how does the Census count group houses?
January 27, 2014 11:02 AM   Subscribe

I am curious how the Census counts group houses (i don't mean hospices or something similar) in major cities, especially as that can skew or affect income and other figures.

In a number of high demand urban areas in the US (particularly ones that lack substantial multiunit apartment housing stock) such as San Francisco, Boston, and DC, it's pretty common to have, say, 4 or 5 young professionals in a house that might have originally housed a family of 4 or 5 or more.

This could mean even a wealthy upper-middle class neighborhood could have a household that earns substantially more than say, a dual-earner household making a combined, say, 130k. If the 5 group house residents made 50k each, then the household would be making a combined $250,000 - which might be very unusual for a typical family in the neighborhood.

Is this how these things are reported on the Census, though? Or are people typically reporting themselves as seperate households? I've never lived in a group housing situation when the Census is being taken, and I am curious how this is normally reflected.

Here's the Census definition: A household is officially defined as follows: A household includes all the persons who occupy a housing unit. A housing unit is a house, an apartment, a mobile home, a group of rooms, or a single room that is occupied (or if vacant, is intended for occupancy) as separate living quarters.
posted by waylaid to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I was a census enumerator in Brooklyn in 2010. The form asks for names of household members and their relationships to each other. There are options for family members (mother, father, child, etc), then options for non-family members (renter, roommate, etc.).
posted by greta simone at 11:15 AM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems the Census Bureau is paying more attention to this lately. The page on housing topics at their website says, under multifamily housing: "The Rental Housing Finance Survey (RHFS) started collecting data in 2012 on the financial, mortgage, and property characteristics of multifamily rental housing properties in the U.S. The RHFS will be conducted biannually and will produce data at the national level." There is also some additional info there.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:21 AM on January 27, 2014

Okay, so there are three terms of art here; "families", "households" and "group quarters".

In reverse order, "group quarters" represent officially organized situations where people live together and share many of their facilities. GQ residents are broken into "instutionalized" and "noninstitutionalized"; the former is mostly prisons and intensive medical facilities (e.g. rehab, hospice, etc.). The lattter is mostly college dorms and military barracks.

The key is that GQ residents - and only GQ residents - are not household residents. Everybody is in one bin or the other. As you have listed, household residents are people who live together and share the facilities of a single unit. (This includes single occupied rooms in SRO type facilities.) So roommates, even if there are several of them, are counted as being in the same household.

However, if a house is converted into several apartments -- which I think is frequently the case in the situation you are asking about -- so that there is, say, an upstairs suite, a main floor suite and a basement suite, with separate suite numbers, kitchens, etc, then these are counted as individual households even if the building originally only had one household.

The final grouping is "families", which is limited to multiple people living together who are joined by marriage, birth or adoption. A household can have multiple families living in it, or a family and one or more non-family members (e.g. parents, an adult child and that child's unmarried significant other), or one or more people who are not in families (e.g. everybody living alone, unmarried couples, same-sex couples). This teases out some of the subgroupings within households, but at substantial cost.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:27 AM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @greta: I'm curious if people consistently fill this out correctly and consistently, though. Did people seem to do that when you were enumerating?
posted by waylaid at 11:30 AM on January 27, 2014

Response by poster: @Homeboy Trouble: almost - I'm not talking about a house divided into multiple apartments (like which has been the case in many older urban areas - a mansion that is now a 6 unit building). I'm talking about a single rowhouse, for example, which has say, 5 people living in it, all of which are unrelated and all of which are income earners, and all of which are living in a single household each with their own rooms (with a single kitchen and everything else shared)
posted by waylaid at 11:32 AM on January 27, 2014

