Active: Federal lawsuit filed to overturn city’s unlawful co-living ordinance

People choose to live with non-relatives for many reasons—they’re new to town, they want to make friends and build a community, they have no family nearby, or they can’t afford to buy a house or pay rent on a solo income. At a time when Americans are delaying marriage and families (in 2017, nearly 32% of all American adults lived in a shared household) and amidst an affordable housing crisis, the need for shared living is skyrocketing. But when an innovative new roommate living startup tried to meet this need in one Kansas city, the city council responded with an outright ban on co-living among four or more unrelated people. 

College degree in hand and a new career in Silicon Valley, Johnny Wolff soon realized his only affordable housing option in the San Francisco Bay area would require roommates. It was 2007, and finding reliable, compatible people to share living space with was a challenge, at best, especially for young adults attending school or working in new, unfamiliar places. 

Johnny spent the next ten years drawing on his own roommate experiences and his work in finance, tech, and real estate to devise a solution: a co-living concept for renters to share homes. After his 2018 move to Kansas City, he launched HomeRoom, Inc., an innovative property management company that connects owners with people seeking roommates through strategic vetting and matchmaking that optimizes harmonious communal living spaces.  

HomeRoom quickly grew from one home to 200 homes in eight states, with more than 1,300 occupied rooms. Mindful of both neighbors’ and roommates’ needs, the company provides amenities such as furnished common areas, housecleaning, maintenance, yard services, and even retains a social worker to help resolve any conflict among roommates. 

Demand is stronger in areas where housing supply struggles to keep up with population and Kansas City is no exception. Many of its suburbs—and HomeRoom’s headquarters—are in Johnson County where home prices rose 37% between 2017 and 2021 and residential rents have gone up 11.4% since 2019. So, when roommate seekers in Shawnee, Kansas, came to HomeRoom for help, Johnny—who lives in a co-living home himself—was ready. 

Investors bought two homes in Shawnee, which filled up with tenants as soon as HomeRoom made them available to rent. In April 2022, before the company could add any new properties, the Shawnee city council adopted a “co-living ban” ordinance. The new citywide law prohibits cohabitation of more than three unrelated people in a shared residence. If any one person is unrelated to any other, the entire household is considered “unrelated.” 

Forced to rent its Shawnee properties only to families, HomeRoom helped relocate unrelated residents to different cities. Although the ordinance openly targeted HomeRoom’s business model, it wraps in owner-occupied homes, where the addition of a family friend would be illegal. 

In fact, Shawnee’s standards that would outlaw the fictional living arrangement of television’s “Golden Girls” threatens the real-life household of Val French. In April 2021, when her son’s girlfriend found herself in need of someplace to live, Val opened her heart and her home. As working young adults, Val’s son and girlfriend, along with Val’s husband and stepson, help Val pay the bills and maintain a happy, functioning home. 

Whether it’s the Golden Girls, Val French, or anyone else, the reasons people choose to live with non-relatives are none of the government’s business. And amid a housing affordability crisis, the last thing the government should do is limit housing options. Doing so on the basis of associations or relationships between people is discriminatory and antithetical to a free society.

Homeowners and individuals alike have a fundamental right to establish a household that meets their personal needs without undue government interference. The Supreme Court has made clear that unjust intrusions into people’s living situations violate the Constitution’s due process protections and cannot stand. 

Represented at no charge by PLF, Johnny and HomeRoom, along with Ms. French, are fighting back with a federal lawsuit to overturn Shawnee’s illegal ordinance and to restore these rights. 

What’s At Stake?

  • The government exceeds its land-use authority when it regulates not only the use of land but the relationships among its users. Banning people from living together just because they aren’t related or because the government disproves of it is discriminatory, illegal, and antithetical to a free society.
  • The Constitution protects the fundamental right of homeowners and individuals alike to establish a household that meets their personal needs without undue government interference.

Case Timeline

January 22, 2024
Appellants Opening Brief
United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
May 09, 2023