Housing Discrimination: An Unfortunate Update on the Shawnee Co-Living Ban
Remember the infamous Kansas “roommate ban” that we discussed last year? Well, today we have an update after a federal lawsuit was brought against the city of Shawnee and we discuss why housing is an A-spec issue that deserves more of our community’s attention.
Courtney: I hate to say it, but unfortunately, we are once again talking about the infamous Shawnee, Kansas Co-living Ban. In case you missed it, we did an episode on this co-living ban last year. I believe the episode was entitled “Umm...Did Shawnee, Kansas Just Ban Roommates!?” And if you haven’t had a chance to listen to it, I strongly recommend that you do before listening to this one, because I don’t want to rehash absolutely everything, all the ins and outs of the ban itself, because that was all covered in the first episode, along with some of our thoughts as locals to the area.
Courtney: But the TLDR there… Too Long, Didn’t Listen? TLDL? Is that the proper podcast lingo here? The TLDL is: in 2022, April, Shawnee, Kansas City Council adopted an ordinance which essentially limits the number of people who are allowed to live in the same house. Specifically, though, they say “unrelated people.” But the way this works out, they say, “No more than three unrelated people can live in the same single-family dwelling.” But with legislation like that, you sort of need to now legislate what is a family, what is a single family, and there are some very real dangers to that. And so far, the updates to this story have only been negative. So, strap in.
Courtney: In case you are new here, my name is Courtney. I am here with my spouse, Royce. And together, we are The Ace Couple. We have been a married couple, married under Kansas state common law — see our episode on that, if you don’t know what that means, and you probably don’t. And oddly enough, Shawnee, Kansas, which is part of the greater Kansas City metro area, was the first city where we lived together, so we are very near to this area. We don’t live in Shawnee proper anymore, but we’re very familiar with the city. And that is why we took an especial interest in this case when, all of a sudden, last year, Ace Twitter was talking constantly about this ban. Lots of folks who do not live in Kansas or Kansas City or anywhere in the area were all of a sudden talking about this ban, and we’re like, “Hey, that’s right in our backyard. [laughs] Let’s actually dig into this a little then.”
Courtney: So, in addition to the update today, what I really want to talk about is how things like zoning laws, local ordinances, can really affect an expansive group of people in very harmful and unexpected ways, and a lot of these laws and local ordinances are going to be passed by smaller legislative bodies. In this case, it was literally a city council. And City Council does not have nearly as much oversight as larger bodies, and it doesn’t have as many people paying attention to it. I think a lot of folks — at least initially dipping their toe into politics — will say, you know, “Federal elections are, of course, important. And, you know, our state senators and our state house, those are important.” But these tiny, little, very local governments can cause some real, real, tangible harm. And we’re seeing here how this small ordinance in Shawnee, Kansas might now set a precedence to affect the legal precedent nationwide.
Courtney: So we did discuss this more in-depth in the first episode, so do please check that out; pull up the transcript and skim it if you’d like. But as just a quick review, the way this ordinance defines “related” or “unrelated” people — they say “No more than three unrelated people,” right? So, first of all, that’s already, as we pointed out in the first episode, weird for this area. Because Shawnee, Kansas has a lot of upper middle class suburban houses. So it is incredibly common for these huge suburban neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs and the whole nine yards to have four or five bedrooms in them, just as they were built. A lot of them were built in the ’70s in this area — ’60s, ‘70s — so there is space. There is space for more than three people to live in a house, easily, in this area. So it’s not as if we’re bumping into, like, fire codes where they’re saying, like, “Oh, you have 10 people living in a house that’s too small. This is a hazard.” It is nothing like that.
Courtney: But they also define “related persons” under a very narrow viewpoint. It is a very cis-hetero-patriarchal viewpoint. It’s a very western viewpoint. It’s a very conservative viewpoint. Because they say “blood relation” — which I’d be curious, if someone really, really pressed, I’d be curious to see how far they would put that. Because, like, do extended blood relatives count? They don’t really say. They just say, if you’re related by blood or marriage, or in cases where you have, you know, legal guardianship over someone like a minor who is in perhaps a foster care, adoptive situation or a temporary custody, those folks are all fine, you can have more than three of them. However, they say, if there’s even one unrelated person in a house of more than three people, they are now deeming that the entire household counts as “unrelated” under this ordinance. So you could have three blood family members — like, a mother, a father and their child. You could have them rent out an extra room in their house to a totally unrelated person, and that totally unrelated person now deems them all, under this law, to be totally unrelated. And that is not okay, based on this ordinance.
Royce: So a more accurate or intelligible reading isn’t “three or more unrelated people.” It’s a house that has a single unrelated person in it that has three or more occupants.
Courtney: Yes, [laughs] pretty much. Because you can still have three… Like, a lot of people, when this blew up, were saying, “Oh no, they’re banning roommates. People can’t have roommates anymore.” That was sort of the big, buzzy talking point to get people to look at this story and get enraged by it. But you can still have three totally unrelated people living together, and they don’t have to have anything legally or biologically to do with one another.
