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Healthy Housing
A Handbook for Portland Property Owners

A number of local efforts have recently shined a spotlight on the relationship between the built environment and the health of low-income Portlanders. Poorly designed housing; a lack of sidewalks and safe crossings; and limited access to recreation, schools, nature, places for social interaction, vital services, preventive medical care, and healthy food all contribute to health challenges that disparately affect low-income residents and communities of color.

Relieving Overcrowding

Living Large

Apartments suited to large families are hard to find in the Portland-metro area.


Portion of rental units
with 2 or fewer bedrooms


Portion of rental units
with 4 or more bedrooms

Overcrowding is a product of economic necessity: when households can’t afford adequately sized apartments, they crowd into too-small ones. In a typical overcrowded household, eight or more people might share a two-bedroom apartment, sleeping three to a bedroom and camping out on living room couches and floors. Overcrowding is a major health challenge because it impacts so many aspects of life, from getting enough sleep to having enough room to store food. It affects many low-income households in East Portland—especially immigrant, refugee and large, multigenerational families.

Relieving Overcrowding Benefits

Resident Health
and Wellbeing

Relieving overcrowding helps prevent the spread of illness. Wherever people share food and handle the same objects, sickness and germs pass easily from one person to another. More people living in close quarters means more opportunities to transmit illness.

Relieving overcrowding facilitates good household hygiene. It’s difficult to keep up with basic housekeeping when spaces are fully occupied and in constant use.

Relieving overcrowding supports healthy sleep. Higher levels of noise and activity, and less space for sleeping, can cause serious sleep challenges for members of overcrowded households, especially children.

Relieving overcrowding prevents depression, anxiety and domestic conflict. Lack of privacy and insufficient deep sleep can negatively impact mental health and aggravate the normal interpersonal tensions that families face.

Relieving overcrowding helps kids do better in school. When there is no quiet space for children and youth to do homework, learning opportunities and school performance may suffer, with lasting consequences.


Property Performance
and Condition

Relieving overcrowding decreases unit wear-and-tear. With less use, appliances, hardware and finishes hold up longer.

Relieving overcrowding helps keep mold and moisture under control. When more people occupy a space, excess moisture is generated from showering, cooking and breathing. Also, mattresses on floors may block vents, impeding air circulation.

Relieving overcrowding reduces the risk of pest infestation. In overcrowded units, pests can be difficult to control, because of insufficient food storage space, inadequate garbage storage and the extra challenge of keeping the unit clean.

Relieving overcrowding prevents conflict with neighbors. Neighbors may be annoyed by the increased noise and cooking odors produced by overcrowded households.



Relieving Overcrowding Solutions

    Management and Maintenance

    Occupancy Algebra

    To determine an apartment unit’s maximum occupancy limit, use this standard rule of thumb:

    2 people per bedroom, plus 1 additional person per dwelling unit

    Standard occupancy limit for a 2-bedroom unit = (2 x 2) + 1 = 5 people

    Relieve overcrowding by making unit porches and patios more usable. Residents are more likely to use outdoor living space if it feels comfortable and private. An inexpensive visual border can turn an existing porch or patio into an inviting “outdoor living room.”

    • Plant small trees or shrubs to separate/screen unit porches from common outdoor areas.
    • Instead of plants, use another material to create a semitransparent visual barrier. Try simple slatted wood fencing or vinyl picket fencing.

    Give residents extra elbow room by making on-site common areas more usable.

    Create outdoor living space by installing a trellis and bench.

    • Install picnic tables and benches in a central outdoor location.
    • Create a covered outdoor area so that residents can use the space year-round.
    • Screen shared outdoor vestibules with a semitransparent material to create a sense of enclosure and privacy. These areas can become pleasant gathering spaces for residents.

    Build and maintain positive relationships with refugee resettlement agencies. If you have residents referred to your property by resettlement agencies, take time to talk with agency staff to understand the pressures and challenges facing refugee households.

    More Relieving Overcrowding resources.

