Last year, a Community Housing Study revealed a troubling housing problem for Johnson County: rents are rising faster than income, and the supply of homes cannot keep up with demand. In response, the Board of County Commissioners appointed Megan Foreman as Housing Coordinator, a brand-new position created to address the county’s housing problems. Certainly, Ms. Foreman has her work cut out for her. But one good place to start would be encouraging cities to abandon unconstitutional, anti-housing policies that make the problem worse while meddling in people’s personal lives.
Take Shawnee and its now-infamous “co-living” ban, for example.
Adopted last April, the new zoning ordinance prohibits four or more people from sharing a house if any of those people are unrelated. And the ordinance isn’t limited to renters but covers owner-occupied properties as well. As others have pointed out, even TV’s Golden Girls would be prohibited from living together in Shawnee. So, thank you for being a friend, but the city says that’s not good enough.
The policy is bad for housing affordability. According to the Community Housing Study, Shawnee residents report that the housing supply does not meet the needs of single professionals, students, low-wage workers and people with physical or mental disabilities. Yet these are the people most directly targeted by the co-living ban.
As more and more Americans delay marriage and family, the need for roommate relationships is only growing. Those who can’t afford to bear the city’s rising rents are out of luck, and those who can make the rent are denied an important option for defraying costs. According to the study, about half of Shawnee’s renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent.
Of course, economic factors are not the only motivation for co-living. For many people, relation by blood, marriage or adoption is not an absolute prerequisite to being considered family. Many people simply want to live with their loved ones, regardless of whether the city’s zoning ordinance characterizes their relationships as family or not.
There is no question that the co-living ordinance presents an obstacle to Johnson County’s housing affordability efforts. More than that, the ordinance is unjustifiable and unconstitutional government overreach into the personal lives of residents.
The idea behind zoning laws is to regulate the use of land. The co-living ban reaches further, regulating not just the use of land, but people and their private relationships. But your choice of living companions and the makeup of your household aren’t any of the government’s business.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court approved a similar law in a case called Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas. In a powerful dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that laws like the co-living ban unnecessarily and unconstitutionally burden the right of free association. Subsequent legal developments strongly indicate that Justice Marshall had the correct view and that Belle Terre is now ripe for reversal.
But a Supreme Court case isn’t needed to undo Shawnee’s anti-housing, anti-people policy. In her effort to set the county’s housing outlook on the right track, Ms. Foreman would do well to encourage Shawnee to reverse course.
In the meantime, those negatively affected by the ordinance can consider litigation as an option to fight for their constitutional rights. Public interest law firms like mine would be more than happy to challenge this law in court.
This op-ed was originally published at The Center Square on February 28, 2023.