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Family Definition Revision

The family definition is part of our zoning code. It restricts the number of people who can live in an apartment or house together in Madison based on:

  • zoning district;
  • whether they are renters or homeowners; and
  • whether they are related to one another.

Over 1/3 of the 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 a group of related individuals with up to four unrelated roommates.

In areas that allow housing, there is no zoning limit to the size of a household if all people are related. The building code and minimum housing code outline safety-related limits.

Maximum Number of Residents Allowed by Zoning (Simplified)
Type of Occupant Low Density 1-3 Family Zoning Districts Other Zoning Districts that Allow Housing
Renter-Occupied Related + 1 (2 unrelated) Related + 4 (5 unrelated)
Owner-Occupied Related + 4 (5 unrelated) Related + 4 (5 unrelated)
Map of Areas with Renter-Restricted Occupancy

Map of areas with renter-restricted occupancy

View Map of Renter-Restricted Areas as a PDF.


NEW - Questions about Real Estate Speculation

Questions about Real Estate Speculation


Community Information Meetings

Building Inspection staff hosted two community informational meetings over Zoom about proposed legislation to revise the family definition.

Thursday, February 2 from noon-2 pm.

The recording of this meeting (starts at 1:20) and presentation are now available.

Monday, February 6 from 6 pm-8 pm.

The recording of this meeting and presentation are now available.


Public Meeting Dates

2/13/23 at 5:30 pm – Plan Commission

2/23/23 at 5:00 pm – Housing Strategy Committee

2/28/23 at 6:30 pm – Common Council


Staff Report

Zoning Text Amendment Staff Report


Frequently Asked Questions

Why Change the Family Definition?
  1. 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). Among households in Madison, the median Black household is the only demographic by race or ethnicity unable to afford the median rent in the City. This ties into economic segregation of geographic opportunity, significantly limiting affordable housing access to certain areas of the City (2022 Madison Housing Snapshot). Whether a buyer or a renter, there are housing affordability issues in Madison, but renters are more likely to be low income. Renters are also more likely to be cost-burdened than homeowners (2022 Madison Housing Snaphot). Renters are more likely to need to share housing costs by having roommates.
  2. Increase Housing 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, and retirees.
  3. Current Practice Has Negative Impacts. Some neighbors 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.
What Is Being Proposed?

The proposed legislation will:

  • Allow the same number of people to live together, regardless of ownership status (up to five unrelated adults)
  • Remove limit on number of children/dependents
  • Allow dependency living arrangements and second kitchens, regardless of ownership status

Some effects of the change:

  • Allows two couples with children to live together as one household
  • Allows three to five people to rent together
  • Allows renters with disabilities to have a live-in attendant or relative with their own living space
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

(5 unrelated + dependents)


Why Are These Numbers Proposed?

In September, Zoning staff presented general information about changing the family definition at a Plan Commission Work Session. The Plan Commission reached a consensus that staff should propose a change to the family definition. They shared two main considerations for a future proposal:

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

This proposal addresses both of those comments.

  1. Multi-generational households will still be allowed. There is no limit on the number of related family members.
  2. 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. There must be not less than 150 square feet of floor area for the first occupant and at least 100 additional square feet of floor area for each additional occupant. The space used as a laundry, workshop, furnace room, bathroom, storage room, closets, and common halls shall not be included as part of the space required.

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 landlords 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.

For residential properties with significant issues, one option is to use the chronic nuisance premises ordinance. Here are frequently asked questions about the nuisance ordinance.

How Is this Going to Solve the Housing Affordability Problem?

Although this change will not increase the number of housing units in Madison, it is only one of many strategies to increase housing opportunities and choices within Madison. Other initiatives include:

  • Regulating short-term rentals so our housing stock is used for resident housing instead of tourist accommodations

  • Changing the threshold for the number of housing units so that fewer multi-family developments need permission from the Plan Commission before being built

  • Increasing funding for affordable housing

  • Prioritizing funding affordable housing in locations with excellent transit access to decrease household transportation costs

  • Creating a transit-oriented development overlay district which allows more stories as a permitted use and requires transit supportive site and building design

  • Allowing accessory dwelling units as a permitted use

  • Funding down payment assistance for homebuyers and rehabilitation assistance for homeowners

  • Adding a downtown affordable housing zoning incentive (proposed legislation)

Will Many Owner-Occupied Houses Become Renter-Occupied?

