When thousands of people are living in tents and doorways, it makes no sense for the government to stop people from living indoors.

But that’s exactly what some cities and counties do by capping the number of “unrelated occupants” who can legally share a home, no matter how large. Both Oregon and Washington are considering state laws that would strike down these outdated rules.

The Oregon bill, HB 2583, is set for its first hearing in the Housing Committee of the state House of Representatives. It’s sponsored by the committee’s chair, Democratic Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene. The bill could hardly be easier to summarize. Here’s its latest draft, in full:

“A maximum occupancy limit may not be established or enforced by any local government, as defined in ORS 197.015, for any residential dwelling unit, as defined in ORS 90.100, unless the restriction is based on the square footage of the entire unit.”

In Washington, the equivalent provision is part of a larger bill, SB 5235, that would also strike down discrimination against tenants on lots with accessory dwellings. (Oregon already passed such a rule in its 2019 legalization of middle housing.) That bill, from Democratic Sen. Marko Liias of Mukilteo and others, passed out of Washington’s Senate Housing and Local Government Committee last week.

My colleagues Nisma Gabobe, Dan Bertolet and Alan Durning have all walked through the reasons these bills are good. Last year, Nisma surveyed 228 cities across Washington and found that 71 percent had these exclusionary clauses in their zoning codes. All of them are, essentially, government attempts to define who is and isn’t a “family.”

That’s simply not appropriate in 2021. And various states are agreeing. Iowa passed a law striking down unrelated occupancy limits in 2017; state courts in California, Michigan, New Jersey and New York have done the same. Oregon’s largest city, too, is poised to remove its own cap on unrelated occupants in a matter of weeks.

a housing innovation, learned from the past?

image of 1930 Census data

A data sheet from the 1930 US Census, on Madison Street in inner Southeast Portland. Out of 50 residents listed at eight addresses, 22 were identified as a “boarder” or “roomer.” Image via Gerson Robboy.

One of the people who read Alan’s work on this subject years ago was Portland housing advocate Leon Porter. He was inspired by the possibility of opening up the glut of empty bedrooms hiding in plain sight.

Porter has even dug deep into current Census figures to put a number on that glut: Across Oregon, there are at least 1.5 million bedrooms that no one is sleeping in. That’s in both occupied and vacant homes.

In 2019, Porter began talking to people about an interesting concept. First, re-legalize shared homes by ending caps on unrelated occupants, with size-based exceptions for fire safety and overcrowding. Then, use potentially small subsidies to help voluntarily turn at least a few of these empty bedrooms into homes for people who don’t currently have any.

Porter draws inspiration from past housing shortages. Once, he says, it was perfectly ordinary to rent out spare rooms.

“I think that culturally, people no longer think as much about setting up rooming houses or boarding houses as an obvious way to make use of extra space in their homes as they did 100 years ago,” Porter said in a 2020 interview.

“Removing that regulatory barrier is an essential step to having this becoming a widespread solution,” he explained. “I don’t think that just changing the group living rules by itself will have a huge impact. Because a lot of people probably do it now, just illegally. But if we’re going to have nonprofits—or governments themselves, potentially—setting up group living or home-sharing situations, they’re not going to be able to do it easily if it’s just a conditional use.”

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  • Once home-sharing is no longer technically illegal, Porter said, cities and nonprofits might be able to partner to open up relatively low-cost housing for some people experiencing homelessness.

    “It might not take very much money at all to tap into these bedrooms,” Porter said. “It might simply be a matter of paying for a screening process or maybe subsidizing the rents of these bedrooms a little bit. … What we can do is facilitate programs with people who are living in these really big houses who are lonely and are having trouble paying the mortgage and would like some roommates who have been pre-screened and are safe to live with.”

    “A close friend of mine is a 60-year-old woman who’s homeless,” Porter added. “I know from first-hand experience that she’d be a great roommate. But it needs to be facilitated to make it happen.”

    No one expects a huge share of Oregon’s 1.5 million underused bedrooms to be rented out, whatever the scenario. But even a tiny share of them could go a long way for not much money. And Oregon may soon be looking for creative ideas like Porter’s. House Bill 2003, passed by Oregon legislators in 2019, requires cities and counties to develop concrete strategies for housing many more people and bringing many more homes into the market at low costs.

    If just one in 100 of the underused bedrooms in Oregon could become long-term housing, that’d be enough to house 15,000 people. According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, that happens to be the approximate number of Oregonians without homes as of January 2019.

    Nisma Gabobe contributed to this report. An earlier version misstated one of the effects of SB 5235 on ADUs in Washington. The error was mine.