Pilot programs are housing homeless in back yard dwellings
When she bought her tidy home with a renovated kitchen four years ago, Melina Chavarria was relieved to be in an area of Los Angeles County that she liked for a price she could afford.
She strung a hammock up in the front yard, where she could watch her elementary school-age sons play on their scooters while she sipped coffee.
Since then, dozens of homeless men and women have built up encampments just a few yards away from her house, and at the local train station, and beneath the overpasses of the freeways that crisscross her neighborhood near Watts.
Now, as part of an unusual arrangement, Chavarria may soon be welcoming some of those homeless people into her back yard. Chavarria is one of several Los Angeles residents beginning to build an addition to her home that would be used by a person emerging from homelessness.
Faced with a major housing crisis, Los Angeles is trying out an idea that some hope is so wild that it just might work: helping homeowners build small homes in their back yards and rent them to people who have spent months living in their cars, shelters or on the streets.
Both the county and city of Los Angeles are beginning pilot programs to give homeowners subsidies to create housing for the homeless. Similar experiments are also underway in Seattle and Portland.
Though housing the homeless in your back yard may be considered extreme, thousands of residents on the West Coast have indicated they are interested in doing just that.
“It’s part of our daily life now – you’re always either walking or driving past someone who is homeless,” said Chavarria, a 37-year-old single mother who works in human resources. She has volunteered at soup kitchens and contributed to food drives, but more often has felt helpless about the seemingly intractable problem.
“If we can be part of doing something, why would I not want to do that?” she said. “I’m not religious but I am spiritual, and I have this belief that when God blesses you, it’s to bless someone else.”
While officials hope that homeowners like Chavarria will be motiva- ted by goodwill, they also plan to prod them by offering subsidies.
A pilot program run by Los Angeles County will give assistance to a handful of homeowners who are willing to build. Chavarria was one of more than 500 homeowners who applied for the program. Once the unit she is building is rented, she expects to earn $1,500 a month, paid for through a Section 8 voucher or some other rental assistance program.
The notion of housing the homeless with backyard homes – commonly called granny flats and bureaucratically referred to as “accessory dwelling units” – has been gaining steam in the last few years, as Mayor Eric Garcetti and others lobbied to make the buildings legal across the state. Bloomberg Philanthropies announced Monday that the city of Los Angeles had won a $1 million grant as part of a competition intended to encourage cities to try creative new policies.
The city plans to offer incentives worth between $10,000 and $30,000 to make it cheaper and easier for homeowners to build a unit.
For now, the details of how homeless people would qualify for the program are only vague. The tenant would be expected to pay the rent though a voucher or their own income.
City officials have spent the last several months testing out ideas for how it would work in focus groups with dozens of homeowners, existing landlords and residents who have struggled with homelessness themselves.
Even those who support the idea of backyard housing say it would be impossible to build enough units to significantly reduce the city’s homeless population.
“In the total picture of homelessness, we know this will not necessarily change that much,” said Vinit Mukhija, a professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles. “The value goes beyond that, though, because it is finally somewhat of a departure of the purity of single-family housing in the region. It’s a good step to change what people here really consider a dogma of private housing.”
Martha Chambers, right, sits with residents of the accessory dwelling unit behind her home in North Portland, Ore. The dwelling was built as part of a pilot program that provides subsidies if homeowners promise to rent to homeless people for five years.