Courtney: And, as many people did very, very rightly point out, this can really really affect non-traditional, under the eyes of our law, families — like queer families, polyamorous families, where you cannot legally marry more than one person but you could still be in a committed relationship and living with more than one person. And these are all very true and very valid points.
Courtney: We sort of made the assertion, as locals who just sort of know the local culture, that the more likely direct target of this legislation probably wasn’t like, “Oh, we want to get these deviant queer families out of here.” It was probably “We want renters out of our nice suburban neighborhoods where we all own our homes here. We are homeowners.” Because there’s a really big stigma in this area of people that rent houses versus owning them, even if they’re in exactly the same neighborhood and same income bracket. It’s very, very weird. [laughs] We talked about that more in the first episode.
Courtney: So when this co-living company called HomeRoom came in — who is essentially a property management company, where they’ll take someone who has purchased an investment home and they’ll say, “You know what, we will find renters for this house. We will sign a contract with you for a few years to ensure that you are going to have someone renting this for the next few years, and we’re going to take care of all those tenants’ needs, so you never need to deal with them.” It’s a very, like, “Get some passive income!” which sounds very evil.
Courtney: And, [laughing] as I kept going back to in the first episode, I combed through this company, because I had actually read about them in some of our local startup news websites and news outlets, and I couldn’t definitively say that they are awful. I get the sentiment that, like… There are no ethical landlords, I get that, but there were a lot of local experts in housing affordability in the area who were speaking out against this, who are saying that, actually, co-living companies like this are providing some of the most affordable options for renters and they’re, especially in this case, sort of targeting young single people. And it is true, based on their own listings that I looked through, they were renting out rooms in nice houses in the suburb for sometimes four or five hundred dollars, and you can’t get a single bedroom apartment for that [laughing] in most places — well, in most places, period, but in this area.
Courtney: So, regardless of where you fall on whether or not companies like this should exist or if this should be an option for people who want it, the fact of the matter is: the ordinance that they put in targeting this company has much more broadly reaching ramifications.
Courtney: And in fact, the update to our story here is that that company HomeRoom, as well as just a Shawnee resident whose natural family structure was going to be put in jeopardy by this — she had, to the best of my knowledge, nothing to do with HomeRoom the company. They went in together to sue the city of Shawnee. They were not asking for any monetary damages. They were just asking a federal court to step in and say, “This is not enforceable. You cannot, as the state of Shawnee, enforce this co-living ban.”
Courtney: But unfortunately, as it stands today, things aren’t looking excellent, for the federal district court decided to uphold the ordinance and side with the city of Shawnee, Kansas. Now, as I said, it was HomeRoom, Inc., as well as a Shawnee resident by the name of Val French, who had put forth this lawsuit back in May. But federal judge Holly L. Teeter is now saying that Shawnee has every right to continue to uphold this ban.
Courtney: And this is why… this is why it is so, so, so important to actually take an active interest in local government. Because what seems like a goofy little ordinance that one city in Kansas that a lot of people have never heard of before passed a weird ordinance under the radar. But now, until this gets appealed — and it will get appealed — there is now a federal court precedence saying city councils can do this, and that’s terrifying.
Courtney: Because even locally speaking, this is not a popular ordinance. [laughs] Residents in Shawnee are mad about this. It sort of got passed under the table with very few eyes on it. A lot of people did not know this was happening until it happened. But once news broke that this ordinance passed, there were online petitions. There were people protesting outside of City Hall. There’s obviously this lawsuit. And I don’t think I’ve seen a single local news outlet covering this ordinance favorably. A lot of our local news commentators are like, “Why? Why are you doing this?”
Courtney: “How?” So, what was the argument in this lawsuit? The lawsuit alleged that Shawnee City Council is exceeding its zoning authority. And zoning authority is for land use and building codes and occupancy, things of that nature. And that’s where things get very, very tricky. Because just the way zoning laws are written, I think, needs to be heavily interrogated, because it’s a very narrow government definition of what a family is and who is and is not allowed to live together. And I’m not sure about the way zoning ordinances are written in other countries, but at least here in the US, I can tell you that Shawnee is not the first city to try to pass something to this effect.
Courtney: And I think the language and the verbiage is so important to pay attention to. Because when I think of zoning laws and the way things are written in these ordinances, normally it’s, “This is a single-family dwelling. This is a multi-family dwelling. This is for short-term rentals. This is a business district.” So cities come in and sort of dictate, you know, “All the houses in this neighborhood are single-family houses, single-family dwellings.”
Courtney: Well, now you almost require a legal definition of “family.” Because the word “family” is right there in the entire framing for how this is set up. And basically we’ve got blood and we’ve got marriage and legal custody, are kind of the only ways to legally be seen as a family in the eyes of the law here, which is just so odd, and can affect such a range of folks. It can affect, like I said, queer families, poly families. It can even affect queerplatonic situations, where maybe you don’t even necessarily consider yourself to be in a queerplatonic partnership, but your best friend, your closest friend group, are your family. LIke, we see even straight people say, like, “Oh, well, you’re practically family” with their best friend, you know? And I think that’s great, and I don’t think the government should say that they aren’t, but they don’t count.
