Beyond the Nuclear Family: New Policies and Practices Are Needed for the Way We Live Now

housesWe are living in a time of unprecedented possibilities for how to live. Nuclear family households may still be sentimental favorites in popular culture, but in real life, they are in the distinct minority. Fewer than 20 percent of all households in the U.S. are comprised solely of nuclear families.

Instead, we have a proliferation of innovative alternatives, as I discovered when researching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.  I should have kept count of the number of people who said that when they get older, they want to find a big house to share with their friends. It is not just fantasy. More and more people are living in these Golden Girls type homes, and they are not all seniors or young adults just starting out. Others are living in places of their own within intentional communities, such as cohousing communities. Multigenerational households have also continued to increase in numbers, even after the recent recession ended.

Our policies and practices, though, have not caught up with our actual lives. If the sweet foursome of Rose, Blanche, Dorothy, and Sophia were to move into a nice part of town today, their neighbors just might take them to court to try to get rid of them. Even if they did not get tossed out on a zoning technicality, they might not be able to find a place they could afford, or they might not be able to find a place that was suitable (all on one floor, designed for accessibility and other aging-in-place considerations), or the available places might be in inconvenient or undesirable locations.

For the past several weeks, I have been asking experts and activists and innovative thinkers to tell me what needs to change if people are going to be able to live with the people who matter most to them, in the kinds of homes and communities that suit them and allow them to live with dignity. As I will explain, they pointed to a range of legal issues and practical concerns. First, though, let’s consider a case that illustrates many of the most important points.

The Scarborough 11

The story of one particular non-nuclear family in Hartford, Connecticut has made national news and elicited an outpouring of support. Sometimes called the Scarborough 11, they are 8 adults who have been longtime friends, and three children. The two couples with children, one couple with no children, and two single people moved from a house that was too small for them into a 9-bedroom dilapidated mansion that had been empty for at least four years. Only two of the adults could be listed on the mortgage but their attorney, Peter Goselin, wrote a partnership agreement that named all of them as legal owners.

The adults renovated the house and brought it up to code, and settled in to the family life they so enjoyed. They share meals and household expenses, make decisions together, plan their lives together, care for each other, and love each other. When they described their feelings for one other, and the mutual support they provide in good times and bad, several members of a zoning board of appeals were moved to tears.

The family was appearing before the board because their very non-traditional household upset some of their neighbors, who feared that frat houses and boarding houses might be next. The area was zoned for single-family homes, and the neighbors believed that the 11 people living on Scarborough Street did not qualify as a single family.

Definitions of family are at the core of policies and regulations at all levels of government. Most of the definitions are too narrow to include all of the new and meaningful ways that people are creating family in the twenty-first century.

As Peter Goselin noted in an email exchange:

[Not all families] live at a single address, nor are there always “heads of households,” nor do households always hold only a single family, nor are these relationships we create that we call families always made up of people to whom we are related by blood, marriage, or adoption.

The definition of family in the Hartford zoning regulations allowed for two or more people “living together and interrelated by consanguinity, marriage, civil union, or legal adoption.” But if the residents are unrelated, only two adults were allowed – unless they were domestic servants. Households could have any number of those.

Goselin added:

In the Scarborough 11 case, my clients are struggling with a narrow definition of family that literally forbids many real, intentionally chosen families from living in their neighborhood. Ironically, the law permits my clients to enter into a partnership to own their house together, but bars them from living in it.


 #1 The Narrow Definition of Family

 Restrictive definitions of family stand in the way of basic benefits and protections for those who are not married. For example, they limit family and medical leave, sometimes making it impossible for unmarried Americans to be there for the ones they love, or for those people to be there for them. Bereavement leave is curtailed, too.

As the Scarborough 11 case shows, narrow definitions also place unfair restrictions on the places people can live. Mia Birdsong, family activist and co-director (with Nicole Rodgers) of Family Story, said that these definitions can also restrict access to homeownership, as when eligibility for certain first-time homebuyer programs is limited to single families. Extended families and groups of friends are left out, even if they meet the income requirements.

