Bring Back the Boarding House: Key 2 - Decriminalizing Roommates

Cities across the country can make housing more affordable, greener, and more abundant with the simple elimination of a few municipal rules, says award-winning author Alan Durning in his new e-book, Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities, published by the sustainability think tank Sightline Institute. 

A friend of mine lives in a nine-bedroom, century-old house tucked among the wooden mansions of Seattle’s north Capitol Hill neighborhood. In some ways, it’s the quintessential home of the fortunate and green-minded in the urban Northwest: it has a hybrid car, an electric car, bicycles in the driveway, and chickens in the yard. In another way, it’s unusual. The dwelling’s 5,000 square feet of indoor space are home to nine people: my friend and her husband, their two daughters, and five housemates. This living arrangement is in flagrant violation of city code.

Under the law in Seattle, as in almost every city in Cascadia and beyond, the number of people who may share a house or apartment is strictly limited, regardless of the dwelling’s size, unless all occupants are members of the same family. In Seattle, the limit is eight people. With nine (and in the past up to 11) people occupying her house, my friend is a lawbreaker. A city housing inspector could fine her and kick someone out.


Seattle has some of the most lenient roommate restrictions in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: joiseyshowaa / Foter / CC BY-SA.

Another friend of mine, Allen Hancock, owns a similarly spacious house near the University of Oregon in Eugene. A Christian college built the house in 1926 as a home for a dozen or more “wayward girls.” By the time Allen moved in, in 1990, someone had divided the 4,400-square-foot structure into six apartments and let it run down. He restored, remodeled, and retrofitted the house. Today, it has 10 bedrooms plus a guest room and, usually, nine residents. Allen has personally devoted two decades of labor to turning Duma, as he calls the house, into a model of green living, with reused building materials throughout, extreme insulation and energy-efficiency upgrades, photovoltaics on the roof, edible landscaping, and a rainwater catchment system, all located on one of Eugene’s main bicycle routes.

Eugene’s occupancy limit for unrelated people is five. So Allen is a lawbreaker, like my Capitol Hill friend. Or he would be if he had not proved to city planners that Duma has been in continuous use for group living since before the city started zoning in the late 1920s. Duma is grandfathered in; otherwise, the city could fine him and evict four of his roommates.

These two stories hint at what turns out to be an opportunity hiding in plain sight. Across Cascadia, or the Northwest, occupancy limits constrain access to the cheapest, most profitable, most abundant, and most sustainable housing option currently available: bedrooms in existing buildings. They criminalize the simplest and perhaps the oldest solution to housing affordability: roommates. They retard the process of adapting aging homes constructed for big, nuclear families to the family structures of today: more singles, young and old; more small families; and more bi-nuclear, blended, and otherwise complicated households. They crimp developers’ options, preventing them from building houses with many bedrooms. They are deeply elitist, enforcing class privilege and discriminating against low-income households, young people, and immigrants, although they typically hide their elitism behind righteous-sounding slogans about health and “decency.” They are also just dumb policies: badly written, internally contradictory, illogical, and difficult to enforce. They serve no legitimate public-policy purpose, at least none that is not—or would not be—better served by other rules.

Consequently, North America can and should simply delete occupancy limits from its law books—abolish them, as a few Cascadian cities have already done. Or, if we lack the will to do that, we can raise the limits, so that they become moot in all but the rarest cases. Already, Northwest cities set limits that range from two to 10 people per dwelling, illustrating both the arbitrariness of current policy and the possibility for reform.

The opportunities checked by occupancy limits are not just in big houses, like my friends’ homes in Seattle and Eugene. Occupancy limits constrain more typical structures as well. To understand how they work, it helps to step back and look at the context of housing in the Northwest.

Unlocking Spare Bedrooms

Most Northwesterners are well provided with housing. In fact, Northwesterners near or above the median income are among the best-housed people of all time: we have a lot of private indoor space.

Consider bedrooms, for example. Through most of history, most people shared bedrooms. Many even shared beds. I’m not just talking about couples. When Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer riding the circuit in Illinois, he routinely shared a bed with others in his business. The future president of the United States did not think twice about crawling into bed at the end of the day with a fellow attorney. That’s how people lived.

