Pi­lot pro­grams house home­less in back yards

Star-Telegram (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY JEN­NIFER ME­D­INA New York Times

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.

AMANDA LUCIER NYT

Martha Cham­bers, right, sits res­i­dents of the ac­ces­sory dwelling unit be­hind her home in North Port­land, Ore.

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