Brothel Law: fact or fiction?

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Maggie Duly

Every so often it seems the rumor mill starts running, especially in college towns, about a so-called brothel law; a law that classifies five or more unrelated women living in a house as a brothel and therefore illegal. 

This is simply untrue, but there are some important city codes to consider when renting a house or apartment off-campus. 

The City of Marquette’s Land Development Code defines a dwelling unit as “One or more rooms, in a building, with bathroom and principal kitchen facilities, designed as a self-contained unit for permanent residential occupancy by one family.”

Family is the keyword. Since the mid-1970s the city has defined a family for the purposes of dwelling occupancy to include no more than four unrelated adults, said City Planner and Zoning Administrator David Stensaas. 

There are four definitions of family. It can also be classified as a group of individuals with a continuous relationship and social economic and psychological ties to each other or a “functional equivalent of a family.” A family can be tenants in a short-term rental property with a valid permit from the fire department. The fourth definition explains that the “functional equivalent to a family” does not include organizations like a club, fraternity, sorority, etc. and those living together only for the duration of a job or school. 

“From time to time we get complaints about too many renters in a home, as there are a lot of long-term residents who know the four-unrelated rule. That kind of violation is not something the City seeks out, because it is often difficult to prove,” Stensaas said. “But, when complaints come in we go to the property owner and seek information.” 

Landlords and property owners, many times, don’t know about the violation, Stensaas said, and the City has many other obvious code violations that keep them too occupied to act as patrollers. 

“Sometimes people get in over their head on expenses and seek an extra renter, or they have a friend that needs a couch for a while, I understand the dynamics of being a college student living off-campus and trying to pay your way,” Stensaas said. “But more than four unrelated adults renting a single dwelling unit, be it an apartment or a single-family home, is not allowed per the Land Development Code.”

When it is verifiable that there are too many renters, the City allows the landlord or property owner to resolve the situation. 

So if you hear this infamous rumor or have to adjust your living arrangements from five to four roommates, it’s not because five women living together ultimately means they’re selling themselves…but in case you didn’t know, that too is illegal in the state of Michigan.