When I spent three months in Central America in 1986, I lived with the family of a shoemaker. The whole family—mom, dad, and eight kids—shared one sleeping room, and they were better off than many families in their town. In fact, their living standard was, statistically speaking, right around that of the midpoint of the world population at the time. Generations of North Americans raised their families in little houses and apartments. My grandmother’s family, with six kids, lived in a small apartment in New York after they arrived in the New World from Poland.


Most old, urban homes have rooms to spare. Photo credit: dbnunley / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA.

Or consider my own living situation as an illustration. When I first moved my family into my current house in 2000, we had three bedrooms for five people. We remodeled the house so each of my three kids would have a bedroom. That’s the normal expectation of middle-class North American families nowadays: one bedroom for each couple and one bedroom for each other family member. A few decades ago, the expectation was that kids would share bedrooms. But private bedrooms are a good way to live, affording privacy and independence along with conviviality in shared spaces. I consider myself, and my kids, fortunate to have been able to afford them.

When my wife and I divorced six years ago, she moved to a nearby three-bedroom apartment, and I stayed in the house. Three of the four bedrooms of my house began sitting empty during the weeks when my kids were at their mom’s. Thus, instead of four bedrooms for five people, we had seven bedrooms. Later, my eldest left the nest and my younger two started college. Counting dorm rooms, my eldest’s apartment, my ex’s apartment, and my house, the bedroom tally for the five of us has risen to nine, triple what it was in 2000.

Regionwide housing statistics show that my surfeit of sleeping quarters is not atypical. If at lights-out this evening all 12 million residents of the Northwest states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington retired into bedrooms, one person per room, some 2 million bedrooms would remain empty. The Northwest has fully 15 percent more bedrooms than people. Even this comparison understates the region’s bounty of bedrooms, though, because most couples and some children share rooms. On conservative assumptions, more than 5 million Northwest bedrooms (36 percent) are unoccupied on any given night. State by state, the figures are 35 percent in Washington, 36 percent in Oregon, and 40 percent in Idaho. In the city of Seattle, the most densely settled part of the Northwest states—with the most apartments, singles, and small households—the figure is still around 27 percent.

Comparable data are harder to come by for British Columbia, but the situation appears to be similar. A decade ago, the demographic research group Urban Futures estimated that 29 percent of homes in greater Vancouver held at least one unoccupied bedroom. That translates into more than 220,000 empty rooms in the Cascadian city most vexed by astronomical housing prices.

Furthermore, these tallies cover only the region’s houses and apartments. They exclude hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms, college dormitories, hospital suites, prison cells, military barracks, and other institutional quarters. Again: Cascadia, like the rest of North America, has a surfeit of private, indoor living space.

Most of the people who own these extra bedrooms may be happy to have them empty. They use them as guest rooms or studies. Or the rooms are in second homes. Or, like me, the owners have children who keep rooms at both parents’ homes. Or, also like me, they are keeping their kids’ rooms available during the extended modern process of fledging. That’s their right. But public policies should get out of the way of those who want to rent out those bedrooms. Among the more than 5 million Cascadian bedrooms in which no one is sleeping, there are certainly thousands or tens of thousands—and there may be hundreds of thousands—that would already be occupied if local regulations did not criminalize roommates. More would emerge over time, as builders adjusted to a pro-roommate housing economy.

One use for Cascadia’s 5-million-plus extra rooms, Sightline’s Chris LaRoche argued in 2012, is as informal bed-and-breakfast space, made possible through sharing-economy websites such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing. A second use is to convert idle bedrooms to accessory dwelling units, commonly known as mother-in-law apartments. Several outdated regulations block such units, and I address them in the next chapter. A final use for the one-third of Northwest bedrooms that are unoccupied, explored in the rest of this chapter, is to lease them out to tenants.

Roommate Caps

When The Real World (TRW) filmed its 2013 season near downtown Portland in 2012, it did so in apparent violation of city law, which forbids more than six unrelated people from sharing a dwelling. TRW puts seven to eight young adults with outsized personalities together in a house and films the resulting train wrecks for television.

It’s not just Portland. In fact, Seattle is the only big Cascadian city where TRW could have filmed without breaking local laws on roommates. (TRW did film its 1998 season in Seattle.) Everywhere else, TRW would break the law, as it did when it filmed in New York (occupancy limit for unrelated roommates: three).


Bikes and streetcars co-exist in Portland's Waterfront District... along with a cap on roommates. Photo credit: Steven Vance / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA.

