Pilot programs house homeless in back yards
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 motivated 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, if they promise to rent it to a homeless resi- dent for three years.
For now, the details of how homeless people would qualify for the program are only vague. Homeless families and individuals would be screened by nonprofit organizations to ensure that they do not need intensive services and would then be matched with homeowners, who could indicate their preference for the kind of tenant they want. 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.
The responses from one group on a recent morning were a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism. Of course we want to help, several homeowners said. But how much will it cost me? Who will pay the rent? What if residents are doing drugs in my yard?
The formerly homeless who met later that morning were equally befuddled: Will I have any privacy? Will the owner just be in it for the money?
Garcetti said he was counting on the project to appeal equally to “both your self-interest and selfless interest.”
“Even with a cursory glance, you can easily see that most people facing homelessness don’t fit into the stereotype,” he said in an interview. “I heard from people all over the city who want to do something to solve the biggest humanitarian crisis in this city. This is not just going to be for the rich, this is going to help homeowners who are barely scraping by pay their mortgage.”
But there are still many details the city will need to work out to determine whether a large-scale plan would work. City officials have not yet determined, for example, how they could assure both owners and tenants of their safety. And they are still unsure how they would measure the success of the experiment.
Accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs, have already begun to crop up all over the city, with many residents using them as short-term rentals that can generate enough money to substantially help with the mortgage. Several architecture and contracting firms have begun marketing themselves as specialists in the units, offering homeowners guidance on how to get the most bang for the buck by using sleek and easily replicable plans. Builders say the units can cost anywhere from $45,000 to $200,000 to construct.
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.”
When officials in Multnomah County, Oregon, announced plans to build backyard units at no cost to the homeowner, more than 1,000 people signed up to register as potential hosts. Four participants were selected in the initial stage. Each spoke with their own lawyer about the idea, and all were told the same thing: Don’t do it. But they all decided to ignore the legal advice and go ahead.
“It’s value proposition that goes to people’s hearts: What does it mean to be in community with each other?” said Mary Li, who runs the county’s innovation lab and is overseeing the program. “Can we all step up and do a little?”
Though Martha Chambers said she signed up for largely altruistic reasons, she also ticked off the benefits she would receive: A backyard home at no cost to her for five years, a new neighbor who she could ask to help dogsit, and a few renovations in her main house.
Martha Chambers, right, sits residents of the accessory dwelling unit behind her home in North Portland, Ore.