The Roommate Gap: Your City’s Occupancy Limit

No reality TV (or reality?) for us.
This post is 6 in the series: Legalizing Inexpensive Housing

Updated, January 15, 2013: Bend’s occupancy limit, which I reported as five unrelated persons, was eliminated by the city. The article is now corrected.

When The Real World filmed its 2013 season near downtown Portland recently, it did so in apparent violation of city law, which forbids more than six unrelated people from sharing a dwelling. The Real World puts seven 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 and Spokane are the only big Cascadian cities where TRW could have filmed without breaking local laws on roommates. TRW did film its 1998 season in Seattle. Everywhere else, The Real World would break the law, as it did when it filmed in New York (occupancy limit for unrelated roommates: three).

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, BC 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 absurd nature of Cascadia’s occupancy limits, which affect not only the purveyors of televised narcissism but also millions of regular Northwest households. These limits constitute perhaps the most easily erased obstacles to inexpensive housing in the region. As I noted in my last article, more than 5 million Cascadian bedrooms—more than one third of the total—go unused on any given night. Were it not for occupancy limits, some of their owners would offer them for rent.

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 from occupancy limits. 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 codes) are concerned, infinite family members may share a house in Langley, BC, 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 eleven unrelated people may not live in either.

The dizzying variability of occupancy rules accentuates their arbitrariness and absurdness. Cities offer different treatment to temporary boarders, mixed groups of families and unrelated roommates, children, foster children, and even (as I’ll explain in my next article) servants. Cities also vary in their policies concerning group homes for people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence, and other special populations.

To show one axis of this swirling variation, I’ve listed below the occupancy limits for unrelated adults in 31 Cascadian cities. The lower the limit, the more constraining it is for housing affordability and the fewer unoccupied bedrooms get rented.

Medford, Oregon, says no more than two unrelated roommates may share housing. Nampa, Idaho, limits occupancy to three, nearby Meridian, to ten. 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.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve assumed in this ranking that none of the roommates are related to each other by blood, marriage, or adoption and that all of them are adults. The cities selected include all the large cities in the region plus a smattering of small cities. The limits are from the cities’ municipal codes or, in a few cases, from information provided by city staff. A detailed version of the table, with links to sources, and notes on exceptions and special provisions is posted here. I encourage you to review it and read about your city’s rules.

Roommate Limits, Cascadian Cities
City # Adults Permitted to Share Unit, If All Unrelated “Family Plus” Limit, if Any
Surrey, BC No limit
Victoria, BC No limit
Idaho Falls, ID No limit
Sandpoint, ID No limit
Bend, OR No limit
Meridian, ID 10
Seattle, WA 8
Spokane, WA 7 Family +6 unrelated individuals, not counting children
Vancouver, WA 7 Family +6, not counting children
Portland, OR 6 Family +5
Tacoma, WA 6
Richmond, BC 6
Bellevue, WA 6
Kent, WA 6
Vancouver, BC 5 (Family or 3) +2
Burnaby, BC 5 (Family or 3) +2
Boise, ID 5
Yakima, WA 5
Eugene, OR 5
Salem, OR 5
North Vancouver, BC 5 (Family or 3) + 2-5, depending on zone
Gresham, OR 5 Family +4
Hillsboro, OR 5 Family +3
Beaverton, OR 5 Family +4
Moses Lake, WA 5
Langley, BC 4
Everett, WA 4 (Family +2) or (4 adults + 4 children, if unrelated)
Abbotsford, BC 3 Family +2-4, depending on zone
Coquitlam, BC 3 Family +2
Nampa, ID 3
Medford, OR 2
Various exceptions apply. See detailed version here.

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 Northwest 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 for groups of unrelated roommates. It has a cap of eight. 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, shown in the right-hand column of the table as “family plus” cities. 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 peculiarly generous occupancy policies for accessory flats in houses, which I’ll discuss in another article.)

“Family-plus” rules, like all forms of occupancy limits, are complicated and vary among cities with no apparent relationship to anything else. Study the table above for even a minute and words like “capricious” and “random” come to mind. Why “plus two” in Vancouver, BC, but “plus six” in Vancouver, Washington? What could possibly be so different between these cities that it would justify a threefold difference in occupancy? The answer, as I’ll discuss further in my next piece, is “nothing.” The numbers are outcomes of uninformed 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 in my next article, there is simply no logically consistent and intellectually coherent rationale for occupancy limits like the ones currently in force across the Pacific Northwest.)

