Your state and local government may have established occupancy standards for rental housing. Municipal codes generally cover how many people can occupy a unit, based on fair housing standards and the health and safety of occupants. Occupancy also may be addressed in the zoning ordinances, as well as building codes.
Landlords cannot arbitrarily decide that they want their units to be occupied by one, two, or more people and turn anyone else away. Try to use other standards for accepting and rejecting applicants.
Federal guidelines for occupancy allow “reasonable” restrictions on tenants. That has been interpreted as two persons per bedroom. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines permit two-plus-one — two people occupying one bedroom and another person sleeping on a daybed in the living room. HUD also describes other factors that should be considered, such as the size of the unit and the age of children. You can get more information about federal occupancy standards on the HUD website in Appendix A or by calling the Fair Housing Clearinghouse (800-343-3442).
Local codes and ordinances may limit occupancy to two people per bedroom for health reasons, basing the decision upon the square footage of a bedroom. When a bedroom is very large, local codes may permit more than two occupants.
When you're ready to set occupancy standards for your unit, base them on state and local laws. Have those standards in place before you start talking to prospective tenants so that you can't be accused of discriminating against families or students.
What about Children?
There are federal, state, and local occupancy standards that pertain to renting to families. They may seem to be contradictory. To avoid any problems you should abide by the least restrictive standards when you rent to a family with children.
Under local, state, and federal standards, landlords cannot discriminate against single parents or refuse to rent a two-bedroom unit to a parent who has four children — someone can sleep in the living room. And landlords cannot say an apartment isn't suitable because a boy and girl would have to share a bedroom and they are “too old.” Who sleeps in the bedrooms is the parent's decision, not the landlord's.