As an enumerator, I would help people fill them out in person or over the phone with however much information they were willing to give me or I could get out of them, so those, at least, were accurate. But the census takes into account margins of error, so I would assume that they are just as accurate or inaccurate as those filled out by a traditional household. I'm sure deeper digging could find you some relevant statistics.
posted by greta simone at 12:24 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, last census I filled out a form for me and my roommate. Or maybe she filled it out for herself and me (I think we actually did it together but there's one primary person). It's possible that the person who fills it out for the house could fill it out wrong (like, say, they think that their fourth roommate's birthday is May 4th but it's really April 5th, or they don't really know what the roommate does for a living), but that's true for families and other living situations as well.
posted by mskyle at 12:46 PM on January 27, 2014

At one time, the census employed a classification abbreviated "posslq" = person of opposite sex sharing living quarters. Who says the government has no sense of humor?
posted by Cranberry at 1:48 PM on January 27, 2014

Best answer: waylaid*, I see where you are coming from, but objective definitions are key in this sort of thing, and making the distinction you are making is really hard on the ground. Leaving kids aside, certainly a married couple sharing assets is a "household" under an informal definition. But what about separated couples living together? Married couples keeping separate finances? Dating couples? Roommates who made out a little last week when they were both drunk and there was kinda a spark there? A dating couple living with a roommate? What if they're in an open relationship? It gets really hairy really quick, so the more formal definition of "everybody who lives in a single unit of a house or apartment" as a household is a pretty clear-cut definition. (And there's still grey areas, like with college students living away from home).

So yes, the situation you describe is counted as a single household even though the people aren't really in the sort of economic/social relationship we would normally think of as a household.

It's not very common, though. I happen to have the American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample File open in another window; it's a roughly 5% sample of households with all of their detailed information. I did a query to find households that might vaguely be within this definition of "professional roommates" (for lack of a better term). I looked at all households in California with at least one 18-39 year old who earned at least $25K in wages in the previous year. Of the households with at least one of these workers, 75% had one worker, 24% had two and 1.33% had more than two (almost entirely three-worker households).

But that's just looking at households with at least one worker in this age range; looking at the entire population, roughly 0.268%** of households in California are in this "professional roommate" pattern. You are correct that they concentrate; even in the densest concentrations (like central San Francisco - the Haight/Castro/Noe Valley/Bernal Heights area), they comprise 1.5% of households, down to 1 or less % in the rest of San Francisco, and of course much lower elsewhere.

Their impact on economic statistics is quite different, though -- the average selected worker in my query (18-39 earning over $25K in wages) earned $61.1K. Selected workers in the 3+ "professional roommate" households earned an average of $51.6K; substantially lower. This is more notable since they concentrate in high-income areas -- the central San Francisco area with the highest concentration of these households has the average selected worker earning $91.2K. They are slightly increasing the household income, but they are more skewing the poverty statistics -- counted individually, they may be below the poverty line, but combined as a household, they are not. Think of an artists' squat more than a bunch of professionals living together.

In the end, it's a pretty small group, particularly if you're thinking about the idea of more than three professionals living together. It's a phenomenon that is radically more thought about in the popular imagination than actually exists on the ground. (Roughly 0.1% of 6+ person households in America where the people are all workers living together are contrived to be filmed for television.)

* note that the @ notation doesn't add anything; this isn't Twitter, we aren't running search engines to find @ mentions and retweets and hashtags. Sorry, that's a pet peeve of mine.
** I'm actually using the raw unweighted numbers here, because it's way easier. Normally, this wouldn't make a difference, but this is one particular demographic that is well-known for underreporting on surveys, so the actual number is probably modestly higher, my guess is on the order of 25-50% higher -- but it's still a very small group.

posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:40 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: awesome answer Homeboy. Thanks! I appreciate the local case study. :)
posted by waylaid at 7:02 AM on January 28, 2014

Response by poster: oh - i just use @ as a well to say that I am pointing that answer at a specific person - that's why. I've used that well before I started using Twitter - i think I picked it up from some other forum.
posted by waylaid at 7:05 AM on January 28, 2014

« Older Help me throw a Hedwig viewing party   |   Fed up with Mac Mavericks Email (tagging... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.