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.


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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

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 17, 2020


History of the Family Definition

Starting in the mid-1960s, cities sought to control housing impacts, primarily in single-family zones, through zoning ordinances that limit the number of unrelated people living together. These limitations are typically included as part of a definition of Family in zoning ordinances, and are based on formal, rather than functional, families. “Formal” family ordinances restrict residency to those related by blood, marriage or adoption. “Functional” family ordinances extend beyond people related by blood, marriage or adoption to those who have formed intimate interpersonal connections that echo the archetypal nuclear family. Bellingham’s definition of Family is a blend of formal and functional families and includes a restriction of “…one or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or not more than three unrelated persons, living together within a single dwelling unit…” It includes exceptions for facilities housing individuals with disabilities, those who are incarcerated, and others.

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.


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