How to make L.A. housing affordable

The L.A. i-team and partners break ground on the prototype secondary-housing unit.

Affordable housing is a big problem in Los Angeles. According to the nonprofit California Housing Partnership Corporation, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city is $2,600. And when housing costs are taken into account, a quarter of residents live below the California poverty level.

“We face a housing shortage unlike anything we’ve seen since World War II,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in 2014. “The high cost of housing affects everything in this city.”

Garcetti has set a goal of creating 100,000 new homes in Los Angeles by 2021. And to help meet it, he’s tasked the city’s Innovation Team (i-team) to find new ways to encourage homeowners to build secondary units on their property.

It’s not a new idea. But the process to build them can be confusing, expensive and, as a result, difficult for many homeowners — leading to many of the units being built illegally and sometimes with inferior materials and construction. In some instances, residents are responsible for costly upgrades such as to a sewer or water line connection and in other instances repairs mandated by city code can be ruled unnecessarily expensive.

“Secondary housing units are being built,” said Amanda Daflos, director of Los Angeles’ i-team. “The question is, do we want them to be built in a safe, up to code, and visually appealing way that is sensitive to neighborhood context.” Daflos says while researching the project some neighbors complained how some existing secondary units didn’t fit with the neighborhood architecture, attributing cost of materials or unpleasing design as factors.

In response, the i-team is working with the University of California, Los Angeles’ cityLAB and Kevin Daly Architects to create a handbook for homeowners to help guide them through the process of building their own secondary housing units. The i-team has also partnered with both the California state legislature and the L.A. city council to eliminate some of the red tape that complicates construction, and is now teaming up with community development financial institution Genesis LA, Habitat for Humanity, LA Mas, an urban design non-profit, and to create a model secondary unit.

This approximately 1,000-square-foot unit will include two bedrooms and a garage. Once completed, which Daflos estimates by late 2017, the unit has the potential to not only show Angelenos how feasible it can be to legally add an aesthetically pleasing secondary unit to their property, but also showcase an example of a completed product to banks that might provide loans for secondary units. It could also go a long way to helping the city meet its 2021 goal of 100,000 new homes.

By researching the problem and then taking the next step of financing and constructing units, Daflos says the i-team aims to help usher in a new option for communities plagued by housing affordability issues. It’s unclear how many units can be created as a result of this work because of factors like cost and useable space, but Daflos feels confident the effort is likely to increase the numbers of legal units in LA.

“Given the complexity surrounding secondary units in Los Angeles, let’s build one and use what we learn and test to inform thoughtful, well researched policy,” she says. “Let’s be forward looking and learn from the work as we support affordable housing for Angelenos.”