Zoning Nightmare: Hartford’s Scarborough Street House


Somehow or another, our smallish urban intentional community of 11 has found itself at the center of a zoning brouhaha that none of us could have anticipated.

We are longtime friends who have been involved in community activism over the years. As our bonds deepened through our collective work and struggles, we developed a plan to live together as an intentional community in our city of Hartford, Connecticut. Over time, the concept of our extended family evolved and the core group solidified. Several of us lived first in an artist community, then in a purchased home together elsewhere in the city. We celebrated the births of our children and suffered the deeply painful loss of a community member to lung cancer.

When we began looking for a bigger house to fit all of us, we realized that we needed a total of nine bedrooms, a rare find in our city. We were committed to staying within Hartford city limits, and as we scouted for houses, there simply weren’t many homes that fit the bill. In the spring of last year, we found the foreclosed mansion on Scarborough Street, a home with exactly nine bedrooms and two acres of land. It was still well outside our price range, but over the following three months, the price dropped $100,000. The stars aligned and we bought the house.

The house on Scarborough Street was, by far, the largest purchase any of us have ever made. We are “all in,” both financially and emotionally, and it was important to us to make sure all i’s were dotted and t’s crossed, legally speaking. Though only two of us could be on the mortgage, we worked with a lawyer to draft a partnership agreement that makes us all legal owners of the home. We have a shared bank account and we make household purchases like food collectively.

As we moved forward, we were aware that the city’s zoning codes could have been an issue for us. But any person who takes the time to really pore over the zoning regulations would find the exact same thing that we found: ambiguous zoning language that doesn’t make any sense in a modern context. One of the main selling points of the house was that it resides on over two acres of land. This section of the city is designated as R-8, a “single family zone”; however, there is a density clause within the language that allots for 3.6 families per acre. Though we live and operate as a single family, we figured that if issues arose, we would be covered under that portion of the code.

The Hartford zoning regulations’ definition of family reads:

Family means, one (1) person; a group of two (2) or more persons living together and interrelated by consanguinity, marriage, civil union, or legal adoption; or a group of not more than two (2) persons who need not be so related, occupying the whole or part of a dwelling unit as a separate housekeeping unit with a common set of cooking facilities. The persons constituting a family may also include foster children; the number of which shall be in accordance with general statutes as amended and live-in domestic employees. For the purposes of determining density, a roomer, boarder or lodger shall not be considered a member of a family.”

This definition allows for an unlimited number of domestic servants. So clearly, the code was not written with the sole purpose of controlling population density within the neighborhood. Dating from the late 1960s, its design seems to have been more about controlling who could afford to live there.

At no point in the buying process did we try to hide the makeup of our group and at no point did anybody advise us not to purchase this property because of the zoning ordinances.

We moved in and began the difficult work of fixing the house up. Renovating a nine-bedroom historic home that had been empty for at least four years took all the time, energy, and money we had. We brought the electrical up to code and began to repair the plumbing. We went out of our way to consult with our neighbors about outdoor aesthetics and checked with them about the type of fencing we wanted to install for the dog. Studies demonstrate that empty houses contribute to neighborhood decline and reduced property values. We hoped that because we were purchasing and caring for an abandoned home, our neighbors would be happy to have us, even if our family structure isn’t quite traditional. Interactions with the neighbors were very positive and we breathed a sigh of relief and let our guard down a little.

The first inkling we had that some of our neighbors were less than pleased with our arrival came about two months in, when a neighbor told us that there were “phone calls going up and down the street” about the number of cars we had. We had eight cars when we first moved in, one for each adult in the house. We had always planned to downsize and share vehicles but with the chaos of moving and renovation, we hadn’t made it a top priority. Our driveway was small and we had been parking cars on the street (a call to Hartford Parking Authority confirmed that this is, in fact, legal, though apparently not the neighborhood norm). As soon as we were told this was an issue, we started parking only in our driveway. We sold two cars and moved driveway expansion to the top of the repair list. Although we remedied the situation, the damage had been done.

The neighbors convened a meeting to discuss our house (we were not invited). At this meeting, attended by 20 or so people, they decided to send a letter to the City of Hartford. Although we moved in wanting only to live quietly and happily, we are not ones to shy away at the first sign of trouble. We love each other, we love our home, and we will do anything we need to do to keep it.