Generally, we do not think we will see a mass influx of owner-occupied houses become renter-occupied, although we may see some additional rentals. Nationally, single-family house rentals are usually small-scale operations, and we find this to be true in Madison as well. Larger investment groups are buying single-family houses in places like the Southwest and Florida where property taxes and property maintenance costs are low. Property taxes, property maintenance costs, and single-family house values are high in Madison. In doing some basic analysis, rents could cover a mortgage and taxes on some lower-cost houses, but there’s not much left for maintenance and profit. We do not anticipate that rentals of single-family houses will be particularly appealing or profitable large-scale investments.

Will This Cause More Property Maintenance Issues?

Property maintenance problems are not limited to renter-occupied housing and are not typically related to the number of residents living in a house. In fact, in our experience, owner-occupied properties are more likely than renter-occupied to have severe problems with inoperable vehicles, hoarding, and junk, trash, and debris. Owner-occupied properties are often our most difficult properties to address because there is no one to hold responsible other than the owner. If the owner is not responsible, going to court is our only option, and this is a more time-consuming path to compliance.

Instead of Restricting Housing Options for Renters, Can We Restrict for Housing Options for College Students or Restrict by Age?

We believe this would violate Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance which prohibits discrimination in housing based on student status and based on age.

Can We Have an Overlay around Campus, which has a Different Limit than the Rest of Madison?

The purpose of an overlay around campus with different standards than the rest of the city seems to be to restrict student housing choices. While an overlay around campus may not violate our Equal Opportunity Ordinance explicitly, it may do so in spirit and intent.

Will This Lead to Fewer Children Enrolling in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD)?

We often receive complaints about occupancy that involve households with children in multi-generational families and blended unrelated households. Today’s code limits the number of children in a household based on whether they rent and who they are related to. The proposed change removes limits on the number of dependents that may live in a household, allowing residents to live with their children without restrictions based on blood or marriage.

Several larger trends are affecting school enrollment. Birth rates in Dane County have been declining, which are a major driver of future school enrollment. Madison is also part of a national trend where on average, people are having fewer children and having children at a later age than previous generations. Some renters, including blended unrelated households and young professionals, are more likely to have children than some owner-occupants.

Will My Property Values Go Down?

Property values are dictated by sales so only sales following the change would determine this. However, home values in Madison have been going up for most of recent history, other than a dip during the recession. Property values seem unlikely to decrease when housing choices are increased. Two neighborhoods on the Eastside with high property values, Tenney-Lapham and Marquette, have a mix of renter-occupied housing which allows up to five unrelated renters, and owner-occupied housing. This mix of occupancy doesn’t seem to have affected these neighborhoods' housing values.

Isn’t Homeownership the Path to Generational Wealth? What is the City Doing to Support Homeownership?

Homeownership can lead to generational wealth, and renting is often part of the path to homeownership. One way that renters become homeowners is by saving money by living with others and splitting rent and other housing costs. The City of Madison Community Development Division also supports homeownership by partnering with local nonprofits to offer down payment assistance for homebuyers and a property rehabilitation program for owner-occupants. You can access information about those programs here.


Housing Occupancy (Family Definition) Complaints, 2012-Present

Housing Occupancy Complaints on Map 2012-Present

View Map of Housing Occupancy Complaints, 2012-Present as a PDF.

204 complaints or referrals for housing occupancy violations were addressed between 2012 and January 2023. 70 cases were east of the Capitol (34%). 134 cases were west of the Capitol (66%). Race, ethnicity, and student-status of occupants are not captured in the data.

140 (69%) of the cases fall under the current more restrictive definition of family for rental occupancy, which allows a maximum of a family plus one roomer (2 unrelated). 33 (16%) of the cases fall under the family definition which makes no distinction in regard to owner vs renter occupancy. The remaining 31 cases (15%) fall into Planed Development zoning, where specific occupancy standards are unique to each PD zone.

