Decriminalizing Roommates: Occupancy Limits

Housing, hidden in plain sight.
This post is 4 in the series: Legalizing Inexpensive Housing
Duma - the 10-bedroom home of Allen Hancock and his 8 roomates in Eugene OR.

Duma - the 10-bedroom home of Allen Hancock and his 8 roomates in Eugene OR.

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, and bicycles in the drive 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 Seattle law, 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 (see Seattle Municipal Code 23.84A.016 “household” definition). With nine (and in the past up to eleven people) occupying her house, my friend is a law breaker. A city housing inspector could fine her and kick someone out.

Photovoltaic panel installation at the Duma Community, Eugene OR.

Photovoltaic panel installation at the Duma Community, Eugene OR. Photo courtesy of Allen Hancock.

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 (see the definition of “family” in section 9.0500, page 9.0-16, of Eugene’s Land Use Code). So Allen is a law breaker, 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.

Hidden Housing

These two stories hint at what turns out to be a giant opportunity hiding in plain sight. Across the Pacific 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 neighborhoods 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 true nature 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, Cascadia can and should simply delete occupancy limits from its law books: we can 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 ten 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 Pacific Northwest. That’s the focus of my next article, the second in this set of four on occupancy limits. Then, in two more articles, I’ll detail the limits in different Northwest cities and dissect their sordid history and discriminatory roots.

Special thanks to Mieko Van Kirk for research assistance for this article.

 

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Comments

  1. Ryan says:

    Great article – the occupancy restrictions in the East Coast are usually more restrictive than those in the West and equally absurd. I never agreed with the Supreme Court’s rational in Belle Terre v Boraas that restricting households was a rational way to create the “quiet neighborhood” effect, or that it was a good policy decision in the first place, but I’d imagine if the same issue came before the court now it would come out differently.

  2. Alan Durning says:

    Good point, Ryan.

    I’ll talk a little about court rulings in an upcoming article!

    • Carol says:

      These are appropriate “families” in that the owner is living in the unit and maintaining a responsible “household.” What about the problem of absentee landlords renting out rooms to un-related people in a single family neighborhood. Parking is a problem and oversight of who are renters living next to single family homes where neigbhorhood identity is losing out to pass-through residents. These are defacto rooming houses in suburban single family neighborhoods; not close to a university or other appropriate use. I lived in a rooming house when in college and a home that had been divided into 4 apartments after I graduated and was working. I understand the need and appropriate placement of such housing options. I want to prevent un-monitored rooming houses from popping up in single family suburban neighborhoods. It detracts from the neighborhood character.

      • George Humphrey says:

        Actually 1 or 2 per street would actually -add- to the character of a typical residential street. Your response seems to possibly be a little bit elitist. Its just as possible for one home on a street to be a problem when its occupied by a dysfunctional family as it would be for one occupied by roommates/housemates, more possible in fact.

  3. thomas says:

    I don’t see it as elitist, as other people who choose certain neighborhoods to live in, have a right to expect that that certain nieghborhod will have certain qualities. Opening the door to higher human density in a middle class or lower density designed neighborhood, is undesirable to a lot of people. If you want to call that elitist, well then it is I guess, but its also trying to establish a piece of mind. Personally, I don’t want to live in a neighborhood with a bunch of people, bunches of people you get bunches of noise, and inevitabley leads to problems. So you’re saying if they don’t like it they can move. Well, so can you, go find some apartments to live in. The problem isn’t occupancy limits, the problem is lack of affordable housing. But the answer is not to stack a bunch of people into houses in areas that aren’t intended for that. Give other people a break too.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for your comment, Thomas. I think it reflects a widely held view.

      Occupancy limits are not simple density limits, as I’ll explain in future articles. They exclude only certain KINDS of people, not people per se. That’s why I say they are elitist. More on this point soon.

      Your final point strikes me as mistaken: “The problem isn’t occupancy limits, the problem is lack of affordable housing.” In fact, this perception illustrates why I’m writing these articles. If we want affordable housing, we should understand how to get it. And one of the best ways to get it is to stop making it illegal.

