An Eternal, Ever-Changing Covenant


Manassas, Virginia, officials are defending the city's new ordinance redefining family so as to prevent residents from living with aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, or nephews–all of whom now count as unrelated. The ordinance, which is enforced in response to neighbors' complaints, has been used primarily against Latino immigrants. According to an official statement, "The City views residential zoning regulations as a covenant with citizens who purchase property in the community, and our actions honor this commitment. The suggestion that changes in the zoning ordinance reflect any other intent on the part of City government are absolutely false."

It seems strange to describe zoning regulations as a "covenant," since one party is free to change the terms of the arrangement at will, while the other has no choice but to obey its requirements. People who bought homes in Manassas with the expectation of living in them with their extended families had no reason to think they would one day be forced to evict their relatives. The city claims to be motivated by "broad-based community concerns about overcrowding." But that rationale is belied by the fact that the city is making "unrelated" family members move out of households that are well within their legal occupancy limits.

Given the new rule's disproportionate impact on Latinos and the immigration-related concerns underlying its passage, its victims have a plausible discrimination claim. They also can argue that the ordinance violates the 14th Amendment by depriving them of liberty without due process. In 1977 the Supreme Court overturned a similar zoning rule in East Cleveland, Ohio, on due process grounds. That case involved a woman living with her son and two grandsons who were cousins to each other, a grouping that did not count as a "family" under East Cleveland's housing ordinance. In an opinion by Lewis Powell, the Court ruled that the ordinance violated "the sanctity of the family," adding: "Ours is by no means a tradition limited to respect for the bonds uniting the members of the nuclear family. The tradition of uncles, aunts, cousins, and especially grandparents sharing a household along with parents and children has roots equally venerable and equally deserving of constitutional recognition."

Under threat of litigation, at least one member of the Manassas City Council seems to be having second thoughts. "I admit, we're legislators," she told The Washington Post, "part-time legislators. We do the best we can, and if we made a mistake with this, we will reconsider."