We received a letter from the city stating that we “may be in violation of zoning.” As requested, we contacted them right away to set up an inspection date. In the meantime, we drafted an email to our neighbors introducing ourselves and our living situation. We sent it to some neighbors who had been friendly towards us and asked them to forward it on to others on the street. This email was then forwarded to the city and we received a cease and desist order, stating that they had completed an “inspection via email.”

We hired an accomplished attorney who is also a fellow activist and friend. We had a number of options before us:

We could try to get a variance, which is essentially an exemption from the zoning law. Variances are difficult to obtain, at least in Hartford, and it wouldn’t improve the situation for anybody else affected by outdated zoning regulations.

Adult adoption is legal in Connecticut, but the judge who would decide the case lives in our neighborhood.

We could have hired each other as servants, but we were worried about tax implications, not to mention that we don’t want to hide behind a technicality.

Ultimately, the zoning regulations as they are currently written affect far more people than just us. We decided to challenge the definition of family within the city’s zoning regulations.

There has been a great deal written about how zoning laws have been, and continue to be, used to oppress communities. There are many others in situations similar to ours who are forced to fly under the radar. In our city, which is one of the poorest in the country, many families are forced to remain silent while their landlords keep their homes in deplorable conditions, because the first question landlords ask is how many people are living within the dwelling and whether they are related by blood.

It is far past time to change Hartford’s definition of family, not just for us, but for people in our city and beyond.

Simultaneous to the city’s actions, our neighborhood civic association, WECA, convened a hearing to discuss our house. The WECA hearing kicked everything into high gear and made our situation very public. Op-eds and editorials starting appearing in the newspaper and local news stations took notice. From there, national news outlets picked up the story and it was shared widely on social media. We were, and continue to be, completely surprised and overwhelmed by all the attention our situation has received.

We then faced the zoning board of appeals. The board was able to rule only on whether the cease and desist order was issued appropriately, not whether the definition of family itself should be changed. All eight adults and one of the three children spoke at the hearing. We shared how we live as a family day to day, how we love and care for each other, how we support each other in happy times and hard times, how we live as more of a tight unit than most “typical” families do. At this hearing, many neighbors spoke against us, arguing that we are changing the character of the neighborhood and if they allow us, it will open the door to boarding houses which are—without question and for many reasons—a big problem in our city. These arguments are all easily addressed with well-written, thoughtful zoning language, and there have been attempts made by friendly folks within the city to do just that (attempts that were quickly shot down). Out of the five who heard our case, three board members were fully on our side and believe that the ordinance needs to be changed. They were saddened that they did not have the power to do so, and that they could not, in good faith, find the grounds to dismiss the cease and desist order. Two of those three were moved to tears that they couldn’t help us.

With heavy hearts, we took the next step of filing a lawsuit in federal court against the city.

The day before we were set to announce our federal lawsuit against the city, the city, in turn, filed a preemptive lawsuit against us in state court.

Around this same time, the zoning board quietly changed the code to limit to three domestic servants, clearly an attempt by a few on the board to make our court case harder to pursue.

In a city where zoning violations are routinely ignored, where the blighted properties list is pages and pages long, and the slumlords who own properties in Hartford’s low-income communities of color routinely get away with ongoing and repeated violations, why was a minor infraction to an unclear zoning ordinance enforced so heavily?

The case is currently in court, with our lawyer and the city’s lawyer battling it out behind the scenes. We don’t anticipate that there will be any significant progress made until the fall and in the meantime, we are not facing any mounting penalties and we are thrilled to have a little quiet time to simply enjoy family dinners, garden, celebrate birthdays, and play some epic games of hide and seek in our giant home.

We are worn out and exhausted. But at the same time, we are deeply hopeful. The amazing support we have received from friends, loved ones, and fantastic strangers gives us strength. We are sustained by the fact that our situation has allowed us to share with the world how joyful, fulfilling, practical, and sustainable intentional community life is. What keeps us going is the hope that we can change the definition of family for many more than just us. In the end, it’s not the house that’s the prize, it’s our community. This is worth fighting for and we aren’t going to let anyone tear us apart.