Royce: Well, beyond that, there are a lot of housing situations that have nothing to do with queer identities that are also at risk just because how sloppily this law was written. Like, a straight couple that is engaged, that is not yet married, that is living with one of their parents for the time being until they can move out.
Royce: That would be four people all deemed unrelated via the law.
Courtney: Mhm. So you do get sort of the… I don’t know. I guess I could say amatonormativity, but I want to say, like, marital normativity. [laughs] Like, there are so many incentives that border on requirement to get married in this country if you are in a long-term monogamous relationship. And surely you do not have to, but so many things are easier. First of all, you can circumvent weird laws like this, if you live in an area with one. You can honestly rent or buy a home so much easier if you are married. There are actually landlords who refuse to rent to non-married couples or even single people. They’d rather rent to a family than a single person, and that is shockingly legal to do. Because you think of non-discrimination act and they’re like, “Oh, well, you can’t discriminate based on, you know, race, ethnicity, disability” — which is also super questionable, because many disabled folks don’t have the financial means to live on their own, because this country forces poverty on disabled people if they are getting any meager amount of government assistance.
Royce: I also suspect that if a disabled person started renting a property and then demanded that accessibility accommodations were added to the property to make it easier for them to live there, I would imagine in a lot of cases, the landlords would deny that.
Courtney: Yeah, and there’d probably be very little recourse for the disabled tenant. And you can also say, you know, there are some very visibly queer couples who, for whatever reason are their own, just say, you know, “We don’t want to get married, maybe at all, maybe not right now, but we do want to live together.” If they’re trying to rent a place, someone could just say, “Oh, well, maybe I’m homophobic, but I’m not gonna tell you I’m not gonna rent to you because you’re a same-sex couple. I’m just gonna say it’s because you’re not married. You know, married couples are more stable. Married couples are a better investment. It’s a safer bet for me as the landlord.” Because they make these sort of business arguments that a non-married couple could be more unstable and they might break their lease, they might move out, because they don’t have that marriage contract, which is just not necessarily gonna be the case. But since they’re arguing that that’s from a business standpoint and not a personal discrimination standpoint, that’s how they sort of get around those things.
Courtney: So what we have now is a state where, under federal law, unmarried couples or single people do not have any protection under the Federal Fair Housing Act, which is fascinating. Because the prohibited discriminations here are race or color, religion, national origin, gender, physical or mental disability — which, eh, okay, you can say that but — or family status. But how do they define “family status” under the Federal Fair Housing Act? Well, they describe that as “Having children or pregnancy.” So again, you’re assigning a very narrow definition to what familial status means in a way that harms a lot of people inadvertently — or, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t say “inadvertently.” At this point it seems a little, uh, a little intentional.
Courtney: So we’re being left with, first of all, incredible inflation, even — in the Kansas City area, too. I’ve been praising up and down for years how affordable rent is in this area compared to other areas in the country, and for the most part that has very much been true. But I’ve also been reading in this area that the inflation of rent went up higher in this metro area than anywhere else in the country last year. So that’s cool.
Courtney: So we have skyrocketing housing prices. We have people actively keeping away companies that are seeking to find more affordable ways to rent as a single person. You have landlords who can legally discriminate against renting an entire property to single people or unmarried people.
Courtney: And now you have Shawnee, backed by a federal court, saying, “Yeah, you can’t even make this arrangement on your own. Even if it’s not through a company, you can’t rent out that extra bedroom if you have more than three unrelated people,” which is another very common way that people do try to keep housing costs down, is just genuinely making their own arrangements for roommates.
Courtney: And that’s not even to mention how many family structures that there are that just naturally are more collectivist, multi-generational households — which are a lot more common in this area with immigrant families, where — much like your point, Royce — where, what if there is just an unmarried couple that is living with the rest of their family right now? We could have several generations, all related by blood, under the same roof, but one person who isn’t legally or by blood related to them moves in, and now the entire household is illegal?
Royce: And I feel like we’ve said some of these before. But if you sit and think about it long enough, there are just a ton of different housing situations that you could come across that would be in violation of this law. Like, a full family hosting a foreign exchange student —
Courtney: Yes! [laughs]
Royce: — or a halfway house or something like that.
Courtney: Can we not have foreign exchange students in this city anymore? Well, yes, I brought this up in the last episode, because there are pretty commonly things like halfway houses here, where there are sober living communities or things of that nature, where everyone in these homes are unrelated, but they are living together, and in my experience, they are great neighbors. And yet, despite being great neighbors, the crotchety old homeowners are always like, “Oh, well, then that’s the halfway house. We gotta keep our eyes on them because they’re not homeowners,” and, you know, probably thinking very bigoted, discriminatory things about them. [laughs] Like, that is something that I, as a local, have firsthand experience hearing conversations like this.
