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We Are Family – Not

by Charles A. Rausch, Esquire

In Schwartz v. Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment, 1334 C.D. 2014 (Pa. Cmwlth. Ct., filed September 24, 2015), the Commonwealth Court had the opportunity to wrestle with the definition of “family.”  The petitioners owned single-family houses and rented them out to Drexel University students.  The Philadelphia Zoning Code defined “family” as a “group of persons living as a single household unit using housekeeping facilities in common, but not to include more than three persons unrelated by blood, marriage or adoption.”  The petitioners were cited for violating the Zoning Code, and litigation ensued.  The petitioners argued that: (1) the definition of “family” should be subject to “strict scrutiny” under the Constitution; (2) the definition of “family” is unconstitutional; and, (3) the trial court erred when it found that the evidence did not demonstrate that the use of the property by more than three unrelated persons was functionally equivalent to a single-family use of the property.

The Commonwealth Court first reviewed the case law concerning the level of scrutiny to be applied by the courts, and concluded that the definition of family that restricts the number of unrelated persons who may cohabitate in a single-family residence is not subject to strict scrutiny under the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Instead, the zoning ordinance should be reviewed under the lesser standard of the rational basis test.

Second, the Commonwealth Court held that using relationships such as blood, marriage and adoption to limit the use of a single-family residence is not on its face unconstitutional.  But, a court also needs to analyze the ordinance provision in the context of the record to make sure that the ordinance provision is not unconstitutional when applied to the specific use at issue.

Based on the record in this case, the Commonwealth Court found that the petitioners did not demonstrate that the definition of “family” was unconstitutional as applied to their use of the property.  On the one hand, the evidence showed that the students living in the house  cooked, dined and did chores together.  On the other hand, the evidence also showed that during the lease term, two roommates moved out, and two new roommates moved in.  While the Commonwealth Court found that the evidence supported a determination that the individual residents have formed a single-household unit, the  definition of “family” caps the number of unrelated persons that can function as a single unit.  The petitioners still have to prove by substantial evidence that their use of the property is equivalent to the use of the property by a group of persons that are related by blood, marriage or adoption.  The Commonwealth Court found that the petitioners did not meet that burden.