Meanwhile, not a single big Northwest city’s code would allow Big Brother to film. In Big Brother, members of an even larger cast of scheming competitors try to sidestep personal eviction from a shared house. Seattle allows eight, and Spokane seven, unrelated people to share a dwelling unit. Surrey—the Vancouver, British Columbia, suburb that’s the fourth-largest city in Cascadia—has no limit on long-term residents but limits short-termers to two people.

Reality TV is a frivolity and its legal status a mere curiosity. I bring it up only to underline the arbitrary and irrational nature of Cascadia’s occupancy limits, which affect not only the purveyors of TV but also millions of regular Northwest households. These limits constitute perhaps the most easily erased obstacles to inexpensive housing in the region.

Occupancy limits are written differently in almost every city, and each city’s rules are curious in their own way. Still, two things are true everywhere. First, in every city, families are exempt. A family, including distant relations, can crowd into an apartment or house according to its tastes or needs. For example, as far as the occupancy codes (though not all parts of the housing and land-use codes) in Langley, BC, are concerned, an infinite number of family members may share a house, but only four unrelated people may do so. Second, occupancy limits are unrelated to the size of the dwelling. The limits are the same for micro-apartments and palatial estates. Ten unrelated people in Meridian, Idaho, can share either a 20-bedroom mansion or a studio apartment, but 11 unrelated people may not live in either.

The dizzying variability of occupancy rules accentuates their arbitrariness and absurdity. Cities offer different treatment to temporary boarders, mixed groups of families and unrelated roommates, children, foster children, and even servants. Cities also vary in their policies concerning group homes for people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence, and other special populations.

I examined closely the occupancy limits for unrelated adults in 31 Cascadian cities (and summarized them in a table you can find on the Sightline Institute website). Medford, Oregon, says no more than two unrelated roommates may share housing. Nampa, Idaho, limits occupancy to three; nearby Meridian, to ten. Other cities fall all along the line between these endpoints: Everett, Washington, and Langley, BC, at four; Salem, Oregon, and Yakima, Washington, at five; Richmond, BC, and Tacoma, Washington, at six; Spokane and Vancouver, Washington, at seven; and Seattle at eight.

Five cities have no limits on unrelated roommates. Surrey and Victoria, BC; Bend, Oregon; and Idaho Falls and Sandpoint, Idaho, have dispensed entirely with occupancy limits, showing the way for other cities. Surrey, however, has limits on short-term boarders (noted above) that undo some of the liberality of its policies.

Seattle is more generous than all but a few cities, with a cap of eight unrelated roommates. It also has one of the simplest policies. If any member of the household is not a family member, the occupancy limit kicks in. Some cities employ more complicated formulas. These cities have no hard cap on occupants. Instead, their occupancy limits float with family size.

Portland, for example, allows “family plus five”—a family of any size plus up to five unrelated people—to share a dwelling unit. For a group of entirely unrelated people, this works out to a group of six: a family of one plus five unrelated people. That’s too few for The Real World, and it’s lower than Seattle’s limit of eight. On the other hand, a Portland family of four could have five unrelated housemates, in which case Portland’s limit (nine) would be higher than Seattle’s (eight).

Vancouver, BC, is much less generous than Portland. It’s a “family plus two” city. To further complicate matters, though, Vancouver allows any three unrelated people who share housing to count as a family. Consequently, its occupancy limit for unrelated people is functionally five: three as part of a “family” plus two extras as lodgers. Many in Vancouver take advantage of this rule: 8 percent of in-city households include members who are not part of the family. (Vancouver also has generous occupancy policies for accessory dwelling units in houses, which are discussed in the next chapter.)

“Family-plus” rules, like all forms of occupancy limits, are complicated and vary among cities, with no apparent relationship to anything else. Words such as “capricious” and “random” come to mind when comparing them. Why “plus two” in Vancouver, BC, but “plus six” in Vancouver, Washington? What could possibly be so different about these two cities that it would justify a threefold difference in occupancy? The answer, as I’ll discuss below, is “nothing.” The numbers are outcomes of political compromises made, in most cases, long ago and, in every case, without any grounding in evidence of what the public interest actually is. (And, as I will argue, there is no logically consistent and intellectually coherent rationale for occupancy limits such as the ones currently in force.)

