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District 11

Alder Bill Tishler

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Alder Bill Tishler

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P.O Box 5252

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Common Council Office:
210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd
Room 417
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: (608) 266-4071
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Alder Tishler’s Blog

TIME-SENSITIVE MATERIAL: Amending Supplemental Regulations within Section 28.151 MGO and Definitions within Section 28.211 of the Madison General Ordinances to Update Definitions of Family

January 30, 2023 10:55 AM

Building Inspection staff will be hosting two community informational meetings about the proposed legislation to revise the family definition in our zoning code. These meetings are intended to provide information to community members about the proposal and to answer questions about it.
Thursday, February 2 at Noon
You are invited to a Zoom meeting. Please register in advance.
When: Feb 2, 2023, 12:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada).
Monday, February 6 at 6:00 PM
You are invited to a Zoom meeting. Please register in advance.
When: Feb 6, 2023, 6:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada).
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. Read more about the legislation.
Building Inspection website about the proposal is availble here:

Frequently Asked Questions
(updated on 1/30/23)

Who are the sponsors of this proposed ordinance?

Sponsors: Satya V. Rhodes-Conway, Keith Furman, Brian Benford, Juliana R. Bennett, Nikki Conklin, Jael Currie, Grant Foster, Patrick W. Heck, Erik Paulson, Matthew J. Phair

Why Change the Family Definition?

  • Improve Equity. This rule disproportionately affects people of color and lower-income residents. These groups are more likely to be renters and more likely to need to share housing to afford rent, especially with rents so high. In Madison, 52.7% of white households are homeowners, 30% of Latino households are homeowners, and 15.3% of Black households are homeowners (U.S. Census ACS 5-Year Data, 2019).
  • Increase Housing Supply and Choice. A household of three unrelated people cannot live together in over 1/3 of our land area. This policy limits housing choice. Large 3 and 4 bedroom houses, commonly built today, are often limited to two unrelated adults if they rent. Many households today are not the "traditional" family that our zoning code continues to prioritize and benefit. The family definition restricts occupancy. It negatively affects renters including students, young adults, families, and retirees. This change is free and will immediately increase the supply of housing in our community.
  • Current Practice Has Negative Impacts. Bad actors weaponize the family definition against neighbors. We receive about 20 complaints each year. Some complaints are about students, and some are racially driven. Enforcement relies on people trusting us and answering questions honestly. Unfortunately, their honesty may cost them their housing. We rely on people not having the knowledge, power, or resources to contest our orders. Current practice forces people to lose their homes – not because it's unsafe or because it's not zoned to allow housing - but because their household does not conform to an outdated ideal. We believe enforcement is counter to the City's mission and values.

Why Change Things Now?

The original intent of the family definition was to protect single-family neighborhoods from college student renter households. We added this to our code in 1966, and Madison has changed substantially since then.

  • The student housing market has changed. In the past 20 or so years, thousands of amenity-rich student-oriented rentals have been built close to UW's campus and are continuing to be built.
  • At the same time, the City's population has risen faster than enrollment at UW-Madison. While there is a small concentration of complaints near campus, the complaints we receive for zoning family definition occupancy are geographically dispersed and usually not about students.
  • Noise complaints are and can be handled by other means when appropriate rather than preventing well-behaved students and unrelated non-students from living together in what are usually more economically reasonable situations, particularly given the high price of housing.

What Is Being Proposed?

The current proposal is to change the family definition to:
  • Allow up to five unrelated adults and their dependents in a housing unit in all zoning districts which allow housing; and
  • Keep the current standard of allowing an unlimited number of related individuals.

This proposal does the following:

  • Removes the distinction between owner-occupied households and renter-occupied households;
  • Allows two couples with children/dependents to live together as one household; and
  • Removes the distinction between some zoning districts and others by creating the same occupancy standard for all zoning districts which allow housing.
Proposed Maximum Number of Residents Allowed by Zoning (Simplified)
Type of occupant All Zoning Districts that Allow Housing
Owner or Renter-Occupied Related + 4 and their dependents


Why Are These Numbers Proposed?

