A Minneapolis City Council member is looking to change the city's rules about what makes a family — at least for the purposes of deciding who can legally live under one roof.

In most of the city, zoning code prohibits more than three unrelated people from living together. In more densely populated neighborhoods, the limit is five. Either way, Council Member Cam Gordon said, it's not enough to meet the needs of students, senior citizens and others who want to share the costs and responsibilities of a household. With an ordinance he hopes the council will pass this year, Gordon wants to clear a path for "intentional communities" of people who can't or don't want to fit into typical family housing arrangements.

"Family gets defined in one way: We expect people to be married or actually related genetically," he said. "But that's hard to enforce, doesn't always seem fair, and it doesn't always seem nimble or consistent with other goals we have for the city."

Gordon first formally introduced the issue to the council in 2008, long before many of the current council members were in office. After a committee hearing, it stalled without any zoning code changes. But now, as the city sharpens its focus on housing density and neighborhood redevelopment, Gordon said it seems like the right time to bring the issue to the council's attention.

He plans to host public meetings — including one Tuesday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Minneapolis Central Library downtown — and says he'll meet with any neighborhood group that wants to talk.

By fall, Gordon plans to introduce an ordinance that would open the zoning code to allow intentional communities to live in single-family homes, provided that they meet a list of qualifications.

Among them: Households with multiple unrelated adults would have to be able to prove that the people living there live, cook and eat together as a unit and share maintenance and other household responsibilities and expenses. Nobody could own more than one property that houses an intentional community, and such communities wouldn't be allowed to develop in houses listed as problem properties by the city.

Each community would have to register with the city and provide a floor plan, which would allow officials to determine the maximum occupancy.

The proposal is modeled on similar ordinances in other cities, including Ames, Iowa, and Bloomington, Ind. Devin Case-Ruchala of Shared Capital Cooperative, a loan fund for housing cooperatives and a board member of a housing co-op in Indiana, said intentional communities work well in other places because their members are interested in being good neighbors.

"I think there is a lot of interest, and there are other cities we can point to, to show this type of law exists without concern," Case-Ruchala said.

Advocates say they've heard from a variety of groups that would like to develop intentional communities, ranging from students to retirees to East African families hoping to share household responsibilities under a single roof.

More affordable option?

Tom Pierson, who serves on the board of Riverton Community Housing, a nonprofit builder of affordable student housing, said his group would like to invest in some of the city's large, historic houses, which are often a hard sell for single-family use. But because of the current ordinances, they've had to primarily focus on apartment developments.

"It's far more affordable for students to live in a congregate living situation. … That's a more economically efficient model and it also builds more community cohesion and there's more social benefits," he said.

Pierson said he's optimistic that council members will agree, though he knows there are concerns about permitting groups to live together.

Gordon said the city still has plenty of tools to deal with problems that could crop up. He said officials' focus should be on cracking down on those problems in any type of housing situation, rather than preventing one type of household from existing.

"If it's noisy parties, if it's drug dealing, whatever the problems are — well, then maybe those problems should be what we enforce," Gordon said.