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A strange story from Dearborn, Michigan.

The Detroit Free Press reports this week on an odd local-ordinance dispute in the suburb of Dearborn, where several local families have taken to using their garages for something other than parking. They've moved in TVs and lawn chairs, laid down tile flooring and – this was apparently the last straw – installed sliding-glass doors where the mechanized garage entrance ought to be.

These families have created a living space – something in between outdoor patio and indoor den – out of what most people treat as a home for their cars. This seems like a clever idea if you have neither (or not enough) of those more traditional spaces, or if you simply don't want to turn over the equivalent of an entire room of your home to your station wagon.

But neighbors and the city aren't on board. According to the Free Press, they're concerned that "as people get a little too comfortable hanging out in the garage, more cars are clogging side streets." Officials also argue that garages aren't up to code as living spaces. Now the city is weighing whether to change a law that states that homeowners must be able to park their cars in their garages (these families created little ramps that allow them to drive over the sliding-glass door frames). So do you ban patio doors? Parquet floors?

The story is complicated by the fact that these families are Arab-American, and some people in town are accusing their critics of an "ethnic reaction” to the practice of long sessions of socializing around a hookah. But beyond that plotline – which city officials deny – the story raises a couple of interesting questions about both what defines a "living space" and how homeowners anywhere should get to use their garages when they own no cars at all.

After all, we celebrate entrepreneurs who launch start-up companies in these neglected spaces. Why scold families who want to socialize there instead?

Dearborn's planning commission chairman concedes to the Free Press that plenty of other people in town probably have too much junk in their garages to park their cars there ("Man caves and that kind of thing"). So the ordinance seems silly to start with. Perhaps the safety concern is a legitimate one if more people really are going to start converting these parking spots into family space. But we've devoted an awful lot of real estate over the years to automobiles in the U.S., never more prominently than in the hulking garages on the front of our homes. It would be a shame if people who wanted to couldn't figure out how to take some of that space back.

Hat tip Transportation Nation.

Top image: Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Emily Badger

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

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