The Atlantic’s CityLab Ι May 1, 2019
Looking at the pressing shortages of low-income housing in each and every state in the country, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that NIMBY homeowners are winning the fight against new housing, and especially against affordable housing. But there’s one potential foe that reactionary homeowners are ill-equipped to dominate: their own neighbors. Other homeowners, that is, who have elected to house Section 8 voucher-holders in their backyards.
That’s the proposal by LA-Más, an urban-design nonprofit in Los Angeles, and other organizations involved in The Backyard Homes Project. Led by designer Elizabeth Timme and public-policy expert Helen Leung, LA-Más has previously worked on placemaking projects and convenience-store redesigns that highlight healthy food options. Now, Timme, Leung, and their partners hope to finance and build backyard homes, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), for homeowners who agree to rent them initially to Section 8 voucher-holders for a minimum of five years.
The plan would leverage the prerogatives of private homeownership to the public end of increasing the affordable-housing supply. LA-Más is looking to begin with 10 pilot units (some of which would receive financing), and Leung and Timme say they are in the final stages of getting loans underwritten.
The project is enabled by recent regulatory changes in Los Angeles. By starting with single-family homes, it meets L.A. where it’s at—a sprawling city with nearly half a million single-family lots. “There’s just a lot of space in Los Angeles,” as Timme says. Homeowners get access to loan capital to finance construction, an opportunity to add significant equity to their home, a potential stream of rental income, and administratively, a single point of contact to help navigate a network of city agencies and nonprofits. (The first round of applications for the program closes today, and interest has been high.)
The one-stop-shop idea began with the explicit desire to use backyards homes for affordable housing. Two years ago, LA-Más cobbled together some grant money toward this end and began assembling a panel of expert advisors—developers, housing-policy wonks, builders. Timme and Leung also talked to focus groups of homeowners, asking them, “What would it take for a homeowner to house a Section 8 tenant?” according to Leung.
They learned that homeowners didn’t how to find Section 8 tenants and thought the process of dealing with local housing agencies was too complex. Homeowners said they also needed financing and a better idea of their responsibilities as landlords. Finally, these potential landlords didn’t know how to hire an architect or deal with contractors. LA-Más could certainly help with the last problem, and local housing nonprofits and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) could guide them through the bureaucratic maze.
For the first few units, Leung and Timme anticipate building in low-to-middle-income neighborhoods in L.A. (but there are no income restrictions for homeowners). The price tag for an ADU is an estimated $100,000 for a studio apartment garage-conversion, going up to $220,000 for the most expensive two-bedroom, new-construction units. Per Section 8 rules, housing agencies will pay a certain amount for rent (up to $1,970 per month for a two-bedroom unit in L.A.) and tenants will be responsible for the remainder—30 percent of their income.
HACLA is participating in the program, as are several housing nonprofits (LA Family Housing, St. Joseph Center, and the Housing Rights Center), which will provide supportive services as well as landlord and tenant education. They’ll also help landlords pick tenants. Genesis LA Economic Growth Corporation and Self-Help Federal Credit Union will offer financing for a limited number of projects. Very little public money, aside from existing Section 8 vouchers, is committed to the project.
In terms of design, property owners are invited to select templates in one of three styles: Craftsman, Modern, or Spanish. All prioritize “contextual architectural details, space efficiency, and affordable construction.” The renderings of homes are more illustrative than representational, suggesting what Timme calls an “alternative spirit of suburbia that accommodates diversity and context.”
LA-Más has focused on cutting “soft” upfront costs, like permitting, that extend the time from when a client makes their investment to when they begin to recoup it with rent. The design process is compressed into just four weeks. “That’s pretty radical,” says Timme. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find another architect establishing their own program that would sign up for that.” Her goal is to fit design, permitting, and construction into 15 months or less. For the first units, that would mean construction beginning this summer, with new tenants moving in next spring.
Which isn’t quite soon enough for L.A.’s housing crisis. HACLA opened its Section 8 list in October 2017 and saw 200,000 people apply for 20,000 slots to wait for a voucher. (Carlos VanNatter, HACLA’s Section 8 director, says that was only a fraction of the number of people that could have applied; some community members told the agency they stayed away because of fear of retribution based on their immigration status.) Of those who get a voucher, only 53 percent find a unit where they can use it. This situation is helping drive homelessness in the city, as there are currently 50,000 people living unhoused.
A backyard-homes program won’t do much to change this. VanNatter says it’s “another tool for the tool box. It’s not going to be a magic bullet.” Dan Parziale, senior director of housing navigation at LA Family Housing, says ADUs can be a “small component” of a wider public-sector solution.
There are reasons to be skeptical. Beyond the basic resistance that many people (especially homeowners) have against living next to poor people, the ADU plan is content to hope property owners do the right thing, on their own terms. Some of the studio’s messaging goes out of its way to appease homeowners, with pledges to “maintain neighborhood scale” while not “compromising the character of the community.”
But by atomizing affordable housing down to a lot-by-lot basis, LA-Más has hit upon something: We’ve made single-family homeownership so normative that the most resilient course for subsidized housing may be to package it with individual homes. If homeowner rights are sacrosanct and there’s no looming public-housing tower to rally against, the wind seeps out of NIMBY sails. “NIMBYism was a response to the idea of someone’s neighborhood being developed without their participation and without benefit to them,” says Timme. “When they’re at the helm of resident-led development, it changes the conversation.”
“It literally is ‘Yes in my backyard,’” says Parziale, whose nonprofit also develops affordable housing. “This has the power to create conversation in a way that’s not an advocate trying to convince a community, but community members saying, ‘This is something that I’ve had experience with and it’s been a positive one. And this is my neighbor, who I am now providing housing for.’”
And unlike many Section 8 landlords who operate largely as slumlords, landlords who host affordable housing next to their own homes will have added incentive to keep the units maintained, turning property-value watchdogging into a more useful and more public service. Furthermore, the dispersal of housing here could mean that voucher-holders are not concentrated in the poorest and most underserved neighborhoods, as they often are.
Parziale hopes the spread of backyard homes eases stigma against larger affordable-housing developments. Los Angeles has already passed a series of affordable–housing measures. “People in our area recognize this is a major problem,” says VanNatter. On the LA-Más model, the “institution” of subsidized housing is hidden, tucked into backyards and filed away in bureaucrats’ spreadsheets. And like the start-up that tinkers in the garage before transforming a market, these backyard homes could provide a runway for larger-scale affordable housing to take off.