In this recent Commonwealth Court case several landlords renting single-family properties to students challenged the constitutionality of the Philadelphia Zoning Ordinance’s definition of “family.” Specifically they sought to invalidate the exclusion of “more than three persons unrelated by blood, marriage or adoption” from the definition. In the court’s decision it affirmed the general principles that in Pennsylvania the constitutionality of a zoning ordinance is subject to rational basis review and that ordinances may exclude certain living arrangements from the definition of “family” based on biological and legal bonds.

The challenging Landlords all owned and operated properties that were zoned for single- and two-family use. The properties were located in close proximity to Drexel University and the Landlords each rented their properties to groups of Drexel students that contained more than three persons unrelated by blood, marriage or adoption. They were cited by L&I for violating a section of the Code that prohibits an unauthorized change in the zoned use or occupancy of a property. The Landlords challenged the citations and their appeals were eventually consolidated into the present matter. Their primary arguments on appeal were that the definition of “family” should be reviewed using strict constitutional scrutiny, that using this standard the definition was facially unconstitutional, and that the use of their properties by more than three unrelated persons was functionally equivalent to a single-family use of the property. The Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County held that the zoning ordinance was constitutional on its face and as applied to the Landlords.

On appeal the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.  Citing a long line a cases including Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. and Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, the court found that the passage of time had not lessened the authority of prior state and federal decisions. Pennsylvania courts, it reasoned, have consistently utilized the rational basis test when examining the constitutionality of zoning ordinances limiting the composition of households in single-family residential districts, and no justification existed for straying from this precedent.

Finally, the court examined the specific application of the ordinance to the situations at issue. It found that Appellants failed to produce substantial evidence that their use of the properties was equivalent to the use of the property by a group of persons related by blood, marriage or adoption.  Therefore, the Code was constitutional as applied to their use of the properties.

Click here to read: Schwartz v. Phila. Zoning Board of Adjustment, 1334 C.D. 2014 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. Sep. 24, 2015).