QMy husband and I live in a one-bedroom apartment. Our lease expires soon, and we are thinking of moving to a different apartment. We had a baby this year and we need to know whether the three of us can live in a one-bedroom apartment or whether we should go for a two-bedroom. How about one bedroom with a den? I do not know the occupancy rules and hope you can help me. I live in Fairfax but am thinking of moving out of the county.
AMany states and localities have laws that generally limit an apartment's number of occupants based on the number of rooms. The legal maximum occupancy is intended to prevent overcrowding. Because of the Fair Housing Act, landlords cannot discriminate against families with children, except in housing reserved for senior citizens. They can, however, refuse to rent to applicants if there would be too many occupants.
The Housing and Urban Development Department has established a general guideline of two people per bedroom but allows landlords to establish different restrictions as long as their regulations are reasonable.
"As a generally accepted standard, we start with two people per bedroom, but then there are several other considerations that could increase that as well as decrease that," said John P. Cancelleri, Virginia's fair housing administrator.
Normally, Cancelleri says, the flexibility in limits depends on factors that include the size of the unit, number of bedrooms, size of bedrooms, the age and gender of residents, physical limitations of the building and apartment configuration.
"The context impacts the analysis over whether the [occupancy level] stays at two or maybe goes to more," he said. If apartment applicants think they are being unfairly discriminated against for having too many people within a unit, fair housing employees will go to apartments and measure the space, using a guideline of 70 square feet for one person in a bedroom or 100 square feet for two people in a bedroom, Cancelleri said, explaining why a 10-by-15-foot bedroom typically is considered big enough for more than two people.
The inspectors will also look at other issues when they judge whether a landlord is being more or less restrictive than the city or local jurisdiction allows.
"Sometimes a landlord will make a subjective opinion about how others live," Cancelleri said. "They might not think that a couple and their infant child should share a bedroom, but we go in and find an objective reason. The bedroom size might be big enough to keep the infant in." If the bedroom is small, however, a one-bedroom with a den might be necessary for a couple with a baby.
Because infants and teenagers do not require the same living space, they are not viewed the same way. That means a couple with an infant probably can get away with living in a place with one spacious bedroom, although the same unit would probably not be sufficient for two adults and a teenager. Local jurisdictions also have the right to set their own occupancy standards. For example, Fairfax City has an occupancy standard of three people per room, while Fairfax County code follows the standard, two-people-per-bedroom guideline.
What, if anything, are landlords doing to prevent terrorism? With all these recent warnings pinpointing Washington buildings, should I be scared of living in my downtown high-rise?
Apartment building landlords are likely as varied in their responses to terrorism warnings as are other citizens. What they are doing is generally what national leaders say others should be doing, too. They are remaining alert, looking for suspicious activity and maintaining a safe and secure environment.
Chances are, because landlords have the duty to keep their tenants safe and in a healthy, habitable environment, they have been more cautious since apartment complexes were pinpointed as terrorist targets.
According to intelligence information released after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member also accused of planning to set off a radiological bomb in the United States, was planning to execute an al Qaeda mission and blow up apartment buildings three years ago.
Nobody knows what will happen or if apartment buildings are a target, and landlords can only do so much. But some people think landlords could do more by checking to see if names of prospective tenants appear on the Specially Designated Nationals & Blocked Persons watch list maintained by the Treasury Department. The public list contains more than 3,000 names of businesses or people identified for various reasons, including financing terror, said Molly Millerwise, spokeswoman for the Treasury. It is searchable at www.treasury.gov/ofac.
The Patriot Act, which was put into effect during the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, and seeks to identify money-laundering entities as a way to intercept and obstruct terrorism, brought attention to the list, which has existed since the mid-1990s.
Michael Semko, a lawyer at the National Apartment Association, has been fielding questions from landlords about whether they should check the directory before renting their units. He says some lawyers are advising building owners to draw up leases that include a question about whether prospective tenants are on the list.
"From the Patriot Act, we know you can't bank for an alleged terrorist," Semko said. "We know you cannot be conducting real estate transactions with these people. The order is really broad, so presumably there is a duty not to rent to people on this list," Semko said. "But should the lease contain something that asks the question -- are you on the list? Well, no. Nobody is going to answer that truthfully. 'Yes, I am a terrorist -- freeze my assets.' "
As the issue continues to be debated, Semko says the decision is up to landlords on whether to check names against the directory, though he warns that doing so has the potential to foster discrimination.
While landlords grapple with whether they need to protect themselves from the potential legal interpretations of the Patriot Act, tenants should remember that liability will not be their first concern if their building is attacked by terrorists. Residents should learn and practice their emergency evacuation route. They should also make sure they watch for and report suspicious activities. Incidentally, knowing who and what is out of the ordinary is easier when people know (or at least can recognize) their neighbors.
Still, just because neighbors may keep to themselves does not make them terrorists. And acting responsibly doesn't give residents license to accuse their neighbors of wrongdoing. Though terrorists implicated in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks did set up camp in apartment buildings, there is no reason to assume some of the anonymous occupants of area high-rises are planning some sort of malicious attack. Remember, a third of the nation lives in rental properties.
So should residents of downtown high-rise complexes be scared? No. There's not enough time in life to expend so much energy worrying about things beyond your control.
Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.