As rents keep rising in Los Angeles–since 2011, driven by a housing shortage, the cost of an average one-bedroom has increased more than 60%–the city has been pushing for a new solution: making it easier to build backyard homes. In a backyard in the L.A. neighborhood of Highland Park, the city’s Innovation Team has spent the last two years working with one family to understand in detail what it takes to build an “accessory dwelling unit,” (ADU) and how that could change. The project is the winner of the urban design category of Fast Company‘s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards.
The city has roughly half a million single-family homes. In the past, because of the complexity of building small backyard units, some homeowners added units illegally; others gave up. But if even a fraction of the city’s backyards were repurposed for housing, it could go a long way toward solving the local housing shortage. After decades of underbuilding, the city estimates that it needs to build 100,000 new housing units by 2021 to begin to meet demand.
The ADU initiative began with a 2015 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies for the city to form an “Innovation Team,” which L.A.’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, told to focus on the growing problem of displacement from rising rents. City officials quickly realized that the homes were cheaper to build than apartments in large-scale developments. They also learned that, despite the abundance of single-family homes with yards in L.A., few residents were applying for permits to build.
Working with architects at LA-Más, the city recruited a young family–Trent Wolbe, Grace Lee, and their infant daughter–to go through the process of planning, designing, and building a small backyard home so that the city could observe and learn, using the type of human-centered design process that is common in design firms and rare in city government. It found that there were other problems beyond permitting. Loans to build a second home in your yard are largely unavailable, making the projects impossible for those who could most use extra rental income.
The city also worked with UCLA’s CityLab, a research organization that has studied the issue of backyard homes for more than a decade, to create a simple handbook that explained to homeowners how to build a second unit legally. As the Innovation Team continues to work with Wolbe and Lee, it is creating a set of recommendations for how the overall process can be improved, from the permit review process to working with contractors.
Mayor Garcetti also lobbied for a state bill that removed large fees to connect backyard homes to utilities and also removed parking requirements in neighborhoods near public transit. That bill went into effect in 2017.
L.A. doesn’t expect backyard housing to solve the housing crisis on its own–large apartment buildings and other development will fill most of the gap. But interest in ADUs is now quickly growing: there were 120 permits issued for the units in 2016, which skyrocketed to 2,342 in 2017. The plan is for 10,000 total units by 2021.