City codes, you may be thinking, do allow exceptions. There are processes and procedures for getting rules waived. Unfortunately, the procedures are so onerous for unlocking spare bedrooms that few pursue them. The process in Medford, Oregon, is illustrative. In Medford, if the owner lives in a house and rents rooms to boarders, the limit on roommates can rise from two to five, but the owner needs to get a special permit from the city planning commission. Getting it requires running an expensive gauntlet. Your application must include, 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,” and
  • 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.

The limits themselves and the enforcement, even if patchy, both 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. 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.

Local authorities, planners, property owners and others have tendered diverse arguments over the years in support of occupancy limits. A lively sequence of rationales, evolving to match the sensibilities of each period, is visible in the detritus of local political histories and court cases: protecting morality, segregating the races, safeguarding children from unsavory influences, stemming noise and filth, containing contagious disease, tempering overflow parking, ensuring safety and sanitation, preserving neighborhood character, defending vulnerable renters from exploitation by slumlords, stopping crowding, and more. I turn to these arguments in my next article, where I will show that any policy rationalized in such varied and contradictory ways—where the policy remains unchanged while the reasons keep changing—is suspect. We’ve long since renounced the original discriminatory rationales, but the new rationales are nowhere in the vicinity of valid or compelling.

Occupancy limits, as currently written, are often fruitless as means to the ends that their backers claim to desire. Moreover, cities have much better ways to achieve those ends that are legitimate and worthy. As only the simplest example, every municipal code I’ve examined includes minimum requirements for square footage per resident to prevent the kind of extreme crowding that may spread contagious disease. Occupancy limits, in contrast, are unrelated to dwelling size, so they are toothless to stop crowding. Besides, because they exempt families, they clearly have nothing to do with crowding in itself: only the number of nonfamily members.

Most disturbing, because occupancy limits are so flagrantly irrelevant or ill-suited to their purported ends, I argue that many of their supporters are likely actually motivated by something else, something old and vile: veiled strains of hatefulness. Occupancy limits, for many, remain a socially acceptable way to discriminate against immigrants, the young, the poor, or the otherwise “other.” But all that is for next time.

For now, I hope I’ve let you see enough to wonder, as I do. 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 is 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?

I am aware of no alternatives that promise so much housing for so little cost; at least, I am aware of nothing in the real world.

Thanks to Mieko Van Kirk for researching the codes of all the cities listed in this article and the associated table.

 

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Comments

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    The Medford case is extreme enough to be crazy. I suppose a gay couple can’t have any roommates, since they can’t be legally married in OR. I suppose you couldn’t even have weekend houseguests in Medford?

    • Alan Durning says:

      The Medford case is extreme. It is also odd enough that we checked a few times with city staff. Medford code’s definition of “family,” the normal place where occupancy limits are written into law, does not include any limit whatsoever. So we first thought the city was a regional leader, along with Surrey, Victoria, etc. But a city planner told us that the city’s separate codes on boarding houses apply to all renters sharing housing. So that’s what we reported.

  2. KA says:

    I’m pretty hesitant to believe that it’s local occupancy limits and not unit size and (sometimes discriminatory) landlord restrictions that keep bedrooms vacant. Oregon law prohibits landlords from setting occupancy limits at fewer than 2 people per bedroom (cite: http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/90.262), but I know many landlords ignore and/or don’t know this and will reject applications from large families (which is not legal). To hit a 6-person occupancy limit you’d need to have 2+ people per bedroom in a 3-bedroom unit or a 4+ bedroom home, which is not common. And builders aren’t building many 4+ bedroom homes– not because of occupancy limits, but because the market for 4+ bedrooms in most areas is vanishingly small.

    Further, while jurisdictions do have rules that theoretically limit occupancy, many jurisdictions don’t have rules that define “family” meaningfully. If a group of unrelated adults chooses to identify as a family, there’s usually no problem as far as the city is concerned unless you’re violating fire codes. The Portland code cited in the article has no listed definition of “family”, and the Beaverton code defines “family” as a group related by “blood, marriage, legal adoption, or guardianship” with no maximum size, or up to 5 individuals “who need not be related by blood, marriage, legal adoption or guardianship”. I might actually feel like having a jurisdictional definition of “family” that’s anything other than “one or more individuals sharing a housing unit that self-define as a family” is as (or more) problematic than unenforced occupational limits.