Courtney: So you’re now going to take away a lot of very valuable housing options for folks like that, or even alternative housing structures for folks with disabilities who need assistance in day-to-day living, and that could be a type of group home situation. Or even, let’s say you have a… I guess, under this definition, a legal family all together, but now one family member needs 24/7 assistance, and that family is privileged enough to be able to hire, like, an in-home nurse. Can that in-home nurse now not move in? Because they’re not related to that family. Like, it is just baffling the number of living structures that would be in violation of this.
Courtney: So what did Judge Teeter say? Why was this the ruling, according to her? She argues that… and mind you, this lawsuit is not only HomeRoom, but also just a Shawnee resident whose home is no longer legal because of the people that already lived there, based on their own family structure. But the judge says, “Well, HomeRoom is a corporation, and therefore this corporation is not Constitutionally protected.” Which is… [sighs] Okay. Like, we have Citizens United [laughs] in this country. In 2010, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision upholding the fact that corporations have the, quote, “freedom of speech” to donate money to presidential campaigns, to political campaigns, and therefore have the way to heavily influence elections.
Courtney: Because, look, I don’t have the stats up in front of me right now, but I used to give some local political presentations across the state of Kansas — I think, Royce, you went down with me to Topeka for one of these at one point — where we were talking about campaign finance. And, as much as we want to say that, you know, the voters are going to make their own informed decision, they’re going to vote fairly based on their own opinions — there is a strong majority of elections where the campaign that spent the most money won. Strong percentage.
Royce: And this is basically… the smaller the election, the more likely this is. Money doesn’t have an enormous impact on the central presidential election, but getting down to local elections, I want to say it was, like, 90% of the time, if not more.
Courtney: Oh, yeah. We’re talking that high of numbers. This isn’t just like, “Oh, they win 60% of the time.” It’s nearly all of the time.
Royce: Yeah, it’s like 90%, if not higher, the campaign with the most funding wins the election.
Courtney: Yeah. And, like I said, I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now. It’s been years since I’ve actually given presentations like this at these political parties, so.
Royce: And I’m pretty sure those numbers were not partisan, either.
Courtney: No, it was just who has the most money. [laughs]
Royce: It was just money.
Courtney: Who has the most money. So you’re saying that in situations where we know money has a direct impact in who gets elected in this country — which is an issue, first of all, like, first and foremost, that’s a concern. But the Supreme Court saying, “Yeah, a corporation can function just like a person and have the same right of free speech that we, as private citizens, have to donate to the campaign that we want to support, that we want to see be successful.” So now they’re saying, “Well, HomeRoom, you’re a corporation. You don’t get the same rights as people” — [laughing] totally ignoring the actual person who was also on the lawsuit.
Royce: Yeah. Well, they’re not a corporation that they like or that donated enough money.
Courtney: Mhm. So, what is their answer to Val French, then, as a private citizen of the city of Shawnee? Well, this judge found that — and this is a quote from the Shawnee Mission Post – ”the ordinance does not violate French’s constitutional rights of substantive due process or the Equal Protection clause under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Courtney: And the gist of that — [laughing] for those of you who are now googling what the Fourteenth Amendment is — the Fourteenth Amendment says that the states — you know, we’re a big country of states’ rights, states’ rights, states can make their own laws, — but it’s saying that no state can essentially enact a law that limits the privileges or immunities of US citizens. And those are the sort of rights that we have — you know, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, property. And they’re basically saying you can’t do that without due process — due process being, you know, whatever the situation is: the court system, getting a warrant, you know, whatever needs to be done to convict someone in order to take their rights away.
Courtney: And so Val French here is saying, “What the city of Shawnee is doing is not just legislating ordinances, they’re legislating people now. Now, you are using a gross overextension of your authority to legislate the people and not the structures, the houses, the buildings.” Because, technically speaking — and I think most Americans would agree with this — the government has no business legislating what I do in my own house. I think that’s a really common American sentiment kind of on all sides of the aisle. But this judge says, “Mmm, nah, I don’t really see it that way.”
Courtney: So, the attorney overseeing this lawsuit is David Deerson with the Pacific Legal Foundation, and he says that they are going to appeal this. So we can expect to see in the future that this case will be brought before the appeals for the 10th Circuit, and he explained to the Shawnee Mission Post that the legal precedence that this judge was citing in order to come to these decisions — because that’s how the legal process works in our country; they see what’s been done in the past and try to compare apples to apples as much as possible, but it’s usually more apples to oranges, and there are a lot of antiquated laws on the books and a lot of bad decisions that have been made over the years, so it is by no means a perfect system.
