Anne Brown is an assistant professor in the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon. She received her PhD in Urban Planning from UCLA in 2018.
Due to severe shortages of affordable housing, more Americans than ever are bedding down inside their vehicles: In Los Angeles County, home to the country’s greatest number of unsheltered homeless people, more than 15,000 individuals live in cars, vans, and mobile homes.
Meanwhile, across the U.S., there are more homes with three-car garages being constructed than there are one-bedroom apartments.
Imagine if this logic were flipped.
Many cities have a huge, untapped source of affordable housing: garages. By our estimate, about 400,000 single-family homes in Los Angeles have a two-car garage that could be converted into an apartment. Until recently, Los Angeles prohibited most such conversions, but in 2017, California enacted a law that overrides local prohibitions and allows almost any homeowner to convert their garage into an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). In 2016, before the new state law took effect, Los Angeles issued only 117 permits for second units. In 2018, it issued 4,171 permits, or 36 for every one issued in 2016.
Many single-family neighborhoods have garages that can provide a new supply of small, well-located, and high-quality apartments within walking distance of stores and public transit. Converted garages can house boomerang children, grandparents, caretakers, guests, or friends. Or they can generate rental income to make home ownership more affordable. In San Francisco, one affordable housing developer is planning four garage conversions in the Mission District to make way for low-income residents. Speaking to the Mission Local, Mission Housing executive director Sam Moss conservatively estimated that hundreds of units like these could be created throughout the city. “There’s not a lack of garages,” he said. “There’s a lack of landlords saying, ‘I’m done with car storage.’”
Garage apartments are an example of what has been called “naturally occurring affordable housing,” or housing that is affordable without public subsidies. The residents of NOAH garage apartments will not compete for the existing supply of affordable housing, so the benefits will trickle sideways to everyone in the market for affordable housing.
As we have previously written, several companies in California now offer homeowners a complete service to convert a garage into a rental apartment. These firms secure the necessary permits, pay the full cost of the conversion, and then split the rental income with the homeowner for an agreed length of time. In the same way, government agencies could subsidize garage conversions as an alternative to building new affordable housing units, which cost an average of $372,000 per unit in California.
For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could offer to pay for converting a garage into an apartment if the homeowner allows a veteran to occupy the new apartment at a low rent for five years, after which the homeowner has unrestricted use of the property. This offer seems especially appropriate if the homeowner appreciates a veteran’s service to the country and if the neighbors approve of (or at least hesitate to publicly oppose) allowing an otherwise homeless military veteran to live nearby.
Many homeowners put up fierce resistance to affordable housing projects nearby, but those same neighbors may not even notice a garage conversion that swaps cars for people and leaves the home’s exterior unchanged. Critics can’t say that a converted garage will be out of scale, cast shadows, or otherwise threaten the neighborhood’s character, because it’s already there. Garage apartments create horizontal, distributed, and almost invisible density, instead of vertical, concentrated, and obvious density.
When they were illegal, most garage conversions were hidden away in homeowners’ backyards. But now that they are legal, street-facing garages may be the most suitable for new residential uses, for several reasons. The garage apartments will not reduce privacy in the homeowner’s or the neighbors’ backyards, and the apartment-dweller can have more privacy with a separate entrance to the street. Converting a street-facing garage that is part of the house should be cheaper than converting a freestanding backyard garage, because it can connect with the main home’s utilities, and a door into the house can be useful if the apartment is occupied by a family member or caregiver.
Other homeowners might not realize it, but they can benefit from more garage conversions, too: Those apartment residents will provide more eyes on the street, enhancing security for the whole neighborhood, and homeowners can feel safer while they are away if someone is living in the former garage.
But wait, you might say: What about the cars?
Don’t worry: They can still park in the driveway, and cities can use residential parking permit districts to limit the number of on-street parking permits allowed at any address with a converted garage. A limit on permits would guarantee that converting a garage into housing will not overcrowd parking on the street. The city can also issue block-your-own-driveway permits to provide residents a guaranteed on-street parking space in front of the house. Design review requirements can ensure that a garage conversion is consistent with the design of both the house and the neighborhood.
Simply by legalizing garage apartments, cities can take advantage of a housing opportunity that has been hiding in plain sight. America can reduce the homelessness problem with a simple acknowledgment: Garages would be much more valuable for people than for cars.