In September, Zoning and Planning staff presented general information about changing the family definition at a Plan Commission Work Session.

The Plan Commission expressed unanimous support for a change to the family definition. They shared two main considerations for a future proposal:

  • Continue to allow multi-generational households of related people to live together in one dwelling unit; and
  • A large number of residents living in a dwelling unit could have a negative impact. There should be a reasonable limitation.

This proposal addresses both of those comments.

  • Multi-generational households will still be allowed. There is no limit on the number of related family members.
  • Many zoning districts already allow up to five unrelated people in a household. These districts do not see significant negative impacts. Based on that experience, City staff believe that five unrelated adults and their dependents is a standard that would reasonably address the potential impacts of neighbors on other neighbors.
Does the Zoning Code Still Have to Define Related and Unrelated?

The proposal keeps the existing definition for related. This way, zoning can continue to allow an unlimited number of individuals to live together if they are related by blood, marriage, domestic partnership, or legal adoption and including foster children. Children includes natural children, grandchildren, legally adopted children, stepchildren, foster children, or a ward as determined in a legal guardianship proceeding. If we remove the definition for related, we would not be preserving the ability for multi-generational families with more than five adults to live together in a household.

Will This Change Put Residents in Unsafe Living Conditions?

We already have safety limits in our building code. These limits outline how many people can safely live in a space. The limits depend on square-footage and interior floor plans.

The family definition addresses the impacts of neighbors on other neighbors. It was not intended to improve safety. What we have found is that some housing providers exploit occupancy limits. They use the occupancy limits to prevent renter complaints about unsafe living conditions. Landlords know that if renters complain about living conditions, the renters can lose their housing.

What About the Impacts That the Family Definition Attempts to Address?

The family definition presumes incompatibility between different types of households. In most cases, a wide variety of households exist harmoniously in one neighborhood. The family definition is like using a sledgehammer of exclusion. Instead, we can use appropriate tools to address conflicts between neighbors. We can look at the conduct of people and deal with issues as they arise.

Who do I contact with additional questions?

For additional questions, contact Katie Bannon, Zoning Administrator, at or 608-266-4569.

What is the Legistart File number and where can I view public comments?

Legistar File No. 74885 Amending Supplemental Regulations within Section 28.151 MGO and Definitions within Section 28.211 of the Madison General Ordinances to Update Definitions of "Family".
DRAFTER'S ANALYSIS: This proposed ordinance amends several sections of MGO Chapter 28 in order to change the current definition of "family" in the zoning code. The family definition restricts the number of people who can live in an apartment or house together based on the zoning district, their ownership status or their relational status. The original intent of the family definition was to protect single family neighborhoods from college student renter households and was added to Madison's zoning code in 1966. Today, the restrictive family definition negatively impacts Madison's goals of increasing housing supply and equity. This proposed ordinance change expands the definition of family in order to expand housing options and equity.
Currently, over one third of land area in Madison is zoned to prohibit more than two unrelated renters from living together. In these same areas, owner-occupied housing units can house up to five unrelated individuals. These zoning districts are primarily lower density districts with single family houses. Other zoning districts allow a maximum of five unrelated individuals. A family could also be related individuals with up to four unrelated roommates. People of color and lower income residents are disproportionately affected by the current zoning definition of "family" because they are more likely to be renters and more likely to need to share a housing unit to afford rent.
This proposed ordinance change removes the distinction between owner-occupied households and renter-occupied households; allows two related families with children/dependents to live together as one household; removes the distinction between some zoning districts and others by creating the same occupancy standard for all zoning districts which allow housing; and updates the family language discussing people with disabilities. Finally, references to "Dependency Living Arrangement" are removed throughout Chapter 28 since they are no longer needed with the change to the family definition. Dependency Living Arrangement allowed for two kitchens in a dwelling unit if not owner-occupied, but that carve-out is no longer needed as it will now be allowed. 

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