39 (19%) of the cases are in campus-adjacent areas or in the UW Near Neighborhoods area (Vilas, Greenbush, east and north sides of Regent, east end of Dudgeon-Monroe). These are addresses in close proximity to the University of Wisconsin. However, there have been student occupancy cases further from UW and non-student renter cases in the UW Near Neighborhoods. Nine of these cases relate to a single PD-Zoned property.

Seven cases pertain to a programmed inspection of dwellings in the PD-zoned Park Ridge and Park Edge Neighborhood near Elver Park.

49 cases were found to be in violation (24%)

30 properties had more than one case.  Multiple cases accounted for 40% of total cases.


Housing-Related Reports

Plan Commission Housing Approvals

Plan Commission Multi-Family Approvals 2016-2022
View Map of Plan Commission Multi-Family Approvals 2016-2022 as a PDF.
Plan Commission Housing Approvals, 2016 - 2022









Single family lots








Multifamily units










Housing Building Permits

Building Permits for Housing, 2016-2021


Single-Family Houses

2-4 Dwelling Units

5+ Dwelling Units

Manufactured Homes

Total Dwelling Units













































College Student-Oriented Housing

Map of College-Student Oriented Housing 2000-Present
View Map of College Student-Oriented Housing 2000-2022 as a PDF.
Address Name of Development Year Constructed # of Dwelling Units Zoning District  
110 N Brooks St Campus Village Apartments  2000 64 PD  
505 University Ave The Embassy 2001 126 PD  
920 Spring St 920 Spring St 2001 34 PD  
45 N Randall Ave Park Terrace West 2002 57 PD  
535 W Johnson St Palisade Apartments 2002 93 PD  
210 Lakelawn Pl 210 Lakelawn Place  2002 19 PD  
437 W Gorham St Aberdeen 2004 77 PD  
420 W Gorham St 420 West 2004 80 PD  
1040 Spring St Campus Village Apartments  2005 19 PD  
409 W Gorham St Equinox 2006 115 PD  
202 N Charter St 210 N Charter 2006 25 PD  
417 W Dayton St The Lurican 2008 21 PD  
777 University Ave Lucky Apartments 2008 359 PD  
1022 W Johnson St Grand Central 2009 155 PD  
4 N Park St Park & Regent 2010 65 PD  
1216 Spring St Humbucker Apartments  2010 75 PD  
621 Mendota Ct 621 Mendota Ct 2011 27 PD  
424 W Mifflin St The Sheelin 2012 44 PD  
1815 University Ave Brownlofts Apartments  2012 64 PD  
229 W Lakelawn Pl 229 at Lakelawn Apartments  2012 14 PD  
1001 University Ave X01 Apartments 2013 79 PD  
1323 W Dayton St Vantage Point 2013 65 PD  
210 N Bassett St Park Place 2014 75 PD  
311 N Frances St City View Place 2014 40 PD  
202 N Brooks St Brooks House 2014 14 PD  
633 N Henry St Waterfront Apartments  2014 71 PD  
1423 Monroe St Lark at Randall 2014 72 TSS  
409 W Johnson St The Domain 2014 326 UMX  
142 W Johnson St Lumen House Apartments 2014 19 DC  
437 N Frances St The Hub 2015 313 DC  
110 N Bedford St Lark at Kohl 2015 179 UMX  
431 W Mifflin St Mifflander 2016 46 DR2  
433 W Johnson St The Lux 2016 160 UMX  
432 W Gorham St The James 2016 348 UMX  
623 N Lake St Alpha Chi Sigma Under Construction 28 DR2  
740 Regent St Trinitas Madison Under Construction 341 PD  
1313 Regent St Lucky's 1313 Under Construction 47 TSS  
339 W Gorham St Oliv Madison Under Construction 386 UMX  
506 W Johnson St Verve Under Construction 142 UMX  
826 Regent St Chapter at Madison Under Construction 178 UMX  
    Average Year Total Dwelling Units Most Common Zoning Districts
    2010 4462 PD 27
    Mode Year Already Constructed UMX 7
    2014 3340 TSS 2
    Median Year Under Construction or Approved DR2 2
    2012 1122 DC 2
View Table of College Student-Oriented Housing as a PDF.


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

Last Updated: 02/28/2023

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The short of it

The family definition revision is a proposal to have equal standards for renters and homeowners regarding the maximum number of residents allowed to live in a housing unit.

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