Zonability.com

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Terms and defintions in zoning are core to building knowledge and understanding in this niche. In fact, it is often the definitions that give the license to "make a case" to a decision maker who holds the power for your proposed project, change in use or structure, or rezoning submittal.

There is no standard between cities for how a term is defined. While there are national building codes, there are no national zoning codes. To find out the meaning and interpretation of that word, the place to start is the municipality's zoning ordinance.

Once located, there is usually a section dedicated just to "definitions". There are defined "uses", "development standards" and "policy or procedural". All may be relevant for your specific need.

Examples are as follows:

Use case 1 - you own a single family home and want to rent it out for the next 12 months. What does zoning have to do with it? Zoning can specify how many unrelated people can live together. It is the reason it is prudent to find out what does that city consider a "family" vs. "group." This is especially important information when renting a house near a college campus where it might be common to have to several unrelated individuals want to rent a house together.

Fort Worth, Texas

FAMILY. Any individual or two or more persons related by blood, adoption, marriage or guardianship, or not more than five unrelated persons operating as a single housekeeping unit and expressly excluding lodging, boarding, fraternity, and sorority houses.

Austin, Texa

You won't find a definition for "family" but you can find "group residential." Beware, "group residential" is not the same as "group home." 

GROUP RESIDENTIAL use is the use of a site for occupancy by a group of more than six persons who are not a family, on a weekly or longer basis. This use includes fraternity and sorority houses, dormitories, residence halls, and boarding houses.

So in both cities, a house could be rented to no more than 5 unrelated persons. The key part of the definitions is the word "related."

Group home is a term used to express unrelated people living together and for a purpose such as a treatment center or senior care. There is a federal rule for "6-bed facility" which has hierarchy over local zoning rules.

Use case 2 - you or someone you know is interested in building a small-scale multifamily or apartment building. What does zoning have to do with this? Plenty. The zoning will specify the density or number of units that will be allowed to be built. Note: city zoning does not define "multifamily" like the federal law for financing (5+ units). Typically, in zoning, "multifamily" typically means 3+ units. Of course, this needs to be verified by city. 

Austin, Texas

MULTIFAMILY RESIDENTIAL use is the use of a site for three or more dwelling units, within one or more buildings, and includes condominium residential use.

Fort Worth, Texas

The city's zoning ordinance doesn't provide a specific definition. Again, it takes some sleuthing to figure out what it means to have a multifamily property.

There are ways to research this by looking at available definitions such as:

APARTMENT. A room or a suite of rooms within an apartment house arranged, intended or designed for a place of residence of one family or group of individuals living together as a single housekeeping unit.

MULTIFAMILY DISTRICT. The term multifamily district shall refer collectively to the “CR, “C,” “D,” “DHR1” and “DHR2” districts. The term also includes any “PD” districts that include multifamily uses.

Next, by looking one of the noted zoning districts, CR, the following is found:

All multifamily residential development (three or more dwelling units) shall meet the property development standards of multifamily development as shown in the accompanying table.

In closing, the terms defined by the local zoning ordinance can help you better assess a potential use case in order to accomplish your goals. 

How to DIY Research - Links to Definitions

Austin - residential uses

These include standard primary uses, no "accessory" uses which are defined in separate sections of the Austin zoning ordinance as follows:

Austin - residential accessory uses (includes guest house)

Austin - accessory apartment

Austin - accessory dwelling unit

Austin - short term rental

Austin - definitions for building size

This last link is for those interested in how height, lot coverage setbacks etc. are defined.