Fact Sheet: "what is a housing unit? what is a group quarters?"

FYI: If you are interested in "what is a housing unit? what is a group quarters?": there is a short explainer here: https://metrocouncil.org/Handbook/Files/Resources/Fact-Sheet/LAND-USE/Housing-Unit-vs-Group-Quarter.aspx  The explainer is written for city planners; researchers and demographers can use it also.


This month, I updated this explainer to include the most recent (2020 Census) clarifications and documentation links.


I expect Census Bureau staff will say that there is no recent change in its definitions -- but 2020 Census Technical Documentation did clarify some nuances and gray areas – for example: when hotel rooms are housing units vs. a group quarters vs. commercial buildings (not housing at all).


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Todd Graham

Metropolitan Council Research

  • Thanks for this, Todd. Recently I've tried to field some questions about this subject, regarding local student housing (Mizzou). In recent years, private developers have built apartment buildings expressly for student renters. Each "unit" is typically four private bedrooms, lockable with private bathrooms, and a shared central kitchen/living area. Rent is apparently collected by the bedroom. No one around here knows what to make of these. Are they housing units or GQs? Does each bedroom count as an HU, or the whole "pod"? 

  • Really good question. It may depend on where these are located. 

    if the building is on campus but leased and/or operated by a private company it's likely group quarters. If the building is off campus it may depend. 

    One salient fact I think is whether there is an agreement with a specific institution that in order to live there you need to be an enrolled student at that institution.  Also, related questions include whether there are dorm-like rules to follow (eg visitation, harassments, drinking, etc.) and does the school provide on-site services.  If either is the case then this suggests to me that the building is group quarters.  As you start to relax these requirements - no on site services, enrolled student but at any school or a set of schools, no rules beyond those in a standard local lease - the status starts to get hazy.  At some point this just will look like a standard off campus apartment building. 

  • Hi Cliff, hi Glenn--

    I agree with you, Cliff, about how certain situations would be classified if Census's criteria are scrupulously and consistently applied. "Are these housing units? or group quarters?"

    But, here's the catch: There are gray-area or borderline situations that could go either way. And specific cases are mostly determined a priori -- during the "pre-Census" address canvassing -- based on what information Census Bureau can obtain from service-providing orgs and institutions. Early in the decennial process, Census Bureau needs to make its lists (and check it twice!) determining what addresses are in the housing units universe, and what are in the group quarters universe. And that puts the data collection into two separate lanes that are difficult to lane-change out of.

    Yes, I agree with you: commercially-managed "student apartments" where occupancy in the building is restricted to roommating students might (or might not) be classified as one big group quarters facility. I expect the real determining factors are: Did the university have a roster or directory of the occupants? And did the university identify that building and share that info with 2020 Census's GQ operation before mailings and data collection began?  If the answer is no, then the "student apartments" building could easily end up in the housing units lane -- even if a scrupulous reading of Census's criteria suggests group quarters designation.

    Post-script: Having said all that, I will let you in on the motivation behind this fact-sheet explainer.  I work in a regional planning agency that coordinates with local planners in 185 cities and townships. In the majority of our region, where urban services are provided, the region has urban (or suburban) density policies.  That is: served communities need to develop with density >= X units per acre. Still... no sooner does a region implement a policy, someone will want to game or subvert the policy with creative interpretations of: what counts as a housing unit?  (Also: what counts as a net acre?)  So, our regional planning agency counts housing stock using the Census definition and criteria; we ask our local governments to do the same.  Leaving it to Census Bureau to be the arbiter of the definition was our way of resolving the issue (and de-politicizing). 

    Food for thought.


    Todd Graham 

  • I do understand the point about how the definition of a housing unit can shift, depending on the situation.  We maintain a housing inventory in the community where I work that includes all apartment-style graduate student housing.  We do this for two reasons.

    We think that, in practice, these units really are little different from a unit that can be rented on the open market or through an affordable housing program.  Doing so helps provide a more realistic baseline for estimating affordable our housing objectives and developing other housing policies. 

    The other reason we treat all such residences as units is a bit more practical. The Census Bureau records units owned by one of the two major universities here as housing units and not as group quarters.  I think this may have to do with the manner in which they get reported during the LUCA process. Alternatively, if we were to subtract these graduate apartments from decennial and ACS totals, then we would report a number lower than the generally accepted housing stock total.  This could likely require more explanation about the minutia of the census process than most people care to hear.   In any case, treating similar units in a consistent manner makes sense to me.  

  • This is great, thanks Todd!  I was explaining to a colleague once that a lot of Halfway Houses are in regular neighborhoods and look just like any other single-family detached house from the outside, but they're a Group Quarters facility.

    Personal opinion here: They are one of the safest types of neighbors you can have since a lot of the residents have curfews, are going through rehab, and generally have some type of supervision. No need to fear a Halfway House in your neighborhood.