Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Residents can get up to $75,000 to build a “granny flat”—if they open it up to a homeless family.
California’s budding YIMBY movement is up for a real test. Under a new pilot program approved this week, Los Angeles County homeowners are being asked to literally open up their backyards to the homeless.
The county’s board of supervisors gave the green light to the The Granny Flats Motion project on Tuesday, which would give homeowners up to $75,000 to build a backyard home—if they agree to rent it to a homeless family or individual. (For those who already have a unit to offer, the county will to provide up to $50,000 in subsidies to convert it according to the county’s requirements.) On top of that, the county will also streamline the permitting process, an arguably attractive incentive considering that most of these “accessory dwelling units” in U.S. cities are illegal.
The county will take the next two months to flesh out the details with the hope of implementing the program within the next year and a half, says Monique King-Viehland, the deputy executive director of the community development commission. As for figuring out the rent and utilities costs, that’s largely left up to the homeowners and their future tenants. “Right now the thought is there will be some kind of note on the property that basically says you have to maintain a certain level of affordability for a certain time period,” she tells CityLab.
At the heart of the program is an effort to curb the county’s homeless population, which has ballooned to nearly 60,000—a staggering 23 percent increase over the last year. The pilot, for which the county has earmarked $550,000, will grant two or three of such units in areas where zoning is managed by the county as officials assess whether to scale up in the future. It’s part of L.A. county’s broader initiative to address homelessness, in which 51 strategies—from opening up vacant lots for housing to subsidize housing—have been approved between 2016 and 2017.
This wouldn’t be the first county to address homelessness through the growing popularity of backyard homes. In March, Oregon’s Multnomah County introduced a similar program, going a step further and offering to build as many as 300 tiny homes—roughly 200 square feet, according to the local news site Willamette Week—if homeowners agree to let a homeless family live there for at least five years. Initially, the county aimed to build the first four houses by the end of June, but progress has stalled—though not for a lack of interest.
When the county made a call-out to interested homeowners, they received more than 1,000 responses. “There’s a bunch of research that says when we know somebody personally, we are much more able to see them as a human being, understand their struggles, and are much more predisposed to be in relationships with them,” Mary Li, director of the Multnomah Idea Lab (which runs the program), told Fast Company back in April.
Officials were close to narrowing the submissions down to four—looking at each site’s proximity to things like schools, job opportunities, and public transit—when they realized that an existing ordinance regarding construction around trees meant that they had to physically evaluate the potential sites. Multnomah County expects to complete the process at the start of next month.
It’s encouraging news: Some jurisdictions at least seem enthusiastic about the experiments. “We’ve, in a short period of time—even prior to the motion that went forward this week and since then—received a lot of interest via the web, email, responses, phone calls,” King-Viehland says. “Not just from the media but from the general public.” She expects architectural design competition for backyard houses, organized by the L.A. County Arts Commission, will draw even more people to the project in the fall.
In part, the enthusiasm comes from the recent momentum of the nationwide YIMBY movement that welcomes the development of affordable units in several cities, including L.A. and Portland. Just a month ago, a conference in Oakland, California, drew hundreds of attendees from around the country, including researchers, techies, and even senators, to brainstorm policies and solutions to the current housing shortage crisis. That enthusiasm is also coupled with the recent passage of a new California law that makes it easier for homeowners to build granny flats by easing associated parking restrictions and utility fees.
With the long-term fate of both Multnomah and L.A.’s projects uncertain—there is no guarantee that either will continue after the pilot project—critics question whether the $350,000 and $550,000 budgeted for them, respectively, could be better spent elsewhere. But King-Viehland disagrees: “We need to be creative and look at multiple methodologies and mechanisms for addressing the issue,” she says. “This is only one small part of a much larger home initiative strategy that Los Angeles County is focusing on, and this is one of those strategies that we think is worth exploring.”