Four Quick Ways to Create More Units with Lower Rents

In this time of serious crisis, we need a way to respond rapidly to the need for more housing with lower rents, so that renters can reduce their rents effectively as their personal financial situation requires.

Some laws and regulations have been left stubbornly in place, blocking our ability to respond to the need for housing at lower rents. Consequently, we make the following four recommendations.

1. No limit on number of occupants per dwelling unit except official code requirements

Many communities impose rules that no more than three or four “unrelated persons” can occupy a single dwelling unit, even if an apartment has five or ten bedrooms. We need to prohibit such rules.

The only regulation that should affect the number of occupants is the State Sanitary Code, which states requirements for the health and safety of occupants in any kind of housing. It gives precise requirements for minimum square footage of living space per person and minimum square footage of rooms used for sleeping – generously sized compared to almost all other nations. No other requirements are needed.

2. Owners should be allowed to rent by the room, not just by whole apartments

Again, here is a quick-and-easy way to create some of the cheapest rental housing possible. Owners rent a single room to each individual person or couple, who share a kitchen and bathroom with others. Regulations that impose harsh requirements on “rooming” units need to be suspended or ended entirely. Owners would create a rental agreement with each person or couple, which could include an agreement to pay their share of utility bills, an effective way to encourage energy conservation and reduce pollution.

3. Room dividers, whether prefabricated or owner-built, need to be allowed

Room dividers would allow large rooms, such as living rooms, dining rooms, and large bedrooms, to be divided into two or more rooms, provided they meet the minimum size for rooms used for sleeping, and provided that all rooms so created have access to a shared kitchen and bathroom. Many prefabricated or modular room dividers are available online. Owners can construct them with the simplest construction methods using studs and sheetrock and pre-hung doors.

4. Subdividing large apartments into two smaller ones is fast and cheap

Every municipality should be required to allow at least 10% of its existing rental units to be subdivided into two smaller units, which will have “naturally” lower rents simply because they are smaller units. This subdivision is so easy because all the infrastructure has already been built: foundations, floors, walls, ceilings, roofs, and all utilities are onsite. Just add a partition or two, a door or two, and a kitchenette and bathroom. Every such unit needs two means of egress for emergencies, but usually they are already built and available to both units.

Today’s households are much smaller than they used to be. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that almost two-thirds (64%) of all Boston households consist of just one or two persons. These new smaller units will be of various sizes – studios, one-bedrooms, and small two-bedrooms – that will work very well for many small households and help them lower their rent quickly. The supply of these subdivided units is potentially huge, far more than so-called “affordable housing” built to modern codes using taxpayer dollars. We suggest that these subdivided units be locate near rapid transit stops, bus routes, and along main streets, to encourage bicycle, pedestrian, and public transit uses.

Other changes needed to achieve these goals

To achieve these goals, the following provisions are needed.

As of right

Owners need to be able to make these changes “as of right,” and not be required to get any variance or special permit or other form of review and approval. In most cases, no building permit is needed, just a change in local or state regulations.

No parking requirements

Any parking requirements should be permanently waived for these reconfigured units or apartments. The trend already is to non-automobile forms of transit. Let’s encourage it even more.

No sprinkler requirement

Usually, the addition of any dwelling unit that results in four or more units in a building triggers a sprinkler requirement for all the units. In this situation, however, where smaller units or just single rooms are being created with no increase in total living space, no sprinklers should be required.

Other accommodations

In some cases, temporary electrical wiring as defined in the State Sanitary Code may need to be allowed. To help lower costs further, the minimum temperature requirement should be lowered to, say, 60 degrees and not allowed to exceed 72 degrees during the heating season. (People can wear sweaters and long johns to keep warm.) In some cases, windows may need to be shared by running room dividers down the center of double-hung windows, allowing one of the two sashes to be operated separately by the occupant of each room. Other window and ventilation requirements may need to be altered, also. Arrangements for cleaning kitchens and bathrooms need to be made.

Click here for a detailed proposal in legal language for the approaches outlined above.

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