Update 1/15/2013: 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 (TRW) 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.
Cascadia’s occupancy limits
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.
Occupancy limits constitute perhaps the most easily erased obstacles to inexpensive housing in the region.
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
|# Adults Permitted to Share Unit, If All Unrelated
|“Family Plus” Limit, if Any
|Idaho Falls, ID
|Family +6 unrelated individuals, not counting children
|Family +6, not counting children
|(Family or 3) +2
|(Family or 3) +2
|North Vancouver, BC
|(Family or 3) + 2-5, depending on zone
|Moses Lake, WA
|(Family +2) or (4 adults + 4 children, if unrelated)
|Family +2-4, depending on zone
|Various exceptions apply. See detailed version here.
The “family plus” rules
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.)
Unlocking spare bedrooms
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.