Los Angeles just got $1 million to shelter the homeless in backyard homes — with permission from homeowners

  • Los Angeles just won a $US1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to finance its backyard housing program for the homeless.
  • The city previously won $US100,000 from Bloomberg to study the idea, which it will now put into action.
  • Mayor Eric Garcetti sees the backyard program as critical to his efforts in solving the city’s homelessness crisis, which has reached unprecedented heights.

Los Angeles is determined to do something about its nearly 32,000 homeless residents.

In recent years, Mayor Eric Garcetti has unveiled a string of initiatives – including bridge housing, temporary shelters, mental health services, and new construction – aimed at getting people off the streets.

One of his latest solutions calls upon homeowners to help out. Earlier this year, Los Angeles was awarded a $US100,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to study the concept of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), or small, secondary units often found in the backyard of a home.

On Monday, the city won an addition $US1 million to test the idea in real life. Los Angeles is one of nine winners of the US Mayors Challenge, a yearlong Bloomberg Philanthropies competition that tasked participants with developing innovative solutions to the nation’s toughest urban problems.

As the city refined its idea, the county was developing its own backyard program, which sets aside $US550,000 for residents to convert their units or secure necessary permits. While the county received interest from around 500 homeowners, its funding only allows for three new backyard units and three renovated structures to be built.

Homelessness is an especially acute problem in Los Angeles County, where around 75% of homeless residents live on the streets or in makeshift dwellings like cars and tents. At night, around 1,800 people congregate in Skid Row, one of the largest homeless encampments in the US and the harrowing core of the city’s crisis.

Backyard units aren’t the only way to help these people, but they could supplement the efforts that are already underway. In time, they could even be part of a larger solution to homelessness in urban areas.

“Our homeless crisis demands that we get creative,” said Mayor Garcetti. If just 10% of the city’s 500,000 single family homes had an accessory dwelling unit, he said, LA could increase its housing stock by half in just a handful of years.

Most notably, this could be done without altering the character of a neighbourhood – a major concern for Angelenos, who have taken to protesting homeless housing in the city.

While the backlash against new construction has been mounting in LA, so too has the push for affordable homes.

“I finally feel like there’s some momentum in the fight against homelessness here in Los Angeles,” said Mayor Garcetti, who characterises many homeless residents as working citizens who have fallen on hard times.

A few days before the latest Bloomberg grant was announced, Garcetti met with a family living out of their van in one of the state’s designated parking lots. The father had been laid off from his cold storage job due to an injury. Garcetti said he felt like the children – three daughters and a son – could have been his own.

Many Angelenos share the mayor’s personal connection to the crisis. In September, Garcetti’s team said they had heard from a number of homeowners who wanted to be part of the solution.

“It gives people the chance to do something good and direct in a way that’s also helpful to their bottom line,” Garcetti told Business Insider. Participating homes would be able to charge rent to homeless tenants, giving landlords an opportunity to earn some extra cash. The city also plans to institute a matchmaking process that pairs owners and tenants.

Perhaps the biggest obstacles to rolling out the program, Garcetti said, will be zoning and construction costs. But given the large number of single-family homes in Los Angeles, the solution is somewhat tailor-made for the city.

Another major concern is the possibility that funds could run out. At the very least, Garcetti said, the city could continue its backyard program for the next couple of years, thanks to the Bloomberg grant and $US85 million in state funding for LA homelessness initiatives.

The program’s long-term future could hinge on its immediate success.

“This money is awesome,” Garcetti said. “It sends a really strong signal, but it could go away very quickly.”