  4. Charles says:

    I can imagine that the idea of restricting the number of persons per household and for provisions for related persons was intended to allow for the possibility of community. If I know my neighbor or at least have a reasonable idea of who lives next door consistently, it is potentially more secure than random people coming and going at all hours of the day and night.

    You make a valid point that families and households don’t conform to 1950’s standards. But I don’t think it is necessary to eradicate the entire regime of community standards. Perhaps there is room to adjust things within the existing legal framework such as regulating the number of people per bedroom and having a standard for long term versus short term residencies. E.g. Family or set of long term residents + up to X short term residents.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for your comment, Charles. As I’ll relate in subsequent articles, cities already per-square-foot regulations on housing to avoid unsafe crowding. The occupancy limits I’m describing here are entirely separate.

      Many cities also try to regulate “lodgers” or “boarders” separately from “families” or “households,” but enforcing those regulations is virtually impossible to do fairly.

      The urge to control what “types of people” are allowed to live in which neighborhoods — “renters,” transients, poor, immigrant, “those people,” “students,” “criminal elements” — is widespread. It is also usually discriminatory. And it is one of the main reasons that housing is so expensive.

      Because we assume that people who choose to share housing (whether because they’re poor or have different values, e.g., “hippies” or close-knit immigrant families) are an undesirable type of people, we essentially squeeze out of the market a vast potential supply of affordable, sustainable, convenient housing.

      More on all this to come!

    • Nathanael says:

      The government attempts to define “family” strike me as unconstitutional: violations of basic 1st and 9th amendment rights of free association.

      If the government wants to require a certain minimum amount of square footage per person based on psychological health criteria, fine — but where does the government get off saying “You can cram 35 people in here if they’re your kids, but 6 friends who have decided to form a commune, that’s prohibited!”?

  5. CE says:

    In most jurisdictions the only way that a housing inspector would arrive at the door is because of a neighbor’s complaint. And I’m betting that complaint would arise because of the number of cars. Your Capitol Hill friend might be living in a green house, but it many high occupancy homes there were be one or more cars for each adult. Excess cars make neighbors cranky. If that problem could be solved on-site I think people would be more ready to embrace it.

    • Alan Durning says:

      CE, you’re right. Most cities only inspect when neighbors complain. Complaints can be motivated by parking, but also by noise and other nuisances. When a house is full of people who are different in salient respects than neighbors — race, ethnicity, language, nation of origin, class, age, lifestyle — complaints are much more likely.

      The political motives for occupancy limits are a noxious but powerful blend of property-owners’ self-interest, elitism (aka, dislike for subordinated social groups) and spurious conceptions about the correlation between those groups and spillover effects such as noise and parking. In California, in the late 1800s, legislators wrote occupancy limits to push Chinese immigrants out of some areas, making explicitly racist arguments about disease and moral degeneracy. Nowadays, the discourse sounds different: there’s talk about crime, noise, sketchy people, renters, transient people who don’t care about their homes, neighborhood character, and parking. But the underlying motives are not unlike those of the late 1800s.

      As I’ll argue in subsequent pieces, occupancy limits are only correlated in the most remote and tenuous way with purposes such as controlling the spillover effects of particular land uses, such as parking and noise. Much better approaches to managing those spillover effects exist. Some of them are already in effect, if underused. Others are overdue. More to come.

      • CE says:

        I theoretically agree with you about their being many factors that go into people objecting to increased density. But having worked in code enforcement I’ve observed over and over that if people can park on the street, right near their house, they’ll go a long was in accepting other issues of “different-ness”. (An exception might be the noise that comes from college students living in neighborhoods of SF houses).

  6. Alan Durning says:

    Good point, CE. Getting parking solutions right could be the single most-important step. I plan to devote a few articles in this series to that theme!

  7. Sarah Walz says:

    So why not simply do away with single-family and multi-family zones and have each property decide for itself?

    • Nathanael says:

      That would be a good idea. The government should not be in the business of regulating what consitutes a “government-approved family” anyway.

  8. Zane Selvans says:

    Does anybody happen to know the court case that ultimately overturned the occupancy limits in California as unconstitutional?

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