Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Move or get married
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.
Posted By Jonathan Freed, CNN Correspondent: 5:27 PM ET
There are other circumstances where not all residents in a house may be related by blood or marriage. Are there no foster families in Black Jack? How about 4 college roommates staying together to save money? And what about families who have adopted? That relationship is not by blood or marriage. Let's not enough mention families with same sex parents. While I'm not supporting their right to raise 3 kids as an unwed couple for 13 years, it is their right. This ordinance needs to be reviewed an re-written, if not thrown out altogether.
Posted By Anonymous Betsy, Lake Crystal MN : 6:00 PM ET
Does anyone doubt this is the Morals Police in action? And does anyone doubt that if the Far Right had their way, similar 'morality' clauses would be in effect nation-wide?

Overcrowding is one thing, but five people in a five bedroom home sure isn't overcrowding. When are people going to learn to mind their own business?
Posted By Anonymous Arachnae, Sterling VA : 6:26 PM ET
The term family is so different around the world for a city to pressure it's citizens to conform to a mold of what they call "family" is pathetic and halts diversity. Sadly a similar regulation exists in my area of Texas, which specifically hurts college students, homosexuals, and other unwed couples with children. The government has no place in defining family.
Posted By Anonymous Tommi-Michelle Ivey, College Station, Texas : 6:27 PM ET
Is that any different then saying someone has to move out of their town because they are black or gay? That's just plain discrimation.
Posted By Anonymous Lisa, Tampa Florida : 6:54 PM ET

It is offensive. My father, a homosexual male, raised a daugher (me) on his own (which couldn't have been easy). I am stunned to find out we are not a family!

If I lived in Black Jack, would I have to marry my father?

It's insane!
Posted By Anonymous Marisol, Aurora, Colorado : 7:03 PM ET
This is absurd. Those who so strictly define what a family is, and what conditions are appropriate for children to be raised in are likely against abortion too. Does anyone else see the lapse in logic here? Should the unconventional and disadvantaged children be shackled and forced into labor camps for comfort of the elite, or merely relegated to the out-of-sight slums?
Posted By Anonymous IF, Evergreen, CO : 7:12 PM ET
No matter your moral or political view it should be said there is a place for the ACLU. This is one fight that should be taken on by the ACLU and any other group concern with human rights. This is so grade school!!! If everyone worried as much about themselves as they do about others this would be a much better world. There are bigger problems - hunger, poverty .... The list goes on and on.
Posted By Anonymous Cheryl, Wake Forest NC : 7:15 PM ET
A lot of families do not fit into Mayor McCourt's very specific definition, but I don't think it matters how a family looks on the outside as long as their children are raised with love. Black Jack's laws so blatantly stomp on our civil and consitutional rights that it is almost laughable. This kind of narrowminded ignorance is shameful.
Posted By Anonymous Sarah, Baltimore, MD : 7:32 PM ET
Ridiculous. How about simply basing occupancy permits based on square footage and number of people, regardless of their relationships?

I live in a very nice area and was surprised recently when the county evicted a house filled with 26 people (a 3 bedroom, 2 bath ranch), all brought here to live by an exploitative employer no doubt.

The house is owned by a physician who is renting it out. He doesn't care who lives there, but in a neighborhood of homes ranging from $400s to over $1 million, the neighbors are more than eager to contact authorities.

Twenty six people in a home is dangerous and unhealthy.
Posted By Anonymous Kate, Setauket, NY : 7:40 PM ET
Classic example of how religion sneaks it's way into the government, local or federal. I think this family should be applauded for the obvious commitment they have made. I rarely see any marriages last that long! Does this couple love each other any less because they don't have a piece of paper giving them the same last name? What if she brought a child into the marriage from an out of wedlock relationship and chose not to take her husbands last name? Does that make them not a family?
Posted By Anonymous Kim U., Grand Rapids, MI : 7:41 PM ET
so, why not get married?
Posted By Anonymous Grace,Mtn Home Ar : 7:48 PM ET
The definition of family can be set locally by the people of the community, just like the height of fences or the spacing of trees. Here is Madison, Wisconsin about anything goes, it is nice to see some people in the country standing up for their community and its moral integrity. I as most of the country are individualists, we wish only to be left alone in our personal/private lives, this is just one of the more outrageous examples. However, I don't feel that this example should be divorced from the many others, that me might find ok. Such as if I wanted to own a private business, like a golf club or resturant, why shoudl the local government have the right to invade my privacy and tell me who I have to admit? Maybe I don't want fake blonde people to shop at my store, or maybe white people...Maybe I will set up quotas on the number of people who can attend my schools so that only certian demographics will come. There are so many examples of where society forces its 'moral' self righteousness on us and we accept it, so why not this case?
Posted By Anonymous Brant, Madison, Wisconsin : 7:51 PM ET
Just what we need, another government intrustion into private people's lives. Why doesn't the town of Black Jack just stamp people with the number of the Beast and get it over with?