    Understand the housing pressures facing East Portland’s refugee residents.

    Fleeing intolerable conditions in their home countries, refugee families are faced with the challenge of building new lives in America—typically with critical, but limited, help from the U.S. government. Many such families live in apartments in East Portland.

    For up to eight months, refugee families are eligible for assistance from refugee resettlement agencies, acting through the U.S. Department of State. These agencies can assist with rent payments, living expenses and medical and employment services. By the end of the eight-month period, recipients are expected to achieve self-sufficiency—that is, to become proficient in English, learn to navigate the American economy and financial systems, and secure needed employment.

    During those eight months, rent assistance provided to refugee households is often insufficient to meet their needs. The government’s per-household rent allowance covers the cost of a two-bedroom apartment, whereas many refugee families are very large and multigenerational.

    Once the assistance period ends, families that haven’t achieved financial stability are left with few housing options. Many double up with other refugee families. When multiple families share housing out of economic necessity, already crowded situations become worse.

    Resident Communication and Education

    Encourage your residents to use outdoor areas for adjunct living space. Let residents know that they’re welcome and encouraged to use outdoor spaces.
    Provide residents with written rules of conduct to prevent overcrowded households from becoming a nuisance to neighbors. Include the following reminders:

    • Be mindful of your neighbors’ need for space and quiet when having gatherings or playing outside.
    • Respect quiet hours by not making loud noises or playing music/watching television at a high volume.
    • Ask your guests to park in spots that are far away from the building so as to keep nearby spots available for building residents.

    More Relieving Overcrowding resources.

    Get the word out to non-English-speaking residents

    Provide translations of notices and signs in residents’ own languages. Consider using pictures and icons to communicate across multiple languages. Or ask bilingual residents, including youth, to verbally pass along the information to others in their language community.

    Get a density bonus for providing large dwelling units

    The City of Portland provides qualified developers with financial rewards, in the form of density bonuses, in exchange for providing large dwelling units. Consider this option if you’re adding more units to your site. See the Multi-Dwelling Residential Zones section (33.120.265 C.3) of the City of Portland Zoning Code.

    Design and Construction

    Use open plans and movable partitions to create flexible living spaces.

    • If you’re building a new housing structure, design units that have fewer, larger rooms. Open-plan spaces can be arranged in multiple ways to accommodate differently sized households.
    • In larger rooms, install accordion-like room dividers that open and close; this will enable residents to adapt the space for different uses and times of day. Make sure the partitions don’t restrict egress or natural light when they’re closed.
    • In smaller rooms, provide movable partitions or folding room dividers, which residents can use to divide space quickly and flexibly.

    When designing new units or remodeling existing ones, find creative ways to maximize food preparation and storage space.

    • Utilize overhead wall space for food and kitchen equipment storage. Install shelving high up on hallway walls.
    • Consider building galley-style kitchens, in which the stove, sink, refrigerator and counters are efficiently arranged in a row or in two opposing rows. Galley kitchens maximize use of limited space.

    If economically feasible, convert one dwelling unit, or part of a unit, into a community room. A community room will give overcrowded residents a place to gather and play games, have celebrations, watch movies or just hang out.

    • Make sure the unit can be easily accessed and observed by residents. Choose a centrally located unit, or one that is located near public areas such as the street, driveway or common outdoor space.
    • Include a mini-kitchen and half-bathroom to provide a more accommodating environment.

    To accommodate larger households, consider combining two dwelling units.

    • Add a door in a party wall to combine adjacent units.

    More Relieving Overcrowding resources.

Rethink This Property

Rethink This Property

Relieving Overcrowding

Health-related design solutions for real East Portland apartment complexes.

We asked a team of architects to recommend health-related design solutions for real East Portland apartment complexes. These drawings show some simple ideas for turning outdoor areas into usable living space.

Get ideas for expanding living space for residents. View the Relieving Overcrowding slideshow.

Images by Constructive Form Architecture & Design