need to be adjusted.
This debate is ultimately about a theoretical ideal versus the realities of trying to regulate the use of real estate. How important is it to capture the theoretical ideal of “family” in the zoning regulations?
The current definition is clearly a compromise that provides practical limits on the number of people that can live in a dwelling unit. If one believes it should be changed, then what should the definition become? How should the City balance the practical need to regulate residential housing versus approaching a theoretical ideal (on this and other issues)?