Courtney: But a Supreme Court decision from 1974 was actually referenced — the case of Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, which “upheld the constitutionality of a residential zoning ordinance that limited the number of unrelated individuals who may inhabit a dwelling.” So, as I said, this is not the first time this has ever happened. However, according to this attorney, quote, “It’s been widely ridiculed by the academic community and legal commentators, and there have been other developments in conceptually-related cases that suggest that ‘Hey, there actually is a fundamental right under the Constitution to form these kind of intimate, private associations.’”
Courtney: And there have been other local bans somewhat similar to this. I know there have been ones in a city in New York, in South Carolina. So this is a battle that — if it really sort of came out of nowhere for you and you’ve never heard of such a thing like this, I don’t blame you, because these are very small city governments who are doing these things, usually, that don’t get a lot of publicity.
Courtney: However, it is important to put it in context and know that this is kind of an ongoing battle. This is something other people have fought before. This is something that could be ramping up in consistency, because now, with the cost of rent, there are all kinds of companies that are trying to combat and, you know, come in and fill the gap and “How can we make housing better?” So HomeRoom is not the only co-living company in the world. They are certainly not going to be the last. There are going to be new ideas for structuring housing. And with more things like that — and, I’d even argue, with more things like AirBnB. Because a lot of local governments don’t like how many houses are just being bought up just to be short-term rentals on something like an AirBnB website — which I’d argue is a much more pressing concern, because that actually does drive up housing costs, because there are now fewer homes on the market because of that, and that’s going to drive up rent for people who don’t own as well.
Royce: Yeah, I agree. It’s a little frustrating that we’re having to come around and sort of defend companies that are buying up homes —
Royce: — and trying to make rentals out of them, because —
Courtney: I did not want to defend a company today. [laughs]
Royce: I think that the kind of dwellings we’re talking about should be privately owned, not owned by corporations. They should be owned by individuals. I think there’s a realistic limit where an ordinary person could potentially own a few properties through circumstance: inheritance; two people get married, they each own their own home. I think there’s a relatively small number of homes that an ordinary person could have titleship of. I think problems arise when a single organization owns hundreds, if not thousands, of, like, quarter-acre dwellings —
Courtney: Oh, yeah!
Royce: — across the country.
Courtney: Of course.
Royce: But the reason why that’s happening is because affordable apartments are not being built and maintained.
Courtney: Yeah. And, you know, part of the issue, too — and part of why, you know, I didn’t want to defend a company today. I was trying really hard in our first episode to find, like, the evil of HomeRoom and, given… I think where I’ve landed is, given the current state of things, it is good that it exists. I ideally wish it didn’t have to exist, because the ideal world is that everyone, whether they’re single, whether they’re married, whether they live with their family, can just have an affordable, comfortable, safe place to live.
Royce: Right. And the reality that we’re in right now, with rental and housing costs being all over the place, particularly getting into suburban areas, is you will have an area where there is a, for example, a 700 square foot apartment that costs more money to rent than an entire home with a backyard that’s 3,000 square feet, literally a block away.
Courtney: Right, yes! And with things like mortgages, like, there are absolutely people who rent an apartment and pay as much as a mortgage would cost on a large house, but they don’t have access to get a mortgage for that house because of past hardships, past poverty, a lack of a credit score, a bad credit score, whatever the situation is, or not a consistent enough employment history. There are lots of reasons why someone wouldn’t be able to access a mortgage. So therefore, you know, it’s expensive to be poor. It’s expensive to have financial hardships, even if they’re in your past, because things like credit scores stay with you forever.
Courtney: And even if you’re in a more financially sound place right now, if you ever have anything on your record saying you’ve been evicted, saying you’ve been consistently late on rent, utilities, things of that nature, now you’re probably not going to find a place to stay, but if you do, you’re going to have to pay much more of a deposit upfront, because that landlord doesn’t really want to take a risk on you, so you’re going to need more money right upfront. It’s really expensive to be poor in this country! [laughs]
Courtney: And I just… I mean, this is backtracking a little bit in the conversation, but I just thought of yet another example of “Here’s how we can discriminate against disabled people without actually saying we’re discriminating against disabled people.” A lot of disabled people can’t get married or else they lose their essential benefits — like insurance, health insurance. So, no, we really don’t have marriage equality in this country. So, even if someone wanted to get married, not everybody can. And so therefore, if we’re saying, you know, “You can discriminate against people who aren’t married in a variety of ways,” there are so many more connotations to that that are really left unspoken.
Courtney: And I’m not going to devolve this into the same conversation we’ve had a million times, but I’ll just briefly remind everyone that it was also just last year, close to when this ordinance passed, that that letter to Mitch McConnell went out demonizing the Respect for Marriage Act that condemned platonic marriages. “How dare platonic marriages!” And we’ve talked about the connotation of marriage laws in this country recently, as well, with marriage consummation laws and how those are still on the books in many, many places, and that the difference between what is and is not a legally binding marriage based on the legal text is sometimes, “Has that couple had sex?” And a very conservative judge who has this worldview that sex and marriage are synonymous could easily cause problems for even a platonically married couple.
