The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 19, 2011

Is “Doubling-Up” To Stay Afloat Only An Option For The Middle Class?

December 19, 2011

When hard times hit, middle class folks often find creative ways to support struggling family members and make ends meet:

  • They rent out rooms, attics, or basements in their homes to cover the mortgage after a job loss.
  • They take in aging parents who can no longer care for themselves.
  • They welcome adult children and their families during periods of adjustment following divorce or separation.

Most middle-class Americans are free to “double-up” and make adjustments to their household size to adapt to changing circumstances.

Unfortunately, many low-income renters aren’t.

In most places across the country, landlords adhere to a de-facto two-person per bedroom standard that limits the number of persons who can live in a rental unit.  Even though this standard is selectively enforced, low-income renters who “double-up” often run the risk of eviction, either for violating the terms of their lease or jeopardizing “health and safety.”

Legal scholars point out that the two-person per bedroom standard stems from internal HUD guidance for its own public housing and assisted units, which have historically been smaller and laid out differently from other rental accommodations.  As anyone who’s been in the market for a rental home can tell you, units vary widely in size and design depending on location.  A 1-bedroom apartment in Tucson may very well be more spacious than a 2-bedroom flat in New York City; and renting a 2-bedroom may mean living in a house with a den and finished basement in the Midwest but only a cramped pre-war apartment in San Francisco.

While some rental occupancy standard is certainly reasonable to prevent true overcrowding and the abuses of slumlords, the “one-size-fits-all” 2-person per bedroom standard may be overly limiting, especially if not  “doubling-up” means unaffordable rent, housing instability, or even homelessness for low-income renters or their family and friends.

With our current budget crisis, government isn’t likely to step in to help these families directly with subsidies anytime soon.  Re-examining rental occupancy standards should be an option on the table to help low-income renters adapt to challenging circumstances the way more affluent Americans do.

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