In an article on the significance of the definition of family to access to subsidized housing, attorney Madeline Howard described many ways that restrictive definitions are especially harmful to people with low incomes. For example:

  • Low-income families may need to share a place with other families out of financial necessity, but then it becomes hard for them to find a place to live, because their shared households are disallowed by many zoning regulations
  • Low-income families may be especially likely to have fluid families, with people entering and leaving the household as their circumstances change
  • “HUD rules allow families to bring foster children into the home, but define foster children as a child in custody of a state or other public agency, thus excluding unofficial caretaking arrangement.” Various local rules “may limit the flexibility of struggling families who depend on unofficial foster parenting relationships.”

 Even when unrelated individuals (such as groups of friends) are included in definitions of family, sometimes the number of such people who can qualify is severely limited. In the Hartford example, that number was just two.

#2 Current Legal Documents Are Inadequate, and New Ones Are Expensive to Create

The Scarborough 11 found that they could only include two of the adults on the mortgage. My House, Our House co-author Louise Machinist found the same thing. Like the Hartford family, she and her home-mates had to hire a lawyer to draw up the appropriate papers. It cost them thousands of dollars. What we need, she told me, are “state of the art co-owner agreements, or general partnership agreements, that are simple and easily adaptable to protect the rights of unmarried folks who live together, especially those who bought property together.”

#3 Density Regulations Need to Change

Kathryn (Katie) McCamant is the President of CoHousing Solutions. She and Charles Durrett get the credit for bringing cohousing to the U.S. and doing so much to help it grow and thrive here. When I asked her about zoning policies, she pointed to the importance of density regulations:

Some cities have already moved toward “minimum number of units” instead of a maximum number of units. This is will help create the higher densities we need to support mass transit and other “city living” amenities.  Another change that would be helpful for those interested in smaller, more affordable homes would be defining density regulations by maximum square footage rather than max number of units. As an example, I am working with a California cohousing group that is trying to purchase a property soon-to-be approved for 31 units of regular townhomes. Most developers will build only larger townhomes in order to maximize their “sellable square feet” since realtors now talk about home prices as a $/sf. The cohousing group would like to build less overall square footage, but have more, smaller units. That will be difficult with the way zoning is defined by number of units, as well as politically.

Along with that, would be defining development fees (planning, building permits, and impact fees) by square foot rather than by unit, which again, encourages developers to build larger units.

#4 The Problem of Cars

Among those neighbors who objected to the Scarborough 11, one of their complaints was the number of cars. The family quickly got rid of a few of their cars, enlarged their driveway and parked the rest of their cars there.

Katie McCamant also mentioned this in her suggestions about how zoning regulations need to change:

One of the big issues tends to be the number of cars (1 per adult, as opposed to the typical 2 per family). Shared cars or cities where you don’t have to own a car help with this.

#5 Affordability

Affordability is not just an issue for people who already qualify as low-income. As Cindy Butler, past Executive Director of Unmarried Equality, noted:

“I know too many women who have been unemployed or underemployed for long periods of time. They have had to use retirement funds to survive and will have to work until they die.  The only way housing will be affordable is to share.  We need more affordable options that provide co-housing opportunities.”

Katie McCamant agrees:

I think shared houses and accessory units will be a big piece of how we create more affordable housing for all the boomers that didn’t save enough for retirement.

Sharing Housing author Annamarie Pluhar has a specific idea she would like to see implemented:

“I would love it if the tax code changed to allow seniors who share their own residence and earn income as part of the arrangement would not have to pay income tax on it.”

Economic challenges are likely to be especially severe for unmarried Americans, who are excluded from the many tax breaks and other lucrative benefits available only to those who are officially married. Cindy Butler underscored one of the most significant ones, Social Security:

“Many of us will end up being taken care of, or sharing in the care of, friends. Not spouses, not blood family members.  If I have put funds into Social Security since I starting working at age 16, shouldn’t I be able to have those funds help support those I leave behind?  Why does a marriage license provide that support?  My money will go back to the system when I die, so I am essentially supporting married people and their children. We should be able to share our benefits with whomever we share our lives. A marriage license should not dictate who is worthy or not.”

#6 Location, Location, Location

Louise Machinist noted that housing that is suitable and affordable is sometimes located “way out in the boondocks,” where people may not want to live.

Louise wasn’t referring to subsidized housing, but Madeline Howard was. She argues that some of the inaccessibility is deliberate:

“In order to exclude all low-income families, wealthy communities may use zoning restrictions to exclude both shared family homes and affordable housing developments. As a result, subsidized housing developments are often located in remote and undesirable locations, and low-income families of color are segregated from wealthier, whiter communities.”

