Can ADU's help solve the LA housing crisis?

A recent lengthy article in the Los Angeles Times focused on one architect’s contribution to solving the extreme housing crisis in this city. The backyard “unit” has, after decades of official resistance from state to local level, emerged as a viable but partial solution to high rents and homelessness. It so happened that the architect, Alexis Navarro, is a colleague in the Los Angeles Community College District teaching architecture at East LA College for many years and soon to head that department. Thanks to Alexis, I have been able to deepen my understanding of building materials, light and sustainable design, and cost. His side project is “La Casita”, which is the name he gives to his various designs for an accessory dwelling unit, the ADU (aka granny flat, mother-in-law apartment, etc). So the LA Times piece was an eye opener because Alexis designed his ADUs for lower income neighborhoods. The cost of the one featured is under $100,000. The occupants can pay rents as low as a one-bedroom apartment or even a studio in middle income neighborhoods, (1650/mo).

Alexis has been fighting antiquated zoning laws and out-of-date building codes while practicing architecture. Affordability, sustainability and quality have been his guiding principles. La Casita represents progress in addressing the problem of zoning and codes that have actually contributed to scarcity in LA housing (rental) markets. So, aren’t all designers led by these guiding principles? The surprising answer is No. At the same time the LA Times article came out, the well-known designer mag, Dwell (known for their fetishism of mid-century modern) featured an article on five Los Angeles ADU designs. (Absent from the list was Navarro’s little gem.) The designs are quite attractive, but the price tags almost move some of them into the rank of “luxury ADU”, which begs the question. Do we regularize ADUs to address the affordable housing crisis in Los Angeles or are we providing hip little houses for AirBnB?

The tiny house movement also seems to have gone upscale even though the deck is still stacked against those miniscule dwellings requiring the trailer and wheels that reduce its value as soon as it’s purchased and where finding land is the main obstacle. That is not the case with legal ADUs which do not have all the constraints of a tiny house. A look at the comments section in the LA Times piece reflects a discussion on affordability and the degree to which ADUs do or do not help solve our housing crisis. But I think Alexis Navarro’s “Casita” is aimed at young renters who live and work in working class neighborhoods. I’m not young, but I want one.

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