Courtney: So these are all things that are important to keep in mind, important to keep an eye on. Because it’s not all bad, and it’s not all going backwards. [laughs] I know it can seem like that sometimes, but there have been positive developments along the lines of housing rights and what constitutes a family in this country. We’ve mentioned, a couple of times, a New York case from 2022 as well. Now, I don’t believe this was a federal court. I think it was a local court that did uphold the rights of a polyamorous family in a housing case. So there are some things that are starting to get added to the books where we are on the right side here, we are moving forward.
Courtney: But when something so small as a city council — where not even everyone on the council was there to vote that day; I think one person was absent for that vote, but everyone who was there, it was unanimous — who might be getting financed by larger companies that have an interest in whatever they have an interest in, because that’s when they do have rights in this country. But I do fear what the long-term ramifications will be if this does get appealed to the 10th Circuit and if it still gets upheld. I will celebrate if it gets overturned. I want it to get overturned. But if this gets, you know, kicked higher and higher up the court system and still doubles down and gets upheld, that’s a very, very dangerous precedence. And it’s something that I think we should all be paying attention to.
Courtney: And as part of just broadening our horizons and the scope of politics that we pay attention to and advocate for, there are so many other areas that rarely, rarely get discussed in broader queer discourse, at least online, at least in large public settings — because there are folks doing the work at very small local settings, but those aren’t the kind of voices that tend to get amplified enough to get, you know, a large group rallying around to support the cause. But things like family, things like housing, things like day-to-day care for people in the community who need it, are all things that I think need a massive, radical restructuring, and I would love for more folks in the Ace and Aro communities, in the more broadly queer communities, to think about more and start taking an active interest in.
Courtney: Because these are the sort of things that it’s not glamorous to talk about. [laughs] Most people aren’t going to be able to write a thread about this and have it go viral. But it’s really really necessary work to do at a small level, because I hope we’ve illustrated how something small and local and seemingly under the radar can actually lead to a federal precedence that can have ramifications for years to come. But just think about your local area, think about your city or your town or your state. And think not only how do we get more Ace representation in the media. Think not only of the exclusionists in the queer community that say “Aces aren’t queer.” Think about the actual, tangible, day-to-day discriminations that could be faced by Ace and Aro folks and what we can actually do about them, because none of these have an easy answer. None of these have just an uplifting speech that we can give to get people to understand. Like, work needs to be done to plan our cities and structure our cities in ways that benefit all of us.
Courtney: And in fact, we recently, on the podcast, talked to our friend Sarah. Not too long ago — I think a few months, perhaps — Sarah was giving a presentation for a construction and engineering company, which I think was very cool. The talk was about designing cities for Aces, for what can a construction or engineering company do to keep our community in mind? And I think that just, if you look at the popular Ace discourse right now, there are no answers to that question that are being talked about. And in fact, very few people are actually asking that question: What does a city look like that includes us, that loves us, that cares for us and nourishes us? And these are things that I think about a lot!
Courtney: And I’m not going to go super in-depth, because I know we’ve already talked a lot about politics, but maybe this will be a future conversation to dig deeper into. But for now, I’ll leave you just a few things that are constantly floating around in the back of my mind that I’m like, “How can we talk about these things more, and how can we come up with real political solutions to these issues?”
Courtney: And something I think a lot about is assisted living, and that includes end-of-life considerations, things like hospice, things like nursing homes. I often think about what we as a community can do in our Ace and Aro communities for the aging, non-partnered Aspecs, for the Aspecs who perhaps are single and have some sort of illness or disability. Because the number one social safety net in this country is “Have kids, because when you’re old, your adult kids will take care of you.” Like, that is the conventional wisdom, right? And that’s something that childless couples will even hear all the time. Like, “Well, if you don’t have kids, who’s going to [laughing] take care of you when you’re old?”
Courtney: Like, there are surely some very minor social systems that are, in my opinion, not robust enough, not comprehensive enough, that can help people in end-of-life situations, in assisted living situations, but it’s not good enough. And that’s even true for straight people. That’s true for a widow and widower. That’s true for anyone who may, for any reason, find themselves to be single. But in the queer community, especially in the queer community of ours, where we have so many folks that are rejecting compulsory sexuality, that are rejecting compulsory romance, that are rejecting traditional partnerships, if not any type of partnership, what is the answer for them?
Courtney: And I have had friends that have been elderly Aces, in their 80s, in their 90s, and for the most part, I’ve been lucky enough — or my friends have been lucky enough to have had a personal support system. They have had friends or family around them that were able to take care of them when things were needed.
Courtney: But not everybody is going to have that. And, you know, we talk about the Ace community, we talk about the Aro community, but I don’t think we’re much of a community yet. [laughs] We really aren’t. We’re just… we are a group of folks who share the same identity, but there are very few tangible examples of Aspecs rallying around a cause and rallying around one another in order to actually enact long-term change for the betterment of our community.