City codes do allow exceptions, providing processes and procedures for getting rules waived. Unfortunately, the procedures for unlocking spare bedrooms are so onerous that few pursue them. The process in Medford, Oregon, is illustrative: If you own and live in a house and rent rooms to boarders, the limit on roommates can rise from two to five, but you need a special permit from the city planning commission. Getting it requires running an expensive gauntlet. Your application must include the following, among other things:

  • 20 copies of a site plan, drawn to scale, that indicates “all existing & proposed buildings, parking, drives, vegetation or landscaping, and adjacent development”
  • a stormwater management plan
  • findings of fact that address the city’s criteria for approval of such units
  • mailing labels for every property owner within 200 feet of the house
  • a “signed statement regarding posting public hearing signs”
  • a $950 fee

Remember, all of this is just to rent out a third or fourth bedroom. Having spent thousands of dollars to complete these steps, you still have to go before the planning commission and defend your proposal. Your neighbors, or anyone else, would be welcome to come and object. They might request, for example, that you install more off-street parking. The planning commission might side with them, requiring that you construct more parking spaces on your property before you fill spare bedrooms with renters. According to a Medford city planner, only one person has completed this process in the past five years. No surprise! Better just to leave the rooms empty or take your chances by renting them illegally.

After all, the black-market option is attractive to some. Occupancy limits are enforced only unevenly. (The Real World seems to have gotten away with ignoring the rules in both Portland and New York.) Many code officers turn a blind eye, because the limits are so hard to enforce. How can the small corps of housing inspectors in each Northwest city police the number of people living in each of their cities’ thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of dwellings? How are they supposed to distinguish family from nonfamily residents? To separate boarders from residents? Permanent residents from temporary ones? One big-city planning director told me, “We will not be doing bed counts, that’s for sure!” Still, in each of Cascadia’s big cities each year, complaints come in from neighbors about too many people in a dwelling, and code enforcers investigate and take action.


Rowdy roommates are a surefire way to have neighbors complain. Photo credit: www.brettarthurphoto.com / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND.

The limits themselves and the enforcement, even if patchy, keep bedrooms unoccupied. Occupancy limits affect the design and permitting of new houses, too. Builders eager to avoid close scrutiny of their projects color inside the lines established by occupancy limits when deciding how many and what size of bedrooms to install and how to remodel old structures. Seattle is the only Northwest city where developers have built aPodments, for example, because Seattle has an occupancy limit high enough to make them profitable. Between these three effects, many bedrooms stay empty of roommates. The exact number is unknowable, but even if it’s only 1 percent of all unoccupied quarters in Cascadia, that’s still more than 50,000 rooms. If it’s 5 percent, that’s 250,000 rooms. If it’s 10 percent, that’s half a million rooms.

Roommate caps are more likely to constrain rentals in large houses than in small ones. And, as it happens, the Northwest has huge numbers of large houses. The American Community Survey (ACS) counts more than 827,000 dwelling units with four bedrooms in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. The ACS counts almost 240,000 additional houses with five or more bedrooms.

Why not do as Surrey and Victoria, BC, and Sandpoint and Idaho Falls, Idaho, have done, and strike occupancy limits from the code? Is there any other policy change in the Northwest—or wave of policy changes in the region’s cities—that could instantly make tens or hundreds of thousands of inexpensive housing units available? Units that are already built, heated, provided with kitchen and bathroom access and, in many cases, furnished? Units that could provide welcome revenue to homeowners and affordable housing to struggling singles and families?

No alternatives promise so much housing for so little cost.

Servants Welcome, Roommates Barred

Scraped clean of rationalizations, roommate caps are simple. They are tools that privileged people use to exclude from their neighborhoods people without much money, such as immigrants and students. To reveal this elitist reality fully will require some explaining, but one example shines a bright light on part of it: how land-use codes treat servants.

At least six Cascadian cities specifically exempt live-in servants from the residential caps they impose on everyone else. For example, in the region’s fifth-largest city, Burnaby, BC, a house may hold only five unrelated people. As everywhere in the region, families may pack as many members as they like into their residences, but for unrelated people, Burnaby allows no more than five dwellers each in its tens of thousands of single-family homes, condos, and apartments. Regardless of the size of the home, no extras may move in: no friends in need, no additional roommates to help cover the rent.