The mayor can have 666 reserved for himself. It's atrocious, to think that this mayor can delegate who can love whom, and what defines a family. Shame on him, and shame on the state of Missouri which is only proving how backwards of a state they are.
Posted By Anonymous Robert King, Cary, NC : 7:52 PM ET
These municipal ayatollahs are stupidly narrow by their view of what constitutes "family". Does anyone ever consider a family might well be defined by love?
Posted By Anonymous Michael Safdiah, New York NY : 8:16 PM ET
Who is what to say what makes up a family? And aren't they common law man and wife after 10 years anyhow??
Posted By Anonymous Marie, Jacksonville, FL : 8:21 PM ET
While this saddens me greatly, I can't say I'm surprised after the two years of court battles we went through fighting an anti-cohabitation law and the family court's use of it to restrict parenting time in Michigan recently. I slept in the car through Michigan winters every other weekend for two years over the Morality Police, as Arachnae put it, and I think all the laws unnecessarily interfering in the personal lives of the "free" should be revoked. I hope this case brings down such ordinances in the courts because if it's just legislated out, other places can still use it to 'define' the 'ideal' family they want in their neighborhoods.

It's no wonder we're mocked by other 'less free' nations.
Posted By Anonymous Michelle Moon, Ferndale, MI : 8:28 PM ET
So Black Jack's view of family and family values revolves around a piece of paper (i.e. a marriage certificate)? Shouldn't a loving and caring family be enough? Does it really have to be validated by that piece of paper? That stance seems to typify what is wrong with government- no common sense.
Posted By Anonymous S.W.Landvatter, King of Prussia, PA : 8:34 PM ET
Big deal.

The rules are clear, follow them or git!

I can't live in a senior citizen community either.
Posted By Anonymous Pelle, Irvine, CA : 8:35 PM ET
Is it that people in the midwestern United States do more dumb things than people on the east and west coasts or do they simply get picked on more by the media? Maybe the government officials in, (who named that town, anyway?) feel secure in not having Iran bearing down from the east and China from the west and have time to worry about things like a piece of paper.
Posted By Anonymous Gypsy, Mexico : 8:38 PM ET
My thought is good for the city. I think if more cities did what this city is doing may be we wouldn't have a family of 3 kids with 3 different dad. Its time that someone said enough is enough. Children need steady homes with steady parents and if that is what you have then get married.
Posted By Anonymous Rachel Howe Bedford,Ohio : 8:44 PM ET
This is completely ridiculous. Marriage is simply a piece of paper - love and committment are what matter! Since 50% of marriages fail and end in divorce, why would anyone think this group of people (which can't be called a "family" apparently...) would be more stable and loving if the two oldest members (ie the parents) got a piece of paper saying that they are legally bound!
I live in a province where only a minority of people get married - the vast majority simply "live together", have children and raise them. It's no one's business whether the consenting adults decided to make it official either in a courtroom or before God.
I hope this town's stupid law is revised so that it can enter the 21st century!
Posted By Anonymous Louise Wolfshagen, Montreal, Canada : 8:45 PM ET
Our government has been enforcing their definition of "family" for years - in the entrance and occupancy regulations for public housing and other subsidized housing programs. Check it out. The regulations were changed slightly in the mid 1990s, but it has always been an issue that was under the public radar.
Posted By Anonymous J. Hare, Tallahassee, FL : 8:45 PM ET
I continue to be amazed by the audacity of some people. To define family...shouldn't we all be allowed to define that for ourselves?
Posted By Anonymous Heather, Hanford CA : 8:46 PM ET
I see the term "and not all are related by blood or marriage" - and then am told that the two adults are the parents of two of the children and the third child is the child of one of the adults.

How does that not qualify as "all are related by blood"?

