Can landlords limit the number of people who live in an apartment?

Do landlords have a right to limit the number of people who can occupy an apartment?

The answer, as often happens in the law, is, “It depends.”

In general, landlords own the property and they can decide how many people can live there. However, a landlord is not allowed to discriminate against tenants based on their “familial status.” (This rule was added to the federal Fair Housing Act back in 1988.)

What does “familial status” mean? It means that a landlord can’t refuse to rent to a family with children. So if a family with seven children wants to rent an apartment, the landlord can’t say “no” based on that fact alone.

On the other hand, a landlord doesn’t have to allow a family with seven children to occupy a tiny studio apartment. Refusing to allow such an arrangement wouldn’t be discrimination; it would be common sense.

So where do you draw the line between a legal occupancy requirement and illegal discrimination?

It’s not always easy, but in general, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says that it’s okay to limit occupancy to two people per bedroom. Thus, a family of four could live in a two-bedroom apartment, but not in a one-bedroom apartment.

However, many cities and towns have different rules, and some require landlords to allow “two plus one” occupancy. That means two people per bedroom, plus one extra person in the unit. This is more common in areas where apartments typically have large rooms, or extra rooms such as a den.

You should also note that some retirement or “senior living” communities are designed to be limited to people age 55 or older. It’s okay for landlords in these communities to refuse to allow tenants with children, so these landlords can be stricter in limiting the number of people per unit.

The Massachusetts landlord tenant attorneys concentrate in Massachusetts real estate law and landlord tenant matters. We serve the entire Greater Boston North Shore region including the communities of Everett, Revere, Chelsea, Somerville, Cambridge, Medford, Arlington, Winchester, Woburn, Burlington, Stoneham, Melrose, Wakefield, Saugus, Lynn, Peabody, Salem, Marblehead, and Swampscott. Our real estate lawyers speak and provide legal services in Spanish and Italian.