But if you can afford servants? Well, by all means, invite them! All the butlers, housekeepers, gardeners, cooks, chauffeurs, and nannies you can afford are welcome to share your roof in Burnaby. The same is true in the region’s 7th-largest city, Boise; its 10th-largest, Yakima; and in Gresham (the 18th largest), Hillsboro (21st), and Beaverton (23rd), Oregon. Between them, these cities hold nearly 900,000 people, all governed by a housing rule that is more Downton Abbey than Portlandia.

Favoring the Rich and Propertied

Roommate caps have sailed under many colors over the years. A parade of rationales, each tuned to the times, is evident in the minutes of political bodies and in court decisions. The late University of Oregon planning professor Marsha Ritzdorf documented this procession of excuses. Proponents have argued for limiting occupancy to protect singles’ virtue by curbing promiscuity, safeguard the young from unsavory influences, limit noise and filth and polluted air, stop crowding, prevent disease, preserve neighborhood character, temper overflow parking, ensure safety and sanitation, defend vulnerable renters from exploitation by slumlords, and more.

Any policy that stands immutable while its purpose shifts merits suspicion, and many of the historic arguments are no longer mentioned. But some survive, including preventing crowding and its health effects, preserving neighborhood character, stemming noise and parking conflicts, and defending vulnerable renters. Let’s take the modern arguments for occupancy limits in turn; none is even close to compelling. By teasing them apart—reverse-engineering them—we can discern the true purpose of occupancy limits.

Crowding

You might suppose that roommate caps are intended to prevent too many people from crowding into a dwelling. That’s a logical guess, but it’s wrong. Policies designed to prevent crowding would limit the number of people who can occupy a given amount of space, but occupancy limits have no connection to the size of dwellings. Throughout Cascadia, these limits allow families of any size to share a dwelling of any size; the only people restricted are those not related to the family (and not employed by the family as servants). Thirty distant cousins may share a Vancouver, BC, apartment, as far as the city’s land-use code is concerned, but three family members plus three friends may not inhabit a mansion. Occupancy limits control not people but certain kinds of people.

What’s more, every housing code I’ve reviewed includes a separate provision that regulates crowding as a ratio of people per square foot of floor area. That’s right: occupancy limits are not crowding rules, but cities do have crowding rules. In Seattle, for example, the “floor area” section of the housing and building code says that two people may not share a room of less than 150 square feet and that for each additional resident, another 50 square feet are required. That means, for example, that in a 400-square-foot studio apartment, Seattle allows two people in the first 150 square feet, and one additional person in each additional 50 square feet. That comes to seven people. Unlike occupancy limits, these floor-area rules apply to family members. British Columbia’s provincial building code employs a simpler, and more restrictive, crowding rule: two people per bedroom or sleeping area.

Crowding rules, furthermore, are usually minimal and rarely breached. Seven people in a 400-square-foot apartment is crowded, by contemporary standards in the Northwest (though not perhaps by the standards of Coast Salish longhouses or pioneer cabins). Yet Seattle’s crowding rule is aligned with the 1986 recommendations of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also aligned with the 1997 Uniform Housing Code, a product of the International Conference of Building Officials (since merged into the International Code Council). This official suggestion, widely followed across North America, employs a formula of minimum floor area per person for sleeping quarters that, if simplified and averaged, comes out to about 50 square feet. Strikingly similar standards are on the books in many other places, including faraway locales such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

One might ask: do occupancy limits—or even the less-demanding floor-area standards on the books across the Northwest—flow from a body of research that reveals a threshold at which crowding becomes unhealthy? Far from it. To my initial surprise, no such threshold is evident in the research literature. In fact, experts have been searching for decades for crowding’s fingerprints in causing disease and other harm. They have met with little success. For example, researcher Alison Gray, who studied this question in New Zealand, summarized her extensive global literature review.

The debate about the relationship between crowding and health is long standing and inconclusive. The complexity of relationships makes it difficult to separate the effects of crowding from confounding variables such as the physical condition and type of housing, socio-economic factors and lifestyle choices. Issues of measurement and other methodological difficulties limit the ability to establish causality. Many researchers are left concluding that in practice it is not possible to move beyond the level of statistical association.