I thank God that we only have 3 more years of this religiously intolerent administration...but that will only be the start. Much more remains to be done.
Posted By Anonymous Stephen - Seattle, WA : 8:48 PM ET
This ridiculous practice is basically denying the right to fair housing. This is certainly a moral criticism and unconstituational. It denies this family civil liberty. This ordinance is not much different than the same racist housing restrictions that existed before; that states that families of color could not live in white communities.
Posted By Anonymous Sherryl, San Diego, CA : 8:54 PM ET
welcome to the world of United Stated intolerance and dealing with bigotry! These petty laws and ordinances are in place to discriminate again any "family" that is non-traditional. Imagine if the family had two fathers or two mothers and wanted to live there... Go ACLU!
Posted By Anonymous Terry, Palm Springs, CA : 8:54 PM ET
I think it is wrong for a community leader to enforce an ordinance defining the term "family". Is the town enforcing this ordinance with all new residents? What are the Federal and State laws saying about housing discrimination. I can't wait until the mayor decrees the town will purchase the house of the exiled families.
Posted By Anonymous Martin, Sacramento, CA : 8:54 PM ET
I always see people talk about having mid-western values and wondered what is so different about mid-western values than the rest of the country. Now I know. These people think they are perfect. The sad part is they expect others to go along with their unrealistic dream world. Black Jack, get out of grown folk business.
Posted By Anonymous John, Willow Spring, NC : 8:54 PM ET
I am so sick and tired of these debates that essentially involve the government passing judgement on its "free" citizenry. Everyone should be free to define for themselves and live out own life as they so choose! Why is this so hard? Are these people harming anyone? No. Blessed are those who are persecuted in the name of righteouness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Can't we all just live our lives in peace, prosperity and safety already? Life is too short!
Posted By Anonymous Brian, Quincy, Massachusetts : 8:55 PM ET
The term family has indeed changed its makeup from years back, unfortuantely I don't see how any government agency can tell a person where or what they can live in. As I don't condone the raising their kids for that long and not being married, its none of my business for their reasons why they are living like this still. I could write a book on my family and how the way of life for most are heading in this direction and what use to be a family will never be again.
Posted By Anonymous Lisa Harper Belmont, NC : 8:56 PM ET
It is absurd that a city is able to define a family, when no one else in America can do so. We no longer live in a world where every child lives in a home with a mom, a dad, a dog, and a white-picket fence. Isn't it better for a child to be raised by parents who are in a healthy, stable relationship, regardless of their marital status, than to be raised in a tumultuous environment where their parents happen to be married. I can understand that the city wants to limit overcrowding, but one family unit with five members, in a five-bedroom house certainly doesn't seem to fit the criteria. It's the twenty-first century and we live in America, I think it's time for the government in Black Jack to broaden their minds and make a few changes to the city ordinances.
Posted By Anonymous Kimberly Miller, Lancaster, PA : 8:56 PM ET
I would like to know if this ordinance is selectively applied, or is it only enforced against unwed couples, gay couples, or anyone else who does not fit the narrow, bigoted definition of family in this city?

We open the door to discrimination and persecution when we allow government to define what is and what is not a family.
Posted By Anonymous Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 8:56 PM ET
If these people signed a contract stating that they understood the terms specified in the contract as well as the applicable ordinance, then it's a little late to be complaining to the ACLU or the city. Move along.
Posted By Anonymous Rod C. Venger Colorado Springs, Colorado : 9:00 PM ET
Family should be defined by a positive, loving relationship shared by its members, not by some city council or societal dogma. The mayor may disapprove of this family, but he is not part of it and should stay out of their business.
Posted By Anonymous Mel, Kansas City, MO : 9:04 PM ET
To address one of Betsy's questions, 4 college roomates are almost exactly what Black Jack's ordinance is trying to prevent. My city has a similar ordinance specifically for that reason. Depending on the zoning, more than 3 or 4 legally unrelated people living together violates the ordinance.

