Is The Answer To LA's Housing Crisis In Your Backyard?

A Highland Park homeowner created a "granny flat" by adding an extra story to their garage as part of L.A.'s ADU pilot project. (Photo courtesy of LA Más)

The Los Angeles housing crisis is very. well. established.

Prices are causing more people to relocate out than move in, homelessness continues to grow, and you can't even get a one-bedroom in North Hollywood for less than $1,000.

Where to go? San Bernardino? Vegas? Your neighbor's backyard? The last may not be so far-fetched.

One way that local and state officials have been looking to boost the housing supply is with accessory dwelling units, or ADU's.

ADU's are municipal code speak for renovated garages or stand-alone cottages behind the main home. Think Will's pool house in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or your cousin who rents out your aunt's garage.

Some California cities have historically had restrictions on ADU's. But a state law took effect in January 2017 that relaxed the rules for building these units in hopes of alleviating the housing squeeze. ADU's have been growing in popularity ever since.

Some of the changes to ADU rules include reduced parking requirements, elimination of some fees, and a streamlined approval system — if you meet the criteria on paper, you can build an ADU.

This guide will help you understand exactly what Accessory Dwelling Units are, how you can build one, and the wider implications of having more of them in L.A. neighborhoods.

WHAT'S AN ACCESSORY DWELLING UNIT (ADU)?

Also known as "granny flats," they're residences that are separated from the original house, with their own entrance, kitchen, bathroom and living space.

ADU's exist in different forms: converted garages, garage additions, stand-alone units, and conversions within the main house, including basements/attics (for the few who have attics).

WHAT'S LA's POSITION ON ADU'S?

Go ahead and build one in your backyard.

According to Mayor Eric Garcetti, "Accessory dwelling units are a relatively low-cost way for homeowners to play a big part in expanding our city's housing stock, and make extra money while they're at it... We want to make it as easy as possible for people to build in their backyards — which is why we're cutting red tape."

You'll still have to go through inspections, permitting and the like, but you can already see the effect of the city's effort to make the process easier.

ARE PEOPLE ACTUALLY DOING THIS?

Some. About 2,500 new ADU homes were created in two years within the city of Los Angeles.

The city has reported a 1,000% increase in the number of permits requested by homeowners to build ADUs since restrictions were eased.

Thirty-two percent of issued permits have already received Certificates of Occupancy, which means they've been inspected and are ready for move-in (or already occupied).

Interior of an ADU in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of LA Mayor's Office)

CAN THE INCREASE IN ADU'S ACTUALLY HELP INCREASE AFFORDABLE HOUSING?

Not necessarily, but it could.

Since ADU's are built on existing properties, it is easier and usually cheaper to build one compared to traditional affordable housing. This, and their small size (by law, no bigger than 1,200 square feet), often results in cheaper rents. A recent report found 58% of ADUs are rented out below market rate. This form of construction has even been called "naturally affordable" housing.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST TO CONVERT MY PLACE?

ADU's are usually cheaper to construct than traditional affordable housing. Many ADUs aren't even new structures but merely alterations to existing ones. In Los Angeles, 76% of permits issued have been for conversions of existing structures.

ADU's also take advantage of the existing infrastructure from the primary house, like water and electricity, whereas a new building would require new infrastructure to be built.

A Berkeley Terner Center survey reported an average construction cost of $156,000 for ADU's in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. To build a basic ADU — at least one that doesn't require extra foundational, structural, or infrastructural work — will cost between $100,000 and $200,000. For context, $425,000 is the average statewide cost for one affordable housing unit.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME?

Well, if you own a home with room to build an ADU, you could rent it out and make money. Owners don't even have to reside in the main house to do so.

Rents do not have to be below market rate, but there are various local government programs that give incentives to keep the units at an affordable rent. For example, Pasadena waives residential impact fees. And Los Angeles County, through a pilot program, subsidizes part of the costs for building an ADU if the owner rents to someone who is homeless or in the housing voucher program.

CAN ANY STRUCTURE ON MY PROPERTY BE AN ADU?

Nope. There are rules. For example: there may only be one ADU built per property; ADU's cannot be built between the primary residence and front street; and they can't be built in hillside areas, except when located within ½ mile of public transit and adjoining a standard street (but these may meet complications in design and construction).

Also, when attached to an existing residence, the ADU may not exceed 50% of the existing living area. And, again, ADU's may not be bigger than 1,200 square feet.

WHAT ABOUT THE PARKING SITUATION? AND SETBACKS?

You must provide one parking spot per ADU, unless the unit is part of the main house or located within ½ mile from a transit stop or in a historic neighborhood.

As for setbacks (mandatory distances from the edge of the property), they're not required if the unit is part of an existing structure. A stand-alone structure must be set back 5 feet from property lines and 10 feet from the primary residence.

These are the requirements from the state and the city of L.A. Some cities may have differing policies on setbacks, so consult your local government for their criteria.

HOW DO I FIND OUT IF MY LOT QUALIFIES TO HOST AN ADU?

To qualify, the parcel must be designated for residential use. All single-family zones qualify, and some multi-family/agricultural tracts, so long as there is only one single-family residence there.

If you live within the city of Los Angeles, you can check how your property is zoned here.

If you live in another city in L.A. County, call the County Department of Regional Planning at (213) 974-6411.

If you live in an unincorporated area, you can check your address online here.

HOW CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

Here is a very helpful guide for beginning the process.

Check out L.A. County's ADU site.

For those with renovated garages that were never approved, there is also a program to legalize those.