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March 1, 1994
Who's to say how many is too many per bedroom? L.A quake could shake
the U.S. into changing occupancy standards
AMHERST, Mass. -- A study by a University of Massachusetts faculty
member concludes that federal occupancy standards for housing
assistance discriminate against people based on their culture.
Ellen Pader, an anthropologist and director of the UMass graduate
program in regional planning, conducted the study with the Fair
Housing Congress of Southern California on people's attempts to find
new housing in the wake of the recent earthquake in Los Angeles.
"A major problem after the earthquake," says Pader, "was that
families that had been living in one- and two-bedroom apartments were
being told that in order to receive federal housing assistance, they
had to move to much larger apartments."
Under federal housing rules, she explains, the maximum number of
people that can occupy a dwelling is two people per bedroom. Since
the regulations prevent girls and boys over five years of age from
sharing a bedroom, she says, a family with three girls and three boys
would be required to live in a five-bedroom home.
"Current federal occupancy standards," says Pader, "are based on a
middle-class, Anglo-Saxon concept of family relationships and use of
But people from different countries and cultures, such as Mexico, use
their living space in different ways, says Pader.
Both Pader's research, which focuses on the impact of U.S. housing
policy, particularly occupancy standards, on persons of different
races and ethnic background, along with her personal experience, both
support that claim. While living in Mexico, she once found herself
sharing a bedroom with the parents, grandparents, and four children
of a family. Sleeping in the same room was a source of comfort and
security for the family, Pader observed. Subsequent experiences
demonstrated to her that many people will choose to share bedrooms
even when an extra room is available.
Because of the federal rules, Pader says, many quake victims faced
the dilemma of turning down government aid or else moving away from
familiar neighborhoods, disrupting school-age children, and leaving
behind a community that provided a network of support in order to
find apartments with more bedrooms.
Pader would prefer the federal government base its occupancy rules on
overall square footage, not the number of people per bedroom.
"I would like to see the occupancy standards and housing design
guidelines changed to reflect the diversity of individual cultures,"
says Pader. "Current policies are not based on health and safety
issues, as they purport to be, but rather on moral and cultural
standards. We should let people decide for themselves how to allocate
their own living space.
"It's ironic that it's acceptable for 200-plus people to sleep in one
large shelter during an emergency, but during that same emergency, it
is unacceptable for a family of five or six to live in a two-bedroom
apartment," she says.
Pader incorporated many of the findings of her study in a
presentation to the National Fair Housing Summit, sponsored by the
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.,
Her research will further be used as a basis for challenging the
current occupancy standards by fair housing and civil rights
organizations/advocates, both at the policy and litigation levels.
Pader is a member of the board of directors for the Housing
Discrimination Project in Holyoke and also serves as a consultant to
private, non-profit fair housing organizations in legal cases
involving housing discrimination based on occupancy standards.
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