March 27, 2006 12:00 PM

Welcome to Wednesday afternoon at 12475 Parkwood Lane in Black Jack, Mo.: In his room on the second floor, 8-year-old Cortez Loving wages an intergalactic battle with dozens of action figures; next door, sister Katarina, 10, practices her electronic keyboard; and down the hall, 15-year-old Alexia watches TV.

It might seem like a typical family scene—except that in this particular town in the St. Louis suburbs, the three children and their parents, Olivia Shelltrack and Fondray Loving, don’t meet the local definition of “family.” Last month the engaged couple, who have lived together for 13 years, were denied an occupancy permit for their home because they are in violation of a 1998 ordinance that allows no more than three “unrelated” individuals to share a single residence. On March 21 the city council will decide whether to allow the five to stay in Black Jack—or force them to move out. “I didn’t know we needed anyone’s permission to live in our house,” says Shelltrack, 31, who insists the pair knew nothing about the town’s marriage requirement when they bought the five-bedroom, 2,300-sq.-ft. home for $180,000 in January. Shelltrack says she was stunned when a member of the town’s board of adjustment, Norma Mitchell, pointed at her during a heated February hearing and asked, “Ma’am, why would you deny your rights of being married to him?” Says Shelltrack: “I didn’t know it was anyone’s business what my relationship is or is not.”

Surprisingly, it can be, at least in Black Jack and other communities that have passed restrictive housing ordinances—most of them, proponents say, designed to safeguard residential neighborhoods from everything from fraternities and group homes to crack houses. Many towns with such laws don’t routinely enforce them, says Hartford, Conn., attorney Dwight Merriam, a land-use expert. “I would guess 5 to 10 percent of households in this country are in violation of the local definition of ‘family,’ which usually restricts the number of unrelated people living together to three or four,” says Merriam. “But in most cases you just don’t hear about it unless the neighbors complain.”

That hasn’t been the case in Black Jack, a working-class community of 8,000 incorporated in 1970, where at least three other cohabiting couples with children have been forced to move. Andrea Hyde, 34, her long-time boyfriend Chelsea Jarrell, 29, and her two sons vacated their rented home after city hall denied them an occupancy permit in September. “They told us we should get married,” says Jarrell, a laboratory analyst. “Our feeling was we shouldn’t be forced to get married.”

It was a focus on family that prompted Shelltrack and Loving, 33, a senior customer-service representative for ADP—themselves the children of unmarried parents—to sell the smaller four-bedroom house they owned in North Minneapolis and move to Black Jack last year. Engaged since 2003—”he proposed on my 28th birthday,” Shelltrack says—the couple had put off a wedding because of financial concerns. They wanted to be closer to Loving’s family in St. Louis and give their children—Cortez, Katarina and Alexia, Shelltrack’s daughter from a previous relationship—a bigger house with a bigger yard. Shelltrack, who until June worked at a convenience store, was also hoping to open a family-run restaurant. She says, “We talked about this: Do we want to spend money on a wedding or a house? We chose a house.”

Morality isn’t really the issue, maintains Black Jack mayor Norman McCourt. “It’s about overcrowding, and has nothing to do with family values or religion,” he says. But Shelltrack and Loving don’t buy that—and they’re prepared to fight in court to keep their home. “I want to live in a place where you don’t have to lock the door, where you can have the whole family over for a cookout,” says Shelltrack. “This is perfect—if the people on the city council would just not tell me I need a piece of paper from the courthouse to prove we’re a family.”

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