Courtney: So, with situations like this, think about how retirement homes — extraordinarily expensive, nearly impossible for a retiree to afford without some sort of familial help — which, as I said before, usually adult children. But that entire system needs reform. If I’m not mistaken, I don’t know if things have changed, but a few years ago, I think I read that, despite having one of the lowest costs of rent in the country, Kansas as a state had one of the highest averages for nursing home cost in the country. And I was like, “Okay, well.” [laughs] But that’s true all over the place. I mean, even for folks that don’t need, like, the actual medical and nursing care, a couple times a year I’ll see an article that’s like, “We’re a retired couple and we just live all year round on a cruise ship because [laughing] that’s actually cheaper than a retirement community.” And that’s not right. There are issues there. And I could go on and on about the entire history. I will not, but… At least not right now. We’re gonna talk about this again. That’s a threat. [laughs]
Courtney: So, many of these retirement homes, retirement facilities… They more closely resemble a hospital or a prison. There are situations where hospitals and prisons overlap quite a bit, especially in terms of mental health care and who is and is not deemed to have the proper capacity. Which is also something we see in old age. People may be a little too quick to say, “Well, you are now too old to be able to make this decision for yourself,” and that’s a really messy, muddy slope.
Courtney: But the concern at the end of the day is that folks that have this autonomy taken from them don’t get the privilege of being able to pursue a happy, healthy life that is within their own control, where they’re able to do the things that they want to do. And it sort of becomes more a place where you just have your autonomy stripped for you while you wait to die, not where you are going to get the freedom of assistance. And I think that’s what these assisted living facilities should have. It should be more of a social model. It should be more based around the individual: what are their needs, what are their wants. But it’s too mechanical, it’s too corporate, there are too many procedures and too much red tape in the way.
Courtney: And a lot of these nursing homes — to circle back to the history — were literally modeled after historic poor houses. Quite literally, that was the blueprint for modern retirement homes. And it’s awful, because these poor houses, throughout history, was just, “Well, we have folks who are poor, we have folks who are — many of whom are also probably disabled, folks who are on the street, folks that we don’t want on the street, so let’s just shove them over here into this one place.” But it wasn’t to benefit their quality of life; it was to get them out of the way and manage them, for other people in society to not have to deal with them. It’s awful. It’s terrible. And a lot of people don’t understand that that was the model retirement homes are based off of. So it’s one of those situations where the model was skewed from the beginning.
Courtney: And there are alternatives, and I’ve seen experimental models, and I’ve read about experimental models that are very hopeful. It’s just, in my opinion, not getting enough attention for what we do in these situations. One I was reading about that I find really fascinating was actually specifically for folks with Alzheimer’s, where they were making, like, a miniature city within a city, so that these people were still able to walk outside, go to a shop, go shopping. There’d be little grocery stores, places to buy clothes. They could walk freely. But everyone who works in this little city within a city is actually an experienced healthcare worker. So if someone is actually having a healthcare emergency, they’re able to step in, they’re able to assist, they’re able to do what’s needed to redirect — so that folks who have this disease are still able to have as many good days and as many good moments and as much freedom and autonomy as possible given the situation.
Courtney: So those are the things we need to be thinking about. And things that I’ve considered… When Sarah came to me and was like, “Hey! Let’s have a conversation about this, because I’m giving this talk,” my mind just exploded with ideas, and I thought, “This is such a fascinating conversation that I want more people to get involved in.” Because I want more ideas, because these have all just been floating around in my head. Let’s get them out! But how do we steer away from, you know, sequestering the elderly and the disabled away from the rest of society and instead find a way to incorporate them into regular housing in a mutually beneficial way, such as affordable housing that is set aside for the disabled, for the elderly who don’t have that family, they don’t have that familial support — as well as other folks who can really benefit from a built-in community and an affording houseable structure, like young adults, people in college, people fresh out of college, people who are single — a lot of the people that this HomeRoom company is targeting. Like we said, they’re often targeting young professionals who are very new in their life and in their career.
Courtney: And think of how many young adults are also queer, potentially estranged from their family. If we could get these groups of people together in a communal way where you can have your own units, rent is low, but there’s also a sort of social understanding that perhaps the young and the able-bodied folks can help the others with tasks like shopping, going out. That way, you know, young single students… Think about this in an Ace and Aro context. Think about this as an Aromantic person who’s trying to connect with other queer elders. Like, this could be an elder you could look up to, build a relationship with. And in addition to all of this, it can be, as you know, mutually beneficial and self-sustaining as possible, but then there can also be a nurse or a doctor who is either on site directly or on call, at the very least, for direct medical intervention, for emergencies and other assistance. Like, there are options. I just don’t see a lot of people talking about what those options are. Because, Aces and Aros, we so often crave community too, but we very rarely talk about what community could look like, and we don’t really dare to dream about radical, wildly new ways of structuring housing, structuring our cities.
