Pi­lot pro­grams are hous­ing home­less in back yard dwellings

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - BY JEN­NIFER ME­D­INA New York Times LOS AN­GE­LES

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.

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