Should substandard housing conditions be the price of less space?
Americans rarely perceive rental occupancy standards as something negative. Imagining a world without them conjures up images of turn-of-the-century tenement-style living and greedy slumlords. Yet, ironically, the standards themselves may unintentionally keep many low-income families in less-than-ideal housing conditions.
Because the 2-person per bedroom standard is presumptively reasonable, landlords in most parts of the country can pick and choose tenants who are a “good fit” without fear of a fair housing lawsuit. Faced with this reality, low-income families who need or want to “under-house” often lie about the number of people in their household and effectively sacrifice their right to complain about housing conditions. People who know they can be kicked out for the extra person sleeping on their couch are unlikely to complain about peeling paint, pest infestations, or leaky plumbing.
Families that choose not to lie may experience difficulty finding a place to live at all. Landlords with a healthy demand for their units have little incentive to be flexible, steering families that want to under-house to lower quality housing or properties in less-desirable neighborhoods.
As more families choose to “double up,” we need to look more closely at policies like rental occupancy standards to ensure they’re really doing what they’re intended to do—guarantee decent, quality housing conditions for all.