A new push to combat homelessness: Housing them in your backyard

A small house under construction in the backyard of a house in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Similar homes will be built to rent to the homeless under a new pilot program. CreditCreditJenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — 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 backyard. Chavarria is one of several Los Angeles residents who are building additions to their homes that would be used by people 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 backyards and rent them to people who have spent months living in their cars, in shelters, or on the streets.

Both the county and the 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 backyard might 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 gained steam in the past 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 $10,000 to $30,000 to make it less expensive and easier for homeowners to build units, if they promise to rent them to homeless residents for three years.

For now, the details of how homeless people would qualify for the program are 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. Tenants would be expected to pay the rent though vouchers or their own income.

City officials have spent the past several months testing out ideas for how the program would work, using focus groups with dozens of homeowners, existing landlords, and residents who have struggled with homelessness themselves.

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, though they emphasize that chronically homeless people with serious mental health or drug problems would be excluded. 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. Richelle Saldana, 33, a designer who has worked on about a half-dozen units in the past several months, said many of her clients were couples in their mid-30s and 40s who “need the extra income just to get back in LA.’’

“I think it’s great for somebody who needs to have that second income and is willing to take a risk,’’ she said. But she quickly cautioned that she would be reluctant to rent her own back house to someone who was homeless.

“I have kids and a family to protect, so it would pretty much terrify me,’’ she said. “My mind just goes to worst-case scenarios, how that will unfold. It sounds great on all kinds of levels, but in real life, not everyone is a walk in the park.’’

It is not only the potential landlords who are hesitant.

LaRae Cantley, 36, who has worked for years as an advocate, helping people find a place after they have spent time living in their cars or on the street, told city officials they would need to provide landlords and tenants with social workers or professional mediators to go between them.

“These people would be inviting someone else into their lives,’’ Cantley said, a note of exasperation in her voice. “How ready are they to build a relationship?’’ She added: “Are they going to be able to communicate? What does that even look like?’’

In the best case, she said, she could imagine “meeting in the middle of the yard and having coffee in the morning.’’ In the worst scenario, “someone is triggered and all of a sudden isn’t safe for themselves or for anyone else.’’

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.’’

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