I have reviewed almost a dozen summary reports from public-health and housing experts in the United States and abroad. They all echo Gray’s words. A UK report, for example, finds an abundance of weak statistical associations between crowding and various health problems but no conclusive evidence of crowding as a root problem. A World Health Organization study from Europe made a rigorous estimate of the role of crowding in spreading diseases such as tuberculosis but acknowledged that in affluent countries such as the United States and Canada, researchers have found hardly any correlation between crowded housing and infection.

The challenge for researchers is that people who live in crowded dwellings almost always do so because they have little money or are otherwise disadvantaged. When crowded people improve their financial status, they move into larger accommodations. Poverty and disadvantage are a root cause of illness, chronic health conditions, depression, and other mental-health challenges, including family stress that leads to violence. The effects of poverty are so big that they tend to obscure any independent effect from crowding.

Statistically speaking, searching for the fingerprints of crowding on human health is like looking for the effects on soldiers’ health of the stress they experience when they are under fire. Residual effects of trauma and stress will almost certainly take a toll on soldiers who survive the battle, but the immediate health threat is the bullets. And it is bullets that cause the stress, in any case. So it probably makes more sense to focus on the bullets rather than the stress.

Researchers do find an abundance of correlations between crowding and health problems. They assume that some of those associations reflect causation, and they have guesstimated guidelines on how much space people need. Those guesstimates are reflected in housing codes as floor-area rules and bedroom head counts, but no one really knows if they are right. And everyone knows that poverty and disadvantage—the bullets—are the main problem.

As a result, setting crowding standards is risky. Banning close-quarters living forces people to spend more money on housing, which leaves them less for everything else. It impoverishes them further: more bullets. In Cascadia, however, most floor-area requirements are so minimal that they are unlikely to constrain inexpensive housing. Fifty square feet per person isn’t much: it’s about the footprint of a king-size bed. One community with a more burdensome floor-space standard is Salem, Oregon. It requires 200 square feet per resident in short-term dwellings such as rooming houses, where migrant workers might live, but not in apartments and houses. Another is Tacoma, Washington, which has an egregiously restrictive crowding rule: 300 square feet per person.


Roommate restrictions do little to curb booming populations in urban centers.Photo credit: solidether / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA.

Most cities’ occupancy limits, however, do constrain inexpensive housing. They close off the market for empty bedrooms in large houses and apartments and make neo–rooming houses such as Seattle’s eight-person aPodments illegal in most of the region.

Ultimately, crowding, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Professor Dowell Myers of the University of Southern California and his coauthors wrote in 1996, “After a century of debate it is still in question whether so-called overcrowding is harmful to the people affected, or merely socially distasteful to outsiders who observe its presence.” Alison Gray, the New Zealand policy researcher, writes: “Standards generally reflect the values of dominant or decision-making groups and do not necessarily incorporate the views of householders or minority groups.”

Those dominant group values, moreover, are not static. They rise with the middle-class housing norm. In the United States, official government surveys of housing in the early 1940s counted any dwelling with more than two people per room (all rooms, not just bedrooms) as crowded. By 1950, officials had lowered the threshold to 1.5 people per room and, by 1960, to one person. Residential space was expanding far faster than population throughout this period, so the norm changed. Nowadays, in Cascadia, average occupancy is less than 0.5 people per room.

Even as crowding diminished, many cities tightened or created their first occupancy limits for unrelated roommates. The 1970s were the peak period for adopting these limits, which effectively banned shared living arrangements—renting out multiple rooms or doubling up in houses—that had been normal in previous generations.

All evidence and logic suggest, then, that crowding is not the problem that occupancy limits are actually designed to prevent. Occupancy limits exempt families and do not control crowding. Even if they did, crowding is socially defined. Health research provides little reason for regulating crowding, and in any event, Cascadian cities already have separate crowding rules.

What about other rationales for occupancy limits?

“Neighborhood Character”

Occupancy limits cap roommates, not families. That’s been especially true since the mid-1970s, when two key decisions from the US Supreme Court created precedents under which occupancy limits persist. In the first, the court upheld a New York town’s authority to stop a property owner from renting a single-family house to a group of six college students. Justice William O. Douglas, a Northwesterner, wrote for the court, “A quiet place where yards are wide, people few, and motor vehicles restricted are legitimate guidelines in a land use project addressed to family needs. . . . The police power is . . . ample to lay out zones where family values, youth values and the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people.”

