Family Definition: Potential Amendments to Accommodate Today's Families

Over the past several years, both City Council and residents have identified the current “Family” definition (as used in Bellingham Municipal Code Chapter 20.08) as one area that should be reviewed to reflect changed demographics and address inequities around housing issues.

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History of the Family Definition

After reviewing the history of Family definitions, litigation around this issue, and examples from other communities, staff has developed the following list of potential draft principles that should guide the discussion on potential changes to the Family definition:

    • Protect health and safety;
    • Accommodate the very changed reality of “family”;
    • Provide housing choice that is responsive to the new reality of family while maintaining and improving neighborhood character. Character is not defined by ownership; rather, construction type and building form help shape it; and
    • Consider legal and enforcement issues associated with the City's existing and possible future Family definition.

    Starting in the mid-1960s, cities sought to control housing impacts, primarily in single-family zones, through zoning ordinances that limit the number of unrelated people living together. These limitations are typically included as part of a definition of Family in zoning ordinances, and are based on formal, rather than functional, families. “Formal” family ordinances restrict residency to those related by blood, marriage or adoption. “Functional” family ordinances extend beyond people related by blood, marriage or adoption to those who have formed intimate interpersonal connections that echo the archetypal nuclear family. Bellingham’s definition of Family is a blend of formal and functional families and includes a restriction of “…one or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or not more than three unrelated persons, living together within a single dwelling unit…” It includes exceptions for facilities housing individuals with disabilities, those who are incarcerated, and others.

    Legislative Process / Community Involvement

    On June 22, 2020, staff met in a work session with the City Council Committee of the Whole to review the history of the Family definition, examples of Family definitions from other cities, and options for potential amendments to Bellingham’s Family definition. Staff will provide additional information and responses to questions during the July 20 City Council Committee of the Whole meeting. The process to potentially amend the Family definition to accommodate diverse families and living situations will undergo a Type VI legislative process, which includes public hearings at the Planning Commission and City Council. Additional opportunities for public input will be included during the process.

    Public Comment

    Comments received through June 30, 2020

    Planning Commission Meetings

    City Council Meetings

    July 20, 2020 - City Council Committee of the Whole Work Session to continue the discussion on the City's Family definition.

    June 22, 2020 - City Council Committee of the Whole Work Session to discuss potential options for the City’s Family definition.