Single people are taking over U.S. cities. The numbers are so staggering that it’s hard to understand why housing policy has been so slow to react. In New York City, a third of all households are single people living alone. San Francisco beats New York at 38 percent, and Washington, D.C., Seattle and Denver top the charts for larger cities, with over 40 percent of their homes occupied by a lone resident.  But even in smaller cities like Atlanta, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, single people make up close to half of their households.

One reason it is difficult for policy makers, and the market, to digest these astounding numbers is our confused definition of household. Since the 1950 census, “household” has been synonymous with “family.” Data splits households into family and nonfamily categories, relegating single people and their housing need to an oddity. This idea of household equaling family also keeps our housing supply frozen in the 1950s and even permeates our housing vocabulary, as in “multifamily buildings” and “single-family homes.”

To address these challenges, the Citizens Housing & Planning Council created a more realistic, demandbased analysis of how our population really lives.  We found that a quarter of all New York City homes and apartments are being shared in some way. Adult children are staying in the family home for longer.  Older single relatives are moving in with family members. Strangers are banding together to find housing through Craigslist, creating unnaturally high household incomes, which distorts the housing market by pushing up rental prices.