A recent Commonwealth Court case involving a pair of residential properties has aptly demonstrated that not every residential property in Philadelphia can be automatically utilized for student housing. This case in question is Schwartz v. Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment, 2015 Pa Commw. Lexis 413 (2015).

In Schwartz, two properties were zoned for single family and two family residential use, and located near Drexel University’s campus in Powelton Village. The properties were unequivocally zoned and used for residential purposes, and they were currently being leased to Drexel students, with each property rooming at least 4 students. For the record, the Philadelphia Zoning Code defines a family as “a person living independently or group of persons living as a single household unit using housekeeping facilities in common, but not to include more than three persons unrelated by blood, marriage or adoption.”

The property owners argued that that the individuals in the houses formed a household unit, as each student had full access to the home and each student was a party to a single lease. The land owners also alleged that it is unconstitutional to restrict the definition of family to blood relatives and thereby limit the number of unrelated people who can live in a dwelling.

The Commonwealth Court reviewed Philadelphia’s Ordinance and determined that Philadelphia’s definition of a “family” is not facially unconstitutional. The Court upheld the City’s right to restrict a residential dwelling’s use to a family as defined in the Philadelphia Ordinance, thereby authorizing Philadelphia to limit the number of unrelated people living in a dwelling. Therefore, future landowners in analogous situations will need to seek a use variance from the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment in order to utilize their properties for student housing, or any other type of housing containing more than 3 unrelated individuals.