The Backyard BI(h)OME proposes an innovative, flexible, environmentally sensitive, and affordable set of architectural models for infilling single-family residential zones in Los Angeles in order to increase the supply of housing near jobs.
Single family lots in City of Los Angeles
Density of Los Angeles as compared to New York City
Number of new housing units needed in Los Angeles today
Acres of underutilized space in backyards of single family homes in Los Angeles
The Premise: After Sprawl
Single Family Residential Zoning and Density
The City of Los Angeles uses twelve categories of land use to guide development in the city. The various zones that comprise “low density housing” typically restrict development to detached, single family homes. Of the twelve categories, the single-family residential zones are the most restrictive: only one dwelling per lot. First designated in 1904, single-family residential zones in the City of Los Angeles have steadily increased in area. By June 2010, the single-family residential zone consisted of 457,610 lots scattered all over Los Angeles leaving significant areas of land free of buildings — backyards. In the metropolitan grid that is Los Angeles today, this underutilized land stock provides an asset that can be used for low-impact infill. Over the past one hundred years the grid has been filled with a sprawling body of low-rise buildings. The current uniformity of the single-family residential zones belie the still existing flexibility of the grid. The Backyard BI(h)OME is one way to increase the potential for zoning to be responsive and flexible to changing local needs.
The beauty of the Backyard BI(h)OME
The tactics employed reflect both the city’s suburban residential tradition and the opportunities provided within individual neighborhoods, on specific sites, and for particular households. The approach straddles architectural and planning practices and the scales at which each operates. By so doing, we can envision how a largely suburban city can evolve into a more sustainable, post-suburban metropolis.
Whether called granny flats, accessory dwelling units, or mother-in-law apartments, Backyard BI(h)OMES can be built incrementally, on lots where they make sense. Building into cities rather than beyond them preserves farmland and sensitive, natural ecosystems on the edges of the city. Marginally more dwelling units per acre provides a means for preserving the benefits associated with suburban living while reducing carbon footprints and providing municipal services more efficiently.
The Opportunity: Neighborhood Analysis
For the Neighborhood
Safely constructed, legally permitted accessory dwelling units offer numerous neighborhood and household benefits in addition to increasing the housing supply citywide. The units can provide an important source of affordable rental housing. Neighborhoods with second units can be more walkable with more public transit opportunities and more local services because more people reside nearby. Backyard homes help stabilize communities, by providing flexible housing alternatives.
For the Household
Second units can provide families with the kind of flexibility that allows them to stay in their houses for decades. The families gain by potential rent from second units. They can provide flexible space for growing families and nearby but independent housing for adult children. They also provide an unmatched opportunity for seniors to live independently with their caregivers in close proximity.
What does the law say?
Since 1982 the State of California has proactively passed laws to encourage second units, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), in single-family neighborhoods. Legally permitted second units, nonetheless, are rare in the state and in the Los Angeles region. Most recently, in 2003, state legislative action – Assembly Bill 1866 – reinforced the legality of “granny flats” construction.
The state initiative, however, remains largely ineffective in spurring the supply of legally permitted second units in California and in the Los Angeles region in particular. For example, since 2003, only eleven units have received permits in the City of Los Angeles. Since the City Council tabled further consideration of the issue in 2009, state law rather than local regulations is assumed to apply, making Backyard BI(h)OMES possible across the City of Los Angeles.
An intrinsic part of Backyard Homes is their incremental implementation. cityLAB envisions this happening one willing household at a time. But prior to any grass roots effort, the value of Backyard BI(h)OMES—to the city, to neighborhoods, and to households—must be demonstrated through a handful of actual projects. Such demonstrations are important, in part, because second dwelling units on single-family lots remain controversial in Los Angeles. Demonstrations will illustrate how parking is best handled, how increased demands on public services are met, and how neighborhood character is preserved. Once it becomes possible to deliver flexibly-designed, site-adaptable second dwelling units in even small quantities, other possibilities arise. For instance, a private home-builder could decide to go into the Backyard Homes business. Or a non-profit housing developer could decide to either include second units as part of making newly-constructed homes more affordable or, if they are interested in providing rental housing, in working with existing homeowners to build Backyard Homes on scattered sites.