    And the onerous process detailed in the article, while ridiculous, is absolutely not what 99% of the households looking to rent out a 3rd or 4th bedroom would have to go through, since most of the listed examples allow 5 or more unrelated persons and/or have family exceptions, and there just aren’t many units that have bedroom space for 5 or 6 people without more than 2 occupants per bedroom.

    I agree that local occupancy limits are stupid and usually are just a screen for discriminatory stuff– either anti-immigrant bias (b/c ‘those (fill-in-the-group)’s have too many kids’) or anti-youth/student bias (which is why college towns often have low occupancy limits). And when occupancy limits are challenged they almost always come off the books– most of them are legal relics, similar to anti-sodomy laws and similar crap. I certainly don’t think that it would hurt anything to strike those codes (aside from burning up staff time on something that’s practically never enforced), but I really don’t think it would suddenly result in hundreds of thousands of rooms becoming available for rent.

    • Alan Durning says:

      KA, thanks for your informed and thoughtful critique.

      The US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of occupancy limits twice, as have lower federal courts. On the other hand, legal challenges in some states, such as California, have knocked out occupancy limits. Are you aware of court challenges in the Northwest that have overturned occupancy limits? You state that “when occupancy limits are challenged they almost always come off the books,” and I’m interested to learn if there are NW examples you can cite.

      To your last point, I agree with you that occupancy limits are not the principal barrier to renting out spare bedrooms. The principal barrier is that the owners of those bedrooms do not want roommates. My argument is more modest: occupancy limits are the easiest barrier to eliminate.

      Your guess differs from mine about how many bedrooms are held off the market by occupancy limits, and as I said, the answer is unknowable. But thanks for your comment because it prompted a further line of reasoning:

      The data suggest that you are mistaken to suppose occupancy limits are dead letters that have only a small impact on the bedroom “market.” The Northwest has huge numbers of housing units with four or more bedrooms. The American Community Survey counts more than 827,000 dwelling units with four bedrooms in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. The ACS counts almost 240,000 additional units with five or more bedrooms. In much of the region, the most common existing occupancy limits (four, five, or six people per unit) would block use of these houses at the two-person-per-bedroom rate common in most of the world, or in the Northwest a century ago.

      And even if the number of bedrooms kept unoccupied by roommate restrictions is tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands — heck, even if it is only thousands — that’s still a lot of housing that’s currently getting wasted.

      • KA says:

        It’s certainly possible that I misstated the likelihood of occupancy limits being struck down if challenged– I’m not a land use lawyer, I live in a fairly progressive area, which biases my viewpoint on some issues, and I’m not specifically aware of PNW occupancy-limit challenges that I can cite.

        I am surprised that four+ and five+ bedrooms make up such a large percent of total housing stock– it works out to over 18% of the total housing stock (ACS numbers) for those three states, which is a lot more than I would have thought.

        I would think it might be interesting to compare geographic locations of high-bedroom housing with median income levels, maybe by Census tract. I wonder if some (or most?) of those very large homes are owned by high-wage households who might have less incentive to rent out additional bedrooms– or if some or most of them are in rural areas far from services and jobs?

      • Alan Durning says:

        KA, thanks for your further thoughts.

        I agree that it would be interesting to know the geographic and demographic distribution of big houses, and knowing this might better help us guess how big their potential is for providing roommate opportunities. Still, occupancy limits serve no legitimate purpose. Further argument shouldn’t be necessary, especially when it requires extensive (and expensive?) analysis.

        A separate point. Developers do consider occupancy limits when deciding what to build, even if the first-sale market for multi-bedroom houses is limited. The real estate market responds dynamically to the rules it faces.

        For example, as I argued in Emancipating the Rooming House, Seattle is the epicenter of micro-apartment and neo-rooming house development in Cascadia. A major reason is that Seattle’s unusually high occupancy limit (8) allows Calhoun Properties to build its eight-tenant aPodments in the city’s single-family residential neighborhoods. It is doubtful that the financial model would work for fewer tenants. There are large per-building fixed costs: kitchen, roof, systems, parking. Amortizing these costs over eight bedrooms is much easier than doing so over five bedrooms.

        Eliminating occupancy limits, or raising them to eight or more, would help make aPodments “pencil” in far more Cascadian cities.