Dave Rozza, 37, likes things and stuff. Dave is super proud of his two awesome kids and adores his smart, beautiful, talented partner in crime, Laura…without her he would likely be lying in a ditch somewhere.

Hannah Simms, 31, is (as Tessa likes to remind her) the household’s youngest grown-up. She works with Julia at theatre company HartBeat Ensemble, does a bunch of freelance theatre gigs and projects, and grows an overabundance of zucchini.

Josh Blanchfield, 37, is a social studies and history teacher, husband to Julia, and father to Tessa and Elijah. LOL is a literal term for Josh and his sense of humor keeps us snarfing our juice.

Julia Rosenblatt, 40, is (as Tessa likes to remind her) the household’s oldest grown-up. She is the Artistic Director of HartBeat Ensemble, the mother of Tessa and Elijah, the wife of Josh, and a lover of sleep.

Kevin Lamkins, 38, is Associate Professor of English at Capital Community College in Hartford. He loves playing and listening to music, hockey, bikes, and zombie stuff. He also loves animals, especially his 13-year old calico, Rosa.

Laura Rozza, 37, works in the grants department for the Town of East Hartford. Things that make her happy include her partner Dave, who is amazing in every possible way, her son Milo, her step-son Joshua (not Josh Blanchfield), and her fluffy kitty Tater Tot.

Maureen Welch, 34, is a therapist and general feelings enthusiast. She enjoys drinking coffee with Simon, wearing rompers, and playing drums in the indie rock band The Lonesome While.

Simon Raahauge DeSantis is a 34-year-old Latin teacher originally from Massachusetts. His passions include rowing, bicycles, retired racing greyhounds, Mazda Miatas, and Maureen Welch. His loyal and lazy dog is Sofie.

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Setting the Record Straight

A few things we’ve been wanting to share:

It’s not lost on us that we are fighting to stay in our beautiful mansion while others among us struggle each day for their lives, living under racism and other systems of oppression. White privilege plays a huge role in every aspect of our situation and we never forget that.

Though some have drawn parallels and we are honored by the comparison, our struggle in no way compares to what our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters have endured and continue to endure. Marriage equality is only the first step on the long road to equality for all people.

While we are not polyamorous, there are many poly families out there who have been forced to live in the shadows. Nobody should ever have to hide their consensual, loving relationships. Family is who you love, who you care for in your everyday life. If, collectively, we as humans stopped looking at the nuclear family as the point to strive toward and instead, began shaping our own definition of family and healthy relationships, what would the world look like?

It is important to mention that a few of our neighbors have been absolutely wonderful to us, bringing us welcome baskets and inviting us over to their home for drinks. Their kindness means more than we could ever say.

There are effective ways to allow for “functional families” while disallowing boarding houses, frat houses, and the other fears that our neighbors have. The Town of Bellevue, Washington just passed fantastic updates to their zoning ordinances that accomplish just that:

Bellevue, Washington’s Definition of “Family”:

Not more than four adult persons, unless all are related by blood, marriage, or legal adoption, living together as a single housekeeping unit. A group of related persons living in a household shall be considered a single housekeeping unit. Provided: a group of more than four unrelated adult persons living together in a dwelling unit may also be included within the definition of “family” if they demonstrate to the Director that they operate in a manner that is functionally equivalent to a family. Factors that shall be considered by the Director include whether the group of more than four unrelated persons:

A. Shares the entire dwelling unit or acts as separate roomers;

B. Includes minor, dependent children regularly residing in the household;

C. Can produce proof of sharing expenses for food, rent, or ownership costs, utilities, and other household expenses;

D. Shares common ownership of furniture and appliances among the members of the household;

E. Constitutes a permanent living arrangement, and is not a framework for transient living;

F. Maintains a stable composition that does not change from year to year or within the year;

G. Is not a society, fraternity, sorority, lodge, organization or other group of students or other individuals where the common living arrangement or basis for the establishment of the housekeeping unit is temporary; or

H. Can demonstrate any other factors reasonably related to whether or not the group of persons is the functional equivalent of a family.

The Director shall issue a written determination of whether a group of more than four unrelated adult persons are operating in a manner that is functionally equivalent to a family.

Bellevue’s “Rooming House” Definition:

A non-owner-occupied dwelling that is subject to multiple leases or in which rooms are offered for rent or lease on an individual room basis.

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