Every night after a long day at work and school University of Utah health promotion and education major Jos Mendoza climbs into the old, rickety army cot she calls her bed, located underneath the basement stairs.
The army cot offers Mendoza only a little privacy. With no walls surrounding her bed, she’s hung two tapestries to shield herself from the eyes of her roommates as they walk up and down the stairs and through the hallway where the cot is located.
“Not having that type of privacy [walls and a door] is hard sometimes because all you want to do is shut yourself out when you’re having a bad day,” Mendoza said. “[However], it’s a place for me to keep my stuff—I’m never home and usually no one is home either.”
Like many of her college-aged peers, Mendoza said she and her five roommates are looking for any way possible to save extra money. The six roommates live in a four bedroom duplex next to Westminster College. Their landlord only knows about the four roommates who signed the lease—the other two live under the radar and against the law.
At one point, Mendoza said there were eight people living in the house when some of her roommates sublet their rooms while traveling for the summer.
“It [felt] a little claustrophobic trying to get into the bathroom or just getting out of people’s way,” Mendoza said. “I felt like everyone’s space was invaded.”
Mendoza said despite the tight quarters, her current living situation is going well because she and her roommates were close friends and not just acquaintances before living together.
Utah doesn’t have a limit on how many people can live in one housing unit, according to the Utah Labor Commission government website. However, the state leaves it up to individual cities to determine housing laws, and the law in Salt Lake City states that no more than three unrelated adults can live together in a single housing unit within the city’s property, according to the Salt Lake City Good Neighbor Guide.
Mendoza said she and her roommates are aware of the city’s occupancy laws and consciously break them.
“I’m not really that scared about [the landlord] finding out because they never come [by] or anything,” Mendoza said. “It would suck if I did get kicked out, but I feel like I would be able to go somewhere else.”
Mendoza and her roommates aren’t the only students trying to live around these occupancy laws. Annie Duong, a math major at the University of Utah, had four roommates and said they knew they were not in compliance with the city’s laws.
“I actually knew that we weren’t supposed to have all of us in the house,” Duong said. “I feel like most people don’t know. And even if they do, they choose to ignore it anyways.”
Some students are able to get around the occupancy laws legally.
Michael Porter, a senior marketing major at Westminster College, said his sister was looking for another roommate to alleviate the cost of rent. During the process, her landlord said they couldn’t have any more people in the house who were unrelated. Luckily, Porter was looking for a place near Westminster’s campus and his sister offered him the open room in the basement.
“My landlord told us that you couldn’t have four unrelated people living in a house,” Porter said. “She’s gotten in trouble with it before, but I didn’t think people actually cared about that. It was either they rented it out to me and I made rent a little cheaper, or they couldn’t rent it out at all.”
Although some students knowingly break Salt Lake City’s occupancy laws, not all students are fully aware they exist.
Julia Nuessle, a senior business finance major at Westminster, said she has four unrelated roommates for convenience. Nuessle said she’s vaguely heard about the occupancy laws but doesn’t fully understand them.
“I’ve never heard of anyone getting in trouble for having more than four unrelated people in a house,” Nuessle said. “I know that there are a lot of old homes in Salt Lake Valley that have five bedrooms, though.
Nuessle said she doesn’t understand why there can’t be as many occupants in a home as there are bedrooms.
“I don’t see it being a problem because I live in a five bedroom home,” Nuessle said. “I could see it being a problem if there are more tenants than rooms in a house.”
In Nuessle’s situation, the house may not be large enough to accommodate as many occupants as there are bedrooms. The Salt Lake Valley Health Department Housing Regulation states there must be an additional 150 square feet of habitable space for every additional occupant—one who lives, sleeps, cooks and eats within a dwelling.
For college students like Mendoza, the cost of tuition and rent are enough to make saving money worth some sacrifice to their quality of living. Though Mendoza is currently living under the stairs, she said she will take a room from another roommate who is moving out in a few weeks. Her roommates said they aren’t looking for another person to live on the cot under the stairs—six roommates is one too many.