Courtney: And I’ve even got so many ideas because… And I’ll elaborate for folks who aren’t super familiar with my professional history pre this podcast, but I used to be very, very heavily involved in, like, the death community, which sounds very vague, because it kind of is. There were a lot of death professionals, like morticians. There were a lot of pre-death professionals, like hospice nurses. Then there were artists like me who worked in mourning and memorials and things, whatnot.
Courtney: And at the time, I met a colleague of this community named Katrina Spade, who — I believe their degree is actually in architecture, but began to sort of focus on sustainable urban planning for alternatives to things like cemeteries in densely populated areas where there isn’t enough land for burial grounds. And the company is currently operating. I believe they are operating, at this point, out of Seattle. I met her when this was still sort of in the concept phase, before it was an actively running business. So this is something that some people do already have access to.
Courtney: But the solution, the alternative to burying our deceased loved ones, and a more eco-friendly option to cremation, is essentially human composting. Years ago, that is what she would say, and a lot of people in the death community would say, like, “human composting.” But I think we sort of learned that a lot of people have, like, a visceral reaction to that, and they’re like, “That doesn’t sound good.” So they sort of rebranded to, like, “recomposing,” because it’s a little softer. But it is an organic reduction of the body into a nutrient-rich soil that the family can then have. They can use it to plant a garden. Concepts like this I had seen originally coming from places like Sweden. Eco-activists in Sweden had ideas like this that, to the best of my knowledge, did not actually get to the phase where it was a service that people could offer. But conceptually, I’ve seen the concept for a while now. And it’s not even legal in all places yet. It’s not legal in every single state, so.
Courtney: But things like that — it’s like… I get to thinking — when I think of these alternatives to burial and cremation, I think of the folks who also don’t have a family to return the body to — whether it’s ashes, whether it’s soil. Because there are folks who may die and don’t have a, you know, legal next of kin to make those end-of-life decisions with or for. And there are so many — I have so many friends who are funeral directors, and, like, they will tell you that there are just, like, dozens of urns in the basement of their mortuary that just never got claimed, but they can’t do anything with it, so they just kind of have to hold it, so.
Courtney: And there’s not an easy answer, because there are so many different cultures and contexts and religious considerations. But what sort of is the process for folks who either don’t have a family to make these decisions for them, or some people genuinely don’t care. Like, I know some people that are like, “Ah, just throw my body in the dumpster when I’m done with it.” [laughs] Like, there are some people who genuinely don’t care. So for the people who genuinely don’t care, what are the best alternatives for a community, if we are thinking in a communal fashion?
Courtney: And I think this is way, like, pie-in-the-sky and I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. But in just my little daydreaming of, like, “What does the perfect society look like for folks like that?” I was like, “What if there is, you know, organic human reduction and a community garden?” Like, you can nourish your own community garden that is feeding your… either feeding your community, or just a, you know, beautiful floral garden or arboretum, a nice, peaceful, natural place for the community to gather. Like, there are just so many things we can think about and talk about, and we just don’t, and I want to. [laughs]
Courtney: So I think this went off the rails a bit, but, I mean, it’s really not that far off the rails. Like, I’m sure there are some of you listening that are like, “I’ve never heard of any of this, so this is kind of creepy and morbid.” But hello, welcome to the inside of my brain. I think the idea of, like, mass graves happens less frequently these days, at least in this country, but it does still happen occasionally — where unclaimed bodies, which are very often, you know, impoverished people, unhoused people — that’s very often the case where sometimes there are just mass graves: big hole, all the bodies go in the hole. Because those unclaimed bodies — for, I guess, lack of a better word at this moment — sort of become, you know, charges of the local government. Like, “Well, now we have these bodies. What do we do with them?” And I don’t know. I think there are better options if we dare to dream.
Courtney: And, I guess, to bring that full circle. if you think that burial grounds doesn’t have anything to do with living grounds, you’re also… dead wrong. [laughs] Because even in situations — whether it be unmarked graves, whether it be formal cemeteries, like, that’s a lot of land use that is sort of just taken up for a very, very long time. And in countries where graves don’t get reused every so often — which, some countries will do that more often than others. But if this burial plot is for this person and this person only in perpetuity, and the way we have zoned this land, the way we have licensed and sold this land, that’s not going to change, or that’s going to be incredibly difficult to overhaul — that does cut into available living space and causes further issues of housing scarcity and rent or mortgage inflation as a population continues to grow. So it’s all connected! [laughs] I promise it’s all connected.
Courtney: So, yeah, we’ll talk more about stuff like that in the future. What do more ideal, more social communities look like for the queer community, for Aces and Aros? I also want to talk more about the actual legal discriminations against single people, against unmarried people, because I have a lot of thoughts of those, too, that we could lay out an entire list.
Courtney: So, to make sure that you’re able to hear those conversations when they do arise, please make sure to subscribe to us on whatever platform it is that you enjoy listening to podcasts on. We would oh so appreciate a five-star review or a rating or a like or whatever it is that you have on said platform. And we will talk to you all next time. Bye bye!