Issues of both affordability and accessibility are beginning to be addressed by programs requiring that particular tracts of land or a certain number of units of new developments be set aside for affordable housing. In Oakland, CA, for example, “A People’s Proposal” is advocating for “public land for the public good.” And in New York City, Mayor de Blasio is proposing “Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning.”

#7 The Design of Housing and Communities

When I asked people how the design of homes and communities will need to change to keep up with the ways people want to live now, there was one response I got over and over again: built more homes with more than one master bedroom.

Moira Bowman, deputy director of Forward Together, pointed to the importance of multigenerational households to groups such as immigrants, Asians, and other families of color. Multiple master bedrooms may be particularly attractive to households with multiple generations.

Annamarie Pluhar has her finger on the pulse of groups of people who want to live together as home-mates (sharing their lives, and not just the house). She thinks the seniors among them who are interested in living with friends want not just multiple master suites, but homes that are single-story. Louise Machinist agrees, and adds that Boomers also want their homes outfitted with features that facilitate aging in place.

Author and marketing expert Lori Martinek would like to see “the return of the four-unit duplex, where four owners come together to jointly own and live ‘together but separately’ in one place.” She also sees the appeal of “smaller apartment or condo buildings that have shared amenities and a strong sense of community.”

I’ve been emphasizing various forms of shared housing, but many people live alone, and want to continue to do so for as long as they possibly can – even as they need more and more help. For those people (as well as others who do not live alone but still need help if they are to stay in their homes), my favorite development is the nationwide Village movement. Villages are locally-based membership organizations that provide seniors with easy access to resources and help such as rides and assistance with household chores. Many Villages also host social and cultural events. (I described Villages in more detail, with an emphasis on the one in Santa Barbara, in How We Live Now.) There are currently about 190 villages, with another 150 in the works.


When I asked long-time Unmarried Equality member and former Board member Rajiv Garg for his suggestions, he said:

“Change the definition of family – a social unit consisting of one or more adults living together with or without the children they care for. Actually, better yet, remove it from any laws granting preferences based on family (except in the case of parent/child or guardian/ward).”

All of the people who have played important roles in UE (or its previous iterations) ended up offering the same big picture perspectives.  Thomas Coleman, who has been working on issues of unmarried equality for decades, believes that when policies promise not to discriminate on the basis of characteristics such as race or religion, marital status should be included among those protected classes. Current UE Treasurer Gordon Morris said that we should “phase out marriage privileges in the tax code, in Social Security, and everywhere else.” In a Washington Post article, current Board Chair Sarah Wright argued for government getting out of the marriage business entirely. It may sound radical, but as Sarah and others have noted, it has quite a lot of support from across ideological and political spectrums.

Bella color, square, 376 dpi

[Notes. (1) Thanks to all the people who offered their wisdom or referred me to other great sources for this article and another recent article I wrote for the Washington Post, “Singles have fewer benefits than married couples – but are slowly gaining more.” They include Joan Arthur, Mia Birdsong, Moira Bowman, Cindy Butler (special thanks to her for suggesting this topic),  Tom Coleman, Joshua Gamson, Rajiv Garg, Peter Goselin, Louise Machinist, Jared Make, Lori Kahn Martinek, Katie McCamant, Gordon Morris, Sylvia Organ, Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Annamarie Pluhar, Barbara Risman, Nicole Rodgers, Alicia Rosenthal, Amy Walters, and Sarah Wright. Even with these two articles, I still have not addressed all the issues that were mentioned; I will keep writing. (2) The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (3) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all of these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there.]

About the author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of  How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at

Previous columns:

#11 How the Washington Post (Almost) Published a Week of Respectful Articles about Unmarried Life

#10 Unmarried Status Is a Diversity Issue

#9 Unmarried Americans as home buyers and home creators

#8 The right to be single

#7 Nuclear family privilege: Naming it and slaying it

#6 Is marriage a greedy institution?

#5 Housing Discrimination against People Who Are Not Married: What We Just Don’t Get

#4 Now It’s Really Time for Unmarried Equality

#3 3 Roads to Social Justice – For Lasting Change, We Must Follow Them All

#2 The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

#1 The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared (or click here for a version that includes links)

About Bella DePaulo


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