Author:Perry, Twila L.
Position:Response to article by Katharine Silbaugh in this issue, p. 1071

Introduction 1205 I. Families and Households 1207 II. Households and Social Policy 1211 III. Housing Design 1212 IV. Economic and Social Justice Considerations 1213 V. Structuring "Household" Relationships 1216 Conclusion 1219 INTRODUCTION

In the United States, most housing has been constructed with the traditional nuclear family in mind. In the suburbs, the ideal was the single-family dwelling. In urban areas, too, the assumption was that a nuclear family resides in a single-family house or in a single apartment in a multiple dwelling. Today, however, people who are related or who are unrelated reside in many configurations--the majority of people in this country no longer live in the traditional nuclear family, (1) and there are increasing numbers of people who live with others with whom they have no familial relationship. (2)

In "Distinguishing Households from Families," (3) Professor Katharine Silbaugh argues that the law has failed to distinguish between families and households and that housing policies should do more to accommodate the needs of those living in households. (4) Professor Silbaugh's Article provides a valuable contribution to literature at the intersection of housing law and policy and family law and policy. I am pleased to have been invited to comment on her Article, and I hope that the Article will stimulate a wider discussion about planning to better accommodate the needs of the increasing number of people who by choice or necessity live in a variety of residential arrangements.

Professor Silbaugh's discussion of the concept of households brought back some childhood memories for me. Growing up in New York City, in Harlem, during the 1950s and 1960s, I often observed a particular residential arrangement: There were a number of single middle-aged or elderly women who were the primary tenants in large apartments. Looking back, it is likely that the apartments were rent-controlled. (5) The apartments were often quite large, perhaps with three or even four bedrooms. It was not clear to me whether the women were divorced, never married or widowed. As a child, it never occurred to me to think about their marital status.

Some of these women took in roomers. One room in the apartment may have been occupied by a relative, perhaps a niece or nephew newly arrived from the south, seeking employment with the goal of starting a new life in New York. Another room may have been occupied by a young, single woman from the south, perhaps a schoolteacher staying in the city for the summer to take courses at a university in the city. Also, sometimes residing in such an apartment was what my friends who have grown up in similar neighborhoods have humorously called a "Mr. Charles." A "Mr. Charles" was a roomer, often a very nice soft-spoken elderly gentleman, around the same age as the elderly lady whose apartment it was. These kinds of men were often retirees from modest, but respectable jobs, who, as I look back on it, must have had some source of income--perhaps social security, and/or a pension. In any event, they seemed quite comfortable and content with their lives as we watched them coming and going, always well-dressed and carrying themselves with quiet dignity.

As I reflect on these memories from the perspective of adulthood, it was not clear to me whether these women's relationships with "Mr. Charles" were economic, platonic, romantic, or some combination of these. Some may have been intimate cohabitation arrangements between elderly people in an era when many people were not willing to make such relationships public or explicit. In the situations I have described, the various people living in the apartment were not members of the same family, related by blood, marriage or adoption (although one person might have been related to the "landlady"). Instead, they were in the existing arrangement for a variety of reasons, and expectations as to the duration of the arrangement varied.


    In her Article, Professor Silbaugh draws a distinction between families and households. Professor Silbaugh argues that a "household" is not the same as what she describes as the old normative family, consisting of married parents and their minor children in a single-family home. (6) Professor Silbaugh also distinguishes a "household" from the new-normal, non-marital family, which she describes as characterized by a variety of possible formations, including "multigenerational households, the absence of a marriage, family members spread among more than one household, multi-partner attachments over time and multi-partner fertility." (7) In contrast to both of these family formations, she defines a household as a residential arrangement often characterized by "churn," a circumstance that involves "constant entry and exit, both for economic, social, and cultural reasons... due to the life cycle," including changes in intimate attachments. (8)

    Professor Silbaugh argues that housing policy and design need to be more responsive to those who live in households so as to minimize disruption to people's important emotional attachments to buildings, neighborhoods, communities, and families. (9) Professor Silbaugh goes on to provide some suggestions for housing designs that might help to further this goal. (10)

    While Professor Silbaugh argues that families and households are distinct, it seems to me that most of the households described in her examples still have what most people would consider to be family ties, albeit in a wide variety of configurations. The residential arrangements that I encountered in my childhood are of a different nature. The individuals I have described as residing in the same unit often had no familial ties at all--they were not married or linked by parenthood or other ties by blood or adoption. Usually, they did not know each other until they moved into the same apartment. Different people stayed, or intended to stay, for varying lengths of time--from a few months to an indefinite period.

    Still, Professor Silbaugh's concept of a household, and my illustration of a household share some common ground. Most importantly, both are characterized by churn (11)--people are in the household arrangement for varying periods of time; they do not all have the same goals or the same commitment to the continuation of the housing arrangement. Also, both conceptions of a household raise similar issues that housing design and policy can support by addressing the kind of arrangements in which people are living today, in a world in which the nuclear family is no longer the norm.

    The kind of household I remember from my childhood is seen less often in urban areas today. In the 1970s and 1980s, many inner-city neighborhoods fell into decay. (12) The older generations died. City blocks containing the kinds of apartment buildings that had roomy apartments capable of housing a relatively large number of people were demolished. (13) In recent years, as neighborhoods like Harlem have undergone gentrification, much of the new housing that has been built or renovated is beyond the economic means of the kinds of people who historically have lived in the neighborhood. (14) As a result of such factors, today, in neighborhoods like Harlem, housing arrangements with "roomers" are not a part of the same neighborhood culture. (15)

    Still, housing needs persist for people like those I have described. Many people in the city today are neither in parent-child nor marital relationships. (16) In addition to those who are divorced or widowed, there are many people who have never married. (17) Cities are also home to students or young singles who may later marry, but currently live on one income. Another city-dwelling group consists of older people who may not earn enough income to rent an apartment alone. (18) Furthermore, cities include people who are unemployed, recipients of social welfare benefits, homeless or threatened with homelessness. (19) There are those who might wish to live with others simply for companionship, and elderly people who might have the combined need both of low housing costs and companionship. (20) In recent years, I have heard of more and more single people, especially women, express interest in, as they age, living in groups rather than nursing homes or traditional senior citizen's housing. (21) Some of these individuals have economic means and may not need "affordable" alternatives--what they...

To continue reading