Imagine you've bought your dream house. And you've moved in. Now, imagine being told you can't live there because you -- and your children -- are not considered a family. That's the situation facing Olivia Shelltrack, Fondrey Loving and their three kids in Black Jack, Missouri.
They moved from Minneapolis to the St. Louis suburb a couple of months ago. I visited them recently at their five-bedroom home. They told me Black Jack requires all homes to have an occupancy permit, but that they were denied one. They said they were told that because there are more than three people in their house, and not all are related by blood or marriage, they don't meet Black Jack's definition of a family.
As Black Jack's mayor, Norman McCourt, put it recently at a city council meeting: "It's overcrowding because it's not a single family. It's a single-family residence and they're not a single family."
Olivia and Fondrey aren't married and had two of their three children out of wedlock. The third child is Olivia's from a previous relationship. They appealed to the city's Board of Adjustment for an exemption, figuring it wouldn't be hard for anyone to see they're a real family. But they were denied. Olivia and Fondrey told me they came away from that meeting feeling like they were given a clear message: Get married or move.
"Just because we don't meet your definition of a family doesn't make us any less of a family. ... We've been together for 13 years. ... We're raising three kids together," Olivia said.
So the couple called the ACLU. That's when they discovered at least three other families have had this kind of trouble in Black Jack before. The ACLU showed CNN a letter it says it received from Mayor McCourt in 1999 explaining why another family was being denied an occupancy permit at the time.
"While it would be naive to say that we don't recognize that children are born out of wedlock frequently these days, we certainly don't believe that is the type of environment within which children should be brought into this world," the mayor wrote.
The city has issued a statement saying at least 89 municipalities in the St. Louis area have similar occupancy permit requirements. The ordinances are designed to eliminate boarding houses and illegal renting of rooms, but the city now admits its 20-year-old ordinance may not be in step with the times.
And after a public hearing scheduled for Thursday, Black Jack may soften the wording of its ordinance. If the ordinance isn't changed, the ACLU says it will sue the city, arguing it is violating federal fair housing rules and the constitutional right to privacy. In the meantime, all Shelltrack and Loving can do is hope the city won't force them to move.