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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 living space."

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., in January.

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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