Depending on how picky Black Jack is about their ordinance, Olivia and her kids would technically qualify as a single family, but only if Fondrey didn't live with them. While I completely understand the city's position trying to prevent overcrowding and illegal renting, they should consider a set of guidelines (or new guidelines) for evauating appeals to the single-family definition. Especially since the current guidelines don't seem to apply to foster, adoptive or other kinds of families.
Posted By Anonymous Sara, Peoria, Illinois : 9:04 PM ET
You have got to be joking.
Our govenments have no right to regulate who lives where. If they do not pay the house note or rent (which ever the case maybe) that is one thing, but that is up to the bank/landlord to decide. I would be suprised if the city does not get slapped with a suit for discrimination. In such a case, my wife and would have broken their laws for 3 1/2 years. But luckily, even Texas is not that conservative.
Posted By Anonymous A. Pachlhofer, Midland, Texas : 9:09 PM ET
I find it interesting that the name of one of the people involved in this case, Fondrey Loving, shares a last name with the plantiff in the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which finally ended miscegenation laws in a dozen or so remaining states. I doubt that this issue will get that far, but it is disturbing to think that we can't learn from our history.
Posted By Anonymous Ali Nagib, Chicago, IL : 9:15 PM ET
This article is not about getting married, it is about the definition of family. How are they related? Shelltrack & Loving are not related, they do not meet the definition of family. The relationship is defined by marriage, blood or adopted; these two are not married, not related by blood and are not adopted by the same parents. This is the issue.
Posted By Anonymous Debra Irvin, Housing Director, City of Black Jack : 1:23 PM ET
Are you serious? I think as long as your paying your taxes and keeping current on payments you should be able to live in a house that you purchased. And that town sounds like it is just discriminating against certain people and the family should take action against the city.
Posted By Anonymous Matthew Eshbaugh, Blaine, Washington : 1:58 PM ET
The words, "Mind your own freakin' business," come to mind here...

I mean why is a piece of paper so important to this community. This family IS a family - committed to each other, raising kids in what appears to be a successful, healthy home. Looks darn good too me.
Posted By Anonymous Courtney, Chagrin Falls, OH : 2:03 PM ET
What's funny is that the ACLU refers to the "Constitutional right to privacy." Nowhere in the constitution is the word "privacy" even mentioned. It is true that certain privacy aspects are inferred, but the way the ACLU waves it around you'd think it was the 29th amendment.
Posted By Anonymous Joe Smith, Waco, TX : 2:31 PM ET
Sorry about that technical malfunction, here's the rest:

For Grace, who asked "then why not just get married?"

Guess who the group of people living together, not married to one another, ACTUALLY is? Check your census results even 10 years ago and you will get a big shock, as I did.

Who most often makes up that group in many urban areas?

That's right, folks--Seniors receiving pensions that were awarded to their former or deceased spouses. If they remarry they lose the pension and insurance benefits that go with it; this group is mostly women. Their SS benefits can remain if they remarry---as long as they do not take both the former spouse's and the current spouse's money. But greed or their own idea of what the word necessity means "requires" they stay unmarried and stick with the old payment system to have everything they want--such as homes in both FL and PA, medicine and food, lunch at Denney's, clothes n theri backs, all at the same time. I am being facetious here folks, don't get out the knives. Yet.

I was the property manager for a large real estate and property management company and lived on the property I managed for over 7 years. I had lived there before working for them, too.

60/40 split between elderly and younger people, most applications we received in the mail or by fax were heavily in favor of the elderly. It was their choice to apply of course, as it should be. We could not, by law, market to the elderly or any other group more than to any other. We could not advertise only in the major city newspaper because not all community groups and protected classes get that paper, so we had to pay about $2000 per month for ads in rental magazines, the 2 regional papers, online, etc to reach ALL prospective residents out there and give them all equal cracks at getting a chance to rent a unit here.

Most of the younger people did have kids, but many were working professionals, most, not all, were married. Many gay couples, lesbian couples, too, some with kids some without. This was on an upscale property in the North Hills area of PA near McCandless, Franklin Park area.

I signed the leases and did the background and rental and employment reference checks and approved their credit and income paperwork--they each had to have income from whatever source they could show evidence of to us of 3:1 meaning 3 income units to 1 rent unit amount, common practice by landlords in many areas.

So, if rent was $600 per month they each had to have a minimum of proveable income of $1800 per month, gross. $900 per month rent meant each applicant intending to live in the unit had to show proof of $2700 per month income, gross, and so on.

Married couples could use combined income we just had to see it on paper that it was in both their names (a tax return inboth their names, showing each person had entitlement ot he amount), as in PA a lease signed by one person is enforceable upon the other singly, as if they acted for both persons.

Meaning, if one left, the other was on the hook for the full rent and could not leave without proper notice and payment of rents owing.

