The C Is for Crank
Why We Need Occupancy Limits
Why we still need to limit the number of people who can live in a single unit.
While I agree with a lot about Sightline Institute director Alan Durning's ongoing series arguing against rules that make affordable housing tougher to build (yay SROs; bring on the aPODments!), I do think his uncritical advocacy for reduced regulation reveals some major blind spots.
In his most recent two posts, Durning argues against city standards that set a cap on the number of unrelated people who can live in a single dwelling and for eliminating rules that make it hard for people to rent out unused bedrooms.
Sounds sensible, right? The problem is, the examples he gives to show the system isn't working exist in a different legal and financial universe from the tenants whose vulnerability the rules were designed to address.
Durning cites a friend who lives in a nine-bedroom mansion on Capitol Hill, along with five housemates and her husband. That's one more person than city code allows—evidence, Durning argues, that the city is "criminalizing roommates." (He also notes that in Central America, many families have just one room to sleep in, which is hardly a standard of living most Seattleites are likely to embrace).
It's a bit cute to suggest that the city's occupancy limits are aimed at wealthy homeowners on Capitol Hill.
While Durning's specific example does seem a bit silly—of course nine people should be allowed to share a nine-bedroom house, even if some of them aren't related to the owners—it's a bit cute to suggest that the city's occupancy limits are aimed at wealthy homeowners on Capitol Hill.
Instead, occupancy limits exist to address landlords who crowd tenants into substandard, unsafe conditions, dividing rooms into multiple cubbyholes where tenants, many of them unable to pay for better housing (and unlikely to challenge their landlords in court) live without such luxuries as windows, separate doors, kitchens, bathrooms, and adequate air and light.
Note that these substandard, illegal units are much different than small apartments like aPODments, which are legal and subject to the same minimum size and maximum occupancy standards as all other apartments in the city.
Substandard housing and overcrowding are common in places like the University District, where students and vulnerable low-income renters, who may not know their rights under Seattle law, often end up living in dangerous and illegal conditions—conditions like those I documented several years ago in a piece about a particularly egregious landlord who subdivided his numerous houses in Wallingford and the U District into as many as 20 individual "units," separating the illegal rooms with plaster or quarter-inch paneling.
Seattle's occupancy limits are aimed at bad actors, not mansion owners renting rooms out to their friends. Because if you don't have rules, if the city has no penalty for substandard housing, the shady landlords of the world will find a way to turn that lack of regulation into profit at renters' expense.