  3. Annamarie says:

    Great research and article! I will link to it on my blog, http://www.sharinghousing.com.

    However, I don’t think occupancy limits are what keep people from choosing to rent rooms in their houses. It’s more about being afraid, having had bad experiences, not being sure how to go about it. Home is a private place and inviting a stranger into it is a very scary thing.

    I’m hoping that will change – for the same reasons you wrote the article. Housing is expensive, there are many empty bedrooms available and living with others is an excellent way to live sustainably. That’s why I wrote a book to teach people the process for safely and comfortably selecting a good housemate.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Annamarie,

      Thanks for your comment. As I’ve said, occupancy limits are not the main thing that keeps people from choosing to rent rooms, but they are one thing.

  4. Oz Ragland says:

    Great stuff… in the context of a new endeavor, The Cohouseholding Project, we’ve done similar research with a broader geographic scope. It appears that Chicago is one of the most favorable cities, with a limit of 10 people…

    As both Annamarie and you have pointed out, these limits are probably not all that limiting with respect to most people considering whether to rent a room – or two.

    They do, however, significantly affect cooperative households – and Seattle has many, including some that ignore the 8-person limit.

    I live in a relatively upscale shared household near Bothell (a large, high-quality house on land which is owned outright by the residents (along with some of our neighbors!). We are currently remodeling the house to better meet our needs as a shared household.

    We’re located in unincorporated Snohomish county and have chosen, so far, to respect the limits imposed by our local jurisdiction – 6 people, if any one resident is unrelated.

    Among other concerns, this issue actually led some of us to support an (unsuccessful) annexation attempt by the City of Bothell. If our area had become part of Bothell, our limit would have been increased to 8, which would make our home more interesting socially, with lower costs per resident.

    I found your quote, “The US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of occupancy limits twice, as have lower federal courts.” really frustrating.

    But then, it was followed by some hope, “On the other hand, legal challenges in some states, such as California, have knocked out occupancy limits.”

    So… what do we do to help drive the required change?

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for your comments, Oz. I do not have all the answers about how to drive the required change, but in my next article I will sketch what thoughts I have.

      • Oz Ragland says:

        I look forward to more of your thoughts. I guess its a bit repetitive, but I do think Annamarie really nailed something here. Your response to her mentions “renting a room” – it may be helpful to think less about the economics and more about social/environmental.

        I suspect that the vast majority of unused bedrooms are in homes that have NO unrelated adults. Since almost all jurisdictions allow for one unrelated adults, even the New York limit of 3 is irrelevant to these. These limits seem to only be relevant for people wanting to create larger shared households.

        To move from unshared to “share with one person” requires a real shift of attitude and lifestyle.

        If you’ve not already explored it, you might look at the Home Share movement which helps older people make the decision to share.

        By the way, do you share your home? Perhaps you could get a little personal here (or elsewhere, with a posted link here) and share why or why not.

        Oz

        P.S. Of course no one has all the answers, but its sure a goodness that some of us are having the dialogs outside of government and private interests that might yield some.

    • Nathanael says:

      It would be good to get the exact court case references, for the purpose of setting up a legal fight.

      I believe there is probably a solid case to strike down ALL the occupancy limits on “unrelated” people (the ones with ‘family’ exceptions). These limits were based in Victorian-era conceptions of family and of the right of the government to regulate family structure.

      These ideas have no rational basis, and because of that will probably be possible to strike them down entirely.

      • Alan Durning says:

        Nathanael,

        Thanks for this comment and your others. I agree that a legal strategy is worth considering. I am not an attorney, and trying to overturn two US Supreme Court precedents is no small undertaking. But it’s worth considering. I give the specific court cases in this article: http://daily.sightline.org/2013/01/16/servants-welcome-roommates-barred/

      • Nathanael says:

        Thanks. FWIW, this wouldn’t really solve the entire problem, because I suspect that a number of cities would simply respond by revoking the family exemption and imposing a strict occupancy limit, which is probably more defensible legally.

        (Since very few “nuclear family” households have more than 5 members these days, the lobby for the family exemption is going to be a lot smaller than it used to be.)

  5. Jonathan says:

    Geez, Alan, I’m shocked and dismayed at the thrust of these pieces, which seems to suggest that the working poor should learn to make do with less, rather than why billionaires like Paul Allen make so many millions flipping parking lots downtown.