Legal clauses in the lease covered death and incapacitation but not "I just wanted to leave", or "I got tired of him", kinds of things. Short term vs year leases were also their choice.

Rents averaged $800 per month at that time (3- 1/2 years ago).

I did not ask for proof of mariage (not allowed by law to ask that there in that muni) but MANY seniors would say "please don't tell the people who work here or my neighbors that we are not married."

I would say "whyever would you think I would do that? I am bound by confidentiality per my employer's rules here, I would never do that---they will only find out if YOU choose to tell them that".

They said "Because I will lose my money"--NOT EVER did they say "I will be ashamed if they find out" or "others will not like it or think less of me".

And who says it's today's youth that has no morals? If we are gonna judge how moral a person is by whether a person happens to have a marriage document you approve of, I mean.

So folks, never judge any book---young, old, black, white, rainbow, gay, lesbian, by its cover.

Federal Fair Housing law protects these groups in respect to purchasing a home, applying for or renting a home or loaning money for the purchase, building or rental of a home:

Family status (meaning, by law, families with children, natural or adopted, those about to become born, ie: still in the belly, those about to be adopted, foster children, those visiting from the ex's on the weekend, etc), race, color, national origin, sex, religion, handicap.

Not age, not marital status, not employment status, not gender identity or sex orientation or anything else.

The ADA laws deal more specifically with the disabilities issues but no Federally mandated housing law anywhere in this country mandates that you MUST rent to unmarried partners, or gay persons or transgender persons, etc even those who are handicapped, if the handicap is NOT the reason you did not rent to them. In other words, you can not rent to gay persons or transvestites if you so desire.

AND if you own the property , it has less than 4 units and you live fulltime on the property, too--you can ignore all the above. That's right-you can refuse to rent to a black person or a muslim, if you wish. BY FEDERAL LAW.

Handicapped people often have to pay for alterations to the property to accommodate them--it is the person's financial burden in most cases, not the landlord's, believe it or not. A resident wants a stair elevator retrofitted in my older building to get up and down in a building with no elevator. Guess who pays for the stair elevator. NOT ME. They do.

Municipalities "work that out for themselves" mostly, mostly badly or in such bald-faced discrimminatory ways the ACLU should step in. And often has to.

Some muni's protect certain rights not covered by FFH, others say nothing about them and wait till a crisis arises and ends up in landlord-tenant or magistrate's, then civil court. It often does, I am afraid to say. And it gets very emotional and ugly and costs both parties a lot of money and nobody ever feels good when the thing "ends".

Kind of like state's rights vs federal laws re: civil rights many years ago. What good does it do to say one state or muni can outlaw something like this and another can do as it pleases?


And to the person who said "Get over it, I cannot live in a Senior facility, either" that is right, STATE laws say that and also further define a senior facility as one with 80% or more residents over the age of 55 at inception of its designation as a senior facility or one newly built as such; a senior is age 55 or older in ALL 50 states according to the SS admin and HUDv re: senior housing.

BTW, HUD "guidelines" state 2 persons per bedroom only and no more. My property, though full market rent, no section 8, no HUD, etc had the same rule, as do most rental properties in our area. There is no state or federal or muni law on this ANYWHERE in the US federally mandated for this. Most peopl wing it as they go, using the guidelines from HUD as a basis.

If you pay the water, sewer, trash or gasor electric or ANY utility except cable or internet, by law, you have the right to dictate how many people are using them up in each unit you own. BUT, you have to decide the standard ie: number of people per square feet or bedroom or whatever, then must stick to that standard each and every time you sell or rent or sublet.

Since HUD owns or is the lessee on almost all the HUD properties where HUD rents are scaled, they can do that, so they don't end up paying for the water and electric for 25 people living illegally (off lease) in a 3 bedroom unit, rather than the 6 people permitted by their own guidelines.

Now, back to the issue of who decides what a family is: COMMUNITIES DO. BY LAW THEY HAVE THAT RIGHT. We gave those communities that right. And we have to revoke it if we don't like it or conversewly, support it if we do. That's our right.

Places to complain if you don't like it:

Your local mayor, council, zoning or housing boards
Your state governor
Your state rep or your senator
SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) or FFH or HUD or NAACP (if you suspect the guidelines are designed to discrimminate racially or on the basis of family status)
To TV anchors and journalists in your area with consumer protection shows or columns
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