California’s Hidden Housing Could Be Challenge for 2020 Census

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An in-law cottage, or 'accessory dwelling unit' in Oakland.  (Molly Solomon/KQED)

Erin Berman’s 500-square foot studio isn’t visible from the main drag in West Oakland. Nestled behind a big blue Victorian and a side gate, the backyard unit is easy to miss.

“It makes it challenging for food delivery,” Berman said.

And potentially for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many California communities are vulnerable to an undercount, including in places like the Bay Area, where there are a significant number of renters and residents living in hidden backyard units, converted garages or trailers. More than 70% of all Californians (about 29 million people) belong to one or more groups that the census has historically undercounted, according to research from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Last week, residents began receiving the census with instructions for completing the questionnaire online.


Census officials on Wednesday announced they are suspending field operations for two weeks, until April 1, to protect their employees and the public during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the Census Bureau announced Sunday that census representatives won't be deployed to community events until April 13, and door knockers won't be following up with many college students until April 23.

Meanwhile, the bureau has "strongly encouraged" households to respond to the survey online, by phone (1-844-330-2020) or by mail.

Berman shares the same address with the people who live in the main house, which means she will likely have to be included in their form, because the bureau prefers to receive one form per address.

Berman, 34, an Alameda County librarian, began considering her predicament, of all places, at a recent census-related training in her workplace.

“That's when it kind of popped in my head, ‘Oh wait, but I share an address with somebody else,’ ” Berman said. “And that somebody else and I are not friends.”

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Last week, Alameda County mailed flyers to about 4,000 addresses to inform them about how to complete the census if they live in an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, that does not have a separate address with the U.S. Postal Service.

“It's very concerning to think about how the housing crisis is going to make this really challenging to reach individuals or possibly cause an undercount,” said Casey Farmer, executive director of Alameda County’s Complete Count Committee, which aims to boost participation in this year’s census.

Farmer is relying on hundreds of volunteers from nonprofits, local shelters and churches fanning out across Alameda County to ensure people from vulnerable communities are counted. That includes people the census considers hard to reach, like those living in nonstandard housing or families doubled up in a single unit. Renters, immigrants and communities of color have also been historically undercounted.

“We looked at the map of our hard-to-count communities. That's about 26% of Alameda County, the highest in the entire region,” Farmer said.

Census results determine political power and are used to direct roughly $1.5 trillion of federal funding to the states and local governments. So a major undercount in Alameda County could mean the loss of significant funding, Farmer explained.

“It's vital that we reach every single garage unit or back house and that those individuals know the importance of getting counted,” he said.

With skyrocketing housing costs in some areas of the country, a growing number of renters are living in unconventional housing units often left off the Census Bureau’s address list.

“And of course, California is one of the areas where that's the biggest problem,” said Edward Kissam, a trustee of the WKF Charitable Giving Fund and longtime researcher in census undercounts and immigrant communities.

In 2017, Kissam partnered with the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative to conduct a study identifying hidden housing missed by the Census Bureau in San Jose, San Francisco and Fresno. Canvassers identified 13,000 new low-visibility, unconventional housing units, that were added to the address list for the 2020 census.

Cindy Quezada, with the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, spent several weeks walking the back alleys of Fresno neighborhoods looking for sheds, garages and trailers that served as makeshift homes.

“We were looking for structural designs, pipes or vents, as well as just signs of life,” she said. That could be the sound of a family making dinner or seeing a bottle of shampoo in a bathroom window.

Quezada and other canvassers covered 20 census tracts in Fresno in late 2017 through early 2018 and identified 606 unconventional housing units. Many of the people she spoke with were immigrants and people of color from low-income communities.

“The people who would most benefit from these federal programs are the ones who, ironically, are not getting counted,” Quezada said.

Those missed addresses could translate into tens of millions of federal dollars to fund important resources like food stamps, Section 8 vouchers and affordable housing.

Residents in hidden housing, like Erin Berman, are still considering their options for being counted. Berman may choose to fill out the form online and leave the paper survey for her neighbor to mail back.

But she knows she’s not alone. She points to the large house next door, which is split into half a dozen units.

“I venture to guess they don't really all know each other either,” she said.