Family Definition: Potential Amendments to Accommodate Today’s Families

Over the past several years, both City Council and residents have identified the current “Family” definition (as used in Bellingham Municipal Code Chapter 20.08) as one area that should be reviewed to reflect changed demographics and address inequities around housing issues. The project also has the potential to implement many of the Comprehensive Plan’s goals and policies, including those related to housing, equity and compact growth.

“Family” is a common term in traditional zoning codes throughout the country that is used to delineate residential zoning districts with residential uses (e.g. single-family, multi-family, etc.) from other zones with other uses (e.g. industrial, commercial, etc.). To summarize, BMC Chapter 20.08 defines “Family” as one or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or not more than three unrelated persons, living together within a single dwelling unit. Certain exceptions apply. Changes to the family definition may impact whether more than three unrelated people may live together in a dwelling unit, regardless of unit type or zoning district. It is not anticipated that limitations will be placed on people related by blood, marriage or adoption, which are currently unrestricted in the definition.

Key Principles

After reviewing the history of Family definitions, litigation around this issue, and examples from other communities, the following draft principles were developed to guide the discussion on potential changes to the Family definition:

  • Protect health and safety;
  • Accommodate the very changed reality of “family”;
  • Provide housing choice that is responsive to the new reality of family while considering neighborhood character. Character is not defined by ownership; rather, construction type and building form help shape it;
  • Respect the privacy of residents; and
  • Consider legal and enforcement issues associated with the City’s existing and possible future Family definition.


Engage Bellingham

The City is using Engage Bellingham to engage with the community on various City-sponsored projects, planning processes and programs. Sign up at our engagement site by clicking the button below to learn more, provide input and stay informed about this project!

Invite Us to Your Virtual Meetings

If your group (professional organization, neighborhood association, non-profit, etc.) would be interested in learning more about this project and telling us what you think – contact us at and invite us to your next virtual meeting!


Planning Commission Meetings

June 17, 2021 – Public Hearing will be held to consider amendments to the Family definition.

May 6, 2021 – Under the Director’s Report, staff introduced forthcoming code amendments r.e. limitation on occupancy.

December 3, 2020 – Planning Commission work session to discuss alternatives to the Family definition.

September 17, 2020 – Planning Commission Work Session to discuss the City Council work sessions on the City’s Family definition.

City Council Meetings

July 20, 2020 – City Council Committee of the Whole Work Session to continue the discussion on the City’s Family definition.

June 22, 2020 – City Council Committee of the Whole Work Session to discuss potential options for the City’s Family definition.

Public Comments

Comments received through June 30, 2020
Comments received through September 18, 2020
Comments received through November 30, 2020


Contact staff at with questions and/or to receive periodic project updates via email.