It sounds good, but it’s a curious argument: Aren’t students people? Aren’t they youth? It’s a dated argument: we know now that suppressing population density makes for more traffic and air pollution, not less. And it’s a classist argument, focused on the idyll of fortunate families raising children among other fortunate families amid “the blessings of quiet seclusion” where “yards are wide” (in other words, expensive). The ruling affirms that localities may write land-use rules to exclude people who cannot afford to live in a single-family neighborhood unless they double up with roommates. That’s not exactly “family values” or “youth values” so much as it is class values.

A year later, the Supreme Court extended its own distinction between family members and roommates. It ruled that a community could not restrict members of an extended family from sharing housing. Cities across the United States revised their occupancy limits to eliminate bans on extended family members. Canadian land-use rules now reflect the same principle.

The pro-family bias of these decisions may have reflected mainstream views in the mid-1970s; it is now an anachronism. Household structures have changed dramatically in the intervening years, with high divorce rates, delayed marriage and childbearing, extended lifespans, and the proliferation of cohabitation, melded households, same-sex partnerships, and shared housing. US housing laws now make it illegal to discriminate against potential tenants or buyers on the basis of their family status, yet land-use codes persist in precisely this kind of discrimination. State courts in jurisdictions including California, Michigan, and New Jersey have since thrown out roommate caps entirely. Cascadian courts have not yet followed their example.

Noisy Neighbors

Occupancy limits are sometimes rationalized as dampers on nuisances such as noise. Consider the implicit reasoning: Family members are welcomed in infinite numbers, but roommates are strictly limited. If occupancy limits are effective ways to ensure quiet, then unrelated roommates must, even in modest numbers, be much noisier than family members. But no actual evidence has ever been adduced to support this proposition. This rationale trades in sweeping stereotyping.

In any event, if the concern is noise, the appropriate response is a noise rule. Such ordinances are simple to adopt and easy to enforce. Neighbors call police; police knock on the door; residents hush. Regulating the number of roommates as a noise-control measure is like trying to stem litter by capping the size of groups of friends who may walk together on the sidewalks: it’s an insane, or at least inane, policy. Why not just put out some trash cans and fine litterbugs?

The Parking Problem

More roommates may bring more cars, which may clog on-street parking spaces, inconveniencing neighbors. Roommates may share cars less often than do family members, justifying limiting roommates more than family members. This argument is, morally speaking, inverted: it prioritizes ample space for cars over affordable housing for people. It is also economically inverted; if airlines operated by the same logic, they would not limit or charge for luggage and would fly with empty seats to avoid overfilling the overhead bins and cargo bay. Refusing affordable housing in unoccupied bedrooms to perhaps tens of thousands of people across the Northwest because they may make on-street parking harder to find for current residents in some places some of the time is a perversion of our better values. Still, the parking argument is at least plausible, unlike others I’ve examined, and managing on-street parking is a legitimate goal for public policy.

The logic of the parking argument, however, holds only in places where on-street parking is a free-for-all, an unregulated commons. The argument’s validity evaporates in neighborhoods that use the emerging kit of technologies and policies for solving on-street parking problems documented in exquisite detail by UCLA professor Donald Shoup in The High Cost of Free Parking. A revolution in urban parking is within Cascadia’s reach, and it will bring big benefits for housing affordability, local economies, and neighborhood improvement. Rather than capping roommates in hopes of alleviating parking pressures—a morally dubious proposition—cities can resolve their parking woes head on, by pricing parking in congested areas and returning the meter proceeds to those neighborhoods as public investments. When extra parkers translate into local improvements such as new street trees, underground electrical wiring, and better sidewalks, neighbors’ parking concerns can melt away.

Defending Vulnerable Renters

A planner in a Canadian city told me, “We need occupancy limits, or we’ll have Chinese immigrants packed in, sleeping in shifts.” He didn’t indicate what the problem was, exactly, with sleeping in shifts, or why his city government had any legitimate role in determining how people slept, whether Chinese or not. He seemed to think it obvious. But rather than simply writing off his comment as racist, I am going to assume he was giving voice to a final, common argument for occupancy limits: that they prevent unscrupulous slumlords from exploiting vulnerable tenants by packing them into unsafe housing.

