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Looking to Rent a Room? Not So Fast

The financial crisis and weak economy has caused many families to make choices they would never have considered a decade ago, such as renting out spare rooms in their homes. Unfortunately, as the Wall Street Journal reports, many families have attempted this only to find that it is illegal. In years past, cities and counties across the country passed regulations forbidding rentals in single-family homes, often going so far as to bar the construction of second kitchens or bathrooms in certain areas of a house. In some cases, this even precludes homeowners from modifying garages or other rooms to accommodate live-in grandparents or adult children.

These restrictions may even make it harder for some families struggling with mortgage payments to keep their homes. Renting a room could stave off foreclosure, if not for  opposition from local governments and neighbors:

[C]onstructing accessory units in existing homes is drawing ire. The planning board in Montgomery County, Md., has asked the county council to consider a measure to allow conversions without homeowners going through a public hearing. Still, homeowners worry about strained public utilities, schools and even the availability of parking spaces. They say illegal conversions have been a problem for some time now.

“This is a good way to supplement income on a fixed income like retirees,” said Valerie Berton, spokeswoman for the planning department. “People would much prefer to see this than see foreclosures happening.”

Zoning needs to be less rigid. The idea that every house holds one and one only nuclear family is obsolete. And the idea that suburbs are dormitories for residential purposes only and that people need to make long commutes between suburban bungalows and office towers in the city center needs to change.  In the 21st century, the home is going to more of a workplace, and we will have more mixed use developments and more people will want to do more of their work at home. Overly strict zoning laws and homeowner association rules make it hard for people to organize their lives as they see fit.

There are sensible, middle of the road solutions between an anything goes philosophy that lets people convert half their home into a boarding house and the other into a McDonald’s franchise and a rigid adherence to outdated rules. But it’s in the national interest to let people find ways to unlock some income earning potential from their homes, and encouraging small family businesses is part of how we can build a more prosperous future in a post-industrial world.

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  • Hayne Hamilton

    The notion that a single resident is meant only for a single family was a temporary fad. Since the founding of the Republic, renting a room in one’s home was routine and so natural as to go unremarked at all. THis accelerated during the 30’s because of the economy and in the 40’s because of the newly transient nature of the poulation and number of miltary families with absent husbands and fathers. SO the postwar hosing boom created the vast suburbs, which as soon as NIMBY blossomed, along came politically enforced restrictions. The idea came and went in 2 generations. HH

  • Luke Lea

    What is ViaMeadia’s opinion of multiple families of third world immigrants living in single family neighborhoods?

  • Luke Lea

    Living together in one house I meant.

  • Kris
  • a nissen

    Slow news day— the WSJ beats a dead horse. WRM, et al, hopes no one will notice, they do are out for a summer nap

  • a nissen

    sorry, “they too” I feel like a snooze too.

  • a nissen

    Somewhat more news-worthy:

    Postrel beats the horse popularized by Wendell Cox (nothing new there), but does an unusually inspired job of it thanks to a new study with outstanding graphics. A commenter explains what she has left out— ‘smart growth” and its hypocritical proponents who make exceptions for themselves.

  • Jim.


    The suburbs blossomed after the rent-a-room 30’s and 40’s because compared to living in your own home with your own family, renting a room in someone else’s family because your job is four hundred miles (or more) away from your own wife and kids because that’s where your company decided to send you, is a miserable existence.

    People who don’t understand the appeal of the 50’s, the suburbs, etc, simply haven’t tried to put together and hold together a family, or have given up in despair.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Quite interesting. In the UK the problem is (or was, when I lived there) almost the opposite: while it is not illegal to live in a single-family household, people seem to be able to afford it for only a short period in their lives: those who rent, usually share; those who buy, let rooms to help pay the mortgage, and then let rooms again when the children have left home.

    I thought that there is a free market for real estate in the US, and am sorry to learn that I was wrong.

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