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Mobtown Beat

We Are Family?

Court ruling redefines what it means to be a family if you're living in Baltimore

Cresmont Loft Apartments

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 8/5/2009

The state's highest court has some good news for Maryland landlords, though that may be bad news for devotees of the traditional family. In a case pitting the city's zoning bureaucracy against a pair of neighborhood activists, the court ruled last week that four unrelated people constitute a "family," even if each person signs an individual lease, and even if the landlord retains the power to move tenants to different apartments against their wishes.

The case, Douglas M. Armstrong v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, began many years ago and has devolved into a series of legal skirmishes that the judges likened to the 100 Years War. At issue is a Borg-like structure called the Cresmont Loft Apartments, in Remington about a block from the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. Armstrong and his wife, Joan Floyd, say they lost use of their two-car garage when the developers improperly closed an alley behind their home (the judge rejected that contention), and that the building is far too big for its setting ("Zone of Contention," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 4, 2006).

Cresmont's developers aimed for the student populations, offering single bedrooms for $675 per month (the rents are higher now). The catch: each bedroom shares a kitchen, baths, and living space with three other bedrooms, the occupants of which each have their own lease.

City zoning officials had no problem with this, so Armstrong and Floyd sued to stop the scheme, claiming that it violated regulations pertaining to the minimum square footage required for each dwelling unit. The Court of Appeals, in a case reported on July 23, sided with the city, which held that each four-bedroom apartment counts as a "dwelling unit," and each quartet of students is a "family," for zoning purposes.

"This is very interesting," Floyd says. "It means that everybody else can do the same thing."

Floyd claimed that this definition of a family would render meaningless another section of the city code that prohibits a family from taking on more than two "roomers," but the judge found that unpersuasive, according to the decision, because the rooming ordinance does not presuppose that every roomer has unrestricted access to the rest of the house, other than cooking and bathroom facilities.

The court's decision appears to take the debate to where it will likely reside in the future--the regulation of so-called "recovery houses" for drug addicts. But it does so by applying a "transience" standard that, logically, should also fit college students.

"In addition, the 'single housekeeping unit' standard ordinarily does not embrace circumstances in which one or more of the members of the purported unit are transient," the court writes, citing a 1985 New Jersey case ("holding that 11 people staying in a group home for alcoholics did not qualify as a 'family' under the 'single housekeeping unit' standard because they 'could leave at any time' and the average length of stay was only six months. . . '")

Six months, of course, is a bit longer than a semester.

"I think in the new zoning code, it's not gong to be four [people]," Floyd says. "It's going to be six, or eight--they've got to let people have eight in the recovery houses. So the argument will arise that everyone has to [be allowed to] have eight."

To be continued, no doubt.

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