It is a frustratingly vague argument. Does it mean that, absent occupancy limits, landlords would crowd tenants beyond what they would choose for themselves? If that’s what it means, it’s nonsense. As I’ve explained, occupancy limits are no good at preventing crowding. That’s a job for square-footage limits. And besides, crowding is one tactic that people use to cope with poverty—meaning that occupancy limits don’t expand the housing options of the impoverished, they constrain them.

Perhaps, then, people think that high-occupancy housing is simply unsafe. But the real safety problem lies in housing that’s dilapidated or that violates code. Unscrupulous landlords feel no particular need to maintain their housing or to follow city codes, subjecting their tenants (crowded or not) to safety and health hazards: lack of fire exits, fire doors, and smoke detectors; faulty ventilation and inadequate heating; unstable floors and railings; compromised electrical and plumbing systems; moist walls that grow black mold; radon seeping up from the ground; and more.

Yet occupancy limits do absolutely nothing to end such code violations; in fact, they encourage them. By excluding many empty bedrooms in existing homes from use as rentals, occupancy limits eliminate slumlords’ competition. Roommate caps enhance landlords’ market power and leave them less eager to maintain their rental properties. Removing occupancy limits, conversely, could bring new housing options onto the market, loosening slumlords’ grip on their tenants by giving those tenants new alternatives.

The way to prevent exploitation of vulnerable tenants is to enforce safety rules and to cultivate competition at the bottom of the rental market. Occupancy limits, because they tighten rental markets, make exploitation more likely, not less.

Erasing Roommate Caps

Crowding, disease, noise, parking spillover, exploitation of renters—none of these ills is a reason for occupancy limits (or, for that matter, the other two obstacles to affordable housing discussed in this book). Cities have tools for addressing these problems, and some of these tools, such as safety codes and floor-area provisions, are already in force almost everywhere in North America. Assuming that occupancy limits are not an epidemic of insanity but are crafted for a purpose, perhaps unspoken, that purpose must be something other than these rationalizations.

The real purpose must be the one thing that they actually do. They exclude from neighborhoods the kinds of people who would need to share housing with more roommates in order to afford the rent. Defenders of occupancy limits raise a variety of objections, but they are mostly code. Crowding, neighborhood character, noise, parking, vulnerable tenants—those are the words. But their meaning? They are polite ways for the privileged residents who tend to dominate city politics to exclude people not like them—people who are not members of middle- and upper-class families; people who are students; people who have recently immigrated and are still climbing up from the bottom of the wage ladder; people who, for whatever other reason, lack money.

This urge to exclude is likely motivated by a powerful blend of self-interest (protecting property values by making neighborhoods more uniformly affluent), stereotyping (of renters as noisy, for example), and racism or classism (“packed in, sleeping in shifts”). It’s precisely this mixture that explains the mockery of Northwest values that I mentioned above: the fact that elected leaders in cities that are home to almost 900,000 Cascadians have left untouched in their law books provisions that cap roommate numbers while welcoming all live-in servants.

This analysis leads inescapably to one and only one conclusion: occupancy limits deserve elimination. That’s the recommendation of Professor David Ormandy of the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, perhaps the world’s leading expert on housing, crowding, and health. He argues for “decriminalizing” inexpensive housing by eliminating all occupancy standards. Instead, he suggests that authorities employ a rating tool to inform housing inspectors’ professional judgments about safe and healthy housing. The rating tool does not completely ignore crowding but puts it in context and focuses on the real issues—the bullets.

For city clerks, revoking occupancy limits would be a few seconds’ work. The limits mostly live in the complicated definitions of “family” or “household” that cities have adopted to specify who can live in a dwelling. All that cities need to do to remove occupancy limits is to replace their family definitions with the single sentence employed by Surrey, BC, Cascadia’s fourth-largest city: “Family means 1 or more persons occupying a dwelling unit and living as a single non-profit housekeeping unit.”

Or, if they prefer, they could use that of Victoria, BC: “Family means one person or a group of persons who through marriage, blood relationship or other circumstances normally live together.” Or they can do what Bend, Oregon, has done: entirely eliminate the definition of “family” and references to it.

Adopting either definition, or no definition, in all Northwest cities could unfetter thousands—or perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands—of unoccupied bedrooms for rental: rental to anyone the owner chooses to house. They would also be available for live-in servants. A no-limits policy would not discriminate, even against the propertied and privileged.

In short, only a single legal change is needed to provide housing for many thousands of people in Cascadia: erase caps on roommates.

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