    I can hardly blame you for making an onerous fool of the government, but let’s address the real issues.

    Firstly: eliminating building height limits altogether (not just on Vulcan properties). This is a big one and it’s been in the news a lot lately. There may be a few good reasons to prohibit tall buildings in major cities, I just can’t really think of any…. If you’ve addressed this, I missed it.

    Secondly, and perhaps most importantly: infill with LVT and value capture. The city is pursuing this to a limited extent and it’s kind of a big deal — it’s also an issue that’s very poorly understood. Again, it’s in the news a lot lately but your blog makes scant mention of it. Why?

    If we really hammer away on this stuff, Seattle could well become the next Hong Kong.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Jonathan,

      I do not understand you. I’ve read your comment three times, and it does not make much sense to me. But trying to give you the benefit of the doubt:

      I’ve written extensively in support of land-value taxation and of infill. I’ve done so since 1995, in fact. I’m sympathetic to raising height restrictions, although there are other, easier ways to allow increased density. And, in any event, height restrictions do at least have a legitimate public-policy purpose, unlike occupancy restrictions. I do not, however, regard either of these suggestions as the “real issue.” There are many, many dimensions to building better cities. All are real.

      The central idea of the Making Sustainability Legal project, of which this article is a part, is to examine little-noted but consequential legal barriers to common-sense, affordable, green solutions. Occupancy limits are one such barrier.

  6. Peter Ladner says:

  7. portrait benschon says:

    Portland’s occupancy limits are in the definition of “household”, not “family”, and the correct chapter is 33.910.

    Also, it’s not totally accurate to say that residential arrangements larger than family-plus-five are illegal. It’s just that housing with that many people crosses over from a “household” to “group” living use, which therefore can require a (time-consuming and discretionary) land use review. Your main point is still true: this distinction creates a bureaucratic deterrent to denser and cheaper housing, and it’s inconsistent to also not regulate enormous families.

    For example, the building in which Real World Portland was filmed is in a commercial zone downtown that allows “group living” as a conditional use. A permit for such a use is available, but it doesn’t look like MTV actually applied for a conditional use permit. They did get some kind of temporary city permission.

    http://www.portlandmaps.com/detail.cfm?action=Permits&folder=3197906&propertyid=R140550&state_id=1N1E34CB%20%203900&address_id=161094&intersection_id=&dynamic_point=0&x=7643496.976&y=685269.514&place=338%20NW%209TH%20AVE&city=PORTLAND&neighborhood=PEARL&seg_id=113435

    • Nathanael says:

      The inconsistency where “families” are allowed to get away with stuff that “unrelated” people are not allowed to get away with — this is the weakest legal point, because there is no rational basis for it, and no conceivable rational basis. A concerted legal attack could probably kill all such regulations.

  8. Laurie says:

    I work for a bank, and they make us review and test out on the industry regulations every year. The FHLA, A federal law prohibits both banks making loans AND landlords renting out properties from engaging in practices that have disparate impact – That is, they appear to be neutral or fair, but in practice they amount to discrimination against a protected class. If the occupancy limits truly are there to discriminate against boarders or renters based on color or age, then why not challenge the regulations under disparate impact, since what a bank cannot do, and an individual cannot do because it amounts to disguised prejudice, a city should not be able to do either? Federal law trumps state and city law in everything else, so why not strike down the restrictions based on the existing non discrimination in “lending” (bank loans or renting) laws?

    • Alan Durning says:

      Laurie,

      Thanks for your suggestion, Laurie. I’ve heard others say similar things.

      As I noted in another article, there are two US Supreme Court rulings that support—on curious, if not spurious, grounds—occupancy limits. A number of state courts have overturned occupancy limits. But it’s not clear what a federal court would do now: occupancy limits seem to me to be in clear violation of fair housing law. They are also explicitly approved by two US Supreme Court rulings. How the federal courts would resolve that conflict, I do not know.

      Alan

      • Nathanael says:

        Supreme Court rulings aren’t magic. If the rulings are based on fictitious findings of fact, they can be ignored even by lower courts, because court rulings only have precedential value on matters of *law*, not on matters of *fact*.

  9. Chris Pollitt says:

    Great article. It turns out that it’s not just city laws that are a problem, it’s also getting home insurance. Here’s a success story though: http://bit.ly/JWqEG0

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