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Housing for homeless could be in your backyard. Literally

Granny flats are in legal limbo after a LA County Superior Court judge ruled against a homeowner who built a second unit on his property. (not pictured)
Netsumo via Flickr
Granny flats could be an answer to beefing up L.A.'s rental stock, and housing for homeless, county officials said.

L.A. County officials are looking to homeowners' backyards for help with the region's growing homeless crisis.

A pilot program under consideration by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday would legalize and encourage the development of so-called "granny flats" — secondary dwelling units on the same lot as a single-family home. Under the pilot, the county would offer cash to homeowners who want to build a granny flat or to bring an existing one up to code. But there is a major condition— it would have to be rented to a family or person who's currently homeless. 

The help for homeowners would come in the form of a loan or grant, depending on the unit type.

Connie Chung of the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning called the effort a way to diversify housing stock as the county embarks on a massive effort to tackle homelessness. The traditional model for homeless housing — multi-family units with supportive services on site — is ideal, she said, but costly. A single unit can run as much as $300,000 to $500,000 to develop.

"So given that, it's really important to seek additional approaches," Chung said. "Generally any good housing policy out there will encourage a diversity of housing types."

Currently, there are thousands of granny flats, Chung said. But many were built without proper permits. Recent changes to state law have paved the way for legally building for secondary units on single-family lots. Such units must meet certain size restrictions and regulatory codes.

Chung said unincorporated areas in the county contain tens of thousands of potential sites for granny flats, but the county has only permitted 700 since 2004.

The pilot program would involve up to six homes to start and assist with either with legalizing existing unpermitted units or clearing the way for new constructions. After 18 months, the county could look to expand the program. The pilot would also include the county hosting a design competition for secondary dwelling units.

One question, though, is whether the incentives will be attractive enough for homeowners to rent to a formerly homeless person or family. And how neighbors might respond to any increase in additional units on their streets. 

But county officials are hopeful that preserving and developing secondary units may make a dent in homelessness and the region's general housing needs.

"There's a lot of work to do to tap into the potential," Chung said.