the double occupancy dilemma

should you pay more to share a room?

Let’s say a two-bedroom apartment costs $1000/month and has two rooms of equal size. Two people living there might pay $500/month each. But what if a couple moves into one of the rooms? Should the couple pay $250 each? Should the rent be split three ways? How should rent be handled when rooms have double occupancy?

(For simplicity’s sake, this post assumes that utilities, repairs, and purchases like groceries are all paid for separately from rent.)

There are several ways to answer this question, and the answer mostly boils down to deciding what one’s rent should pay for.

If rent pays for “a place to sleep in the house”, then three people could split the rent three-ways: $333 each.

If rent pays for “a bedroom”, then the couple could split the price of their room for $250/each while the other housemate pays $500 for their room.

If rent is paying for “a bedroom plus some of the common space” then each member of the couple could pay for half of a bedroom and a third of the common space.

This example is for a two-bedroom house (for simplicity), but for community homes with several bedrooms and residents this can become more complex. This post explores the question of how to handle rent in community homes that have rooms with multiple people living in them. Though I live at The Village, my opinions are not shared by everyone there, and this post is the combination of my views and dozens of conversations I had with housemates and people living in houses across the bay area.

why charge for double occupancy?

There are a few arguments I’ve heard for double occupancy fees. The one I find most convincing is that rent to the landlord pays for the entire living space, which includes both bedrooms and common areas, and therefore each individual’s rent should pay for some of the common space. This is the idea represented by the last set of photos above. Another argument I’ve heard is that couples who share a room get a better deal than people who rent rooms by themselves -- a place to sleep for only half the price of a room! -- and therefore should contribute more.

if you want to charge double occupancy

Let’s say you want to incorporate double occupancy as part of rent calculations. How could you set this up?

Some houses handle double occupancy by adding an extra flat fee on top of rent -- for example “couples pay an extra $400”, without changing anyone else’s rent. These fees become extra income that pays for common space but doesn’t contribute directly to rent. If the house relies on using this money for other things, like buying groceries, then they may encounter financial difficulties if a couple moves out.

A way to avoid potential budget shortages is making sure that rent paid from individuals (including double occupancy fees) always adds up to the rent given to the landlord. To do this, everyone’s rent would need to change any time a room changed occupancy from a couple to an individual or vice versa. A house in San Francisco does this, and has generously shared the spreadsheet they use to determine rent (with fake numbers). I’ve seen a handful of other houses that calculate rent in a similar way.

But how does one determine the “worth” of common space compared to bedrooms? One option is to divide the rent by the house’s square footage. But this might be insufficient or incomplete, since rent is often not only measured by floor space and bedrooms often have adjusted prices for light, for noise, for closet space, and a variety of other things. Perhaps people would want common rooms to be cheaper per square foot than bedrooms if they had less control over that space or couldn’t store their own things there.

Two other things I think are helpful to think about:

my take: i don’t like charging for double occupancy in communal houses

I’m writing this post because there’s a lot one can consider here and it feels helpful to share the different ideas I’ve heard. But even without any double occupancy fees/considerations, rent already feels quite complicated and subjective. Different people are affected differently by light, noise, storage, and sharing rooms. Some people value personal space a lot more than common space and vice versa. People also have hugely varying relationships with money, and a wide range of spending ability -- often due to factors out of their control such as the economic class they were born into, their interests and skills, disability, race, gender, and so much more -- and I don’t like that some people get less nice rooms because of this. It’s hard for me to feel like assigning different people how much rent to pay could ever really be fair, and double occupancy fees add unnecessary complexity.

I also want community homes to celebrate their communal spaces as a shared benefit of living together and working together to build a beautiful home. Putting a monetary value on common space feels difficult and somewhat arbitrary, and I’d prefer to see communal space as a gift to each other as opposed to a space we all pay to use.

Of the 14* houses I’ve talked to, 11 don’t have double occupancy fees at all (only dues for shared food, supplies, utilities, repairs, etc), one has a $100 extra fee for people sharing a room, and two split a common space portion of the total rent among all individuals living there. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s right, but this is one of the best practices I’ve seen that seem to work well for a lot of folks.

in summary

I wouldn’t charge double occupancy fees for reasons of simplicity (have rent paid by individuals equal the rent paid to the landlord), consistency (don’t change people’s individual rent as people move in and out to account for different divisions of common space rent), and financial accessibility (make it easier for people to save money by sharing a room).

But I don’t think there’s a simple or easy answer to what’s "fair" or “correct” to charge for rent. In the end, it’s up to the people in a house to find whatever financial model works best for them, and to adjust that model over time as the needs, beliefs, and values of the set of current residents change.

* I talked to: Embassy, Template, Sigil, Phoenix, Treehouse, The Center, RGB, KSCO, The Wooden Spoon, Sunbeam, Langton Labs, Solar System, Chaortica, and an unnamed-7-person-house in Berkeley -- if your house isn’t represented, feel free to send me information about it!