LOS ANGELES – In the new home Julia Coffee designed for herself, handpicking the tiles and the flooring and the red front door, the microwave doesn’t work. Neither does the dishwasher, the garbage disposal, the washing machine, nor – including on 100-degree days – the central air.
Everything else runs on braided extension cords that snake into the bedrooms, through the living room, across the kitchen floor, out the window, through the yard and into her daughter’s house. Charles, Coffee’s 82-year-old husband, who uses a walker, tends to accidentally unplug things.
“We have a nice little place here,” said Julia Coffee, 74. “But we really would like to get our power turned on.”
The Coffees built their two-bedroom home, the smallest they’ve lived in since they were married 44, years ago, in their daughter’s backyard. They were just finishing the place when a lawsuit earlier this year against the city of Los Angeles brought permits for homes like theirs – second units on single-family lots – to a halt. As a result, city officials who gave them permission to build now haven’t given them a certificate of occupancy, and the utility won’t connect them to the power grid.
Second homes, often called “granny flats,” have become a new front in the conflict that pits the need for more housing in the country’s most expensive cities against the wishes of neighbors who want to preserve their communities. The same battles flare over large developments that might loom over single-family neighborhoods. But even this modest idea for new housing – let homeowners build it in their own backyards – has run into not-in-my-backyard resistance.
And the difficulty of implementing even such a small-scale solution shows why it will be hard to make room in crowded cities for the middle- and working-class households who increasingly struggle to afford to live there.
Homes like the Coffees’ could help ease housing shortages that have made $2,000-a-month one-bedrooms look like a bargain in cities such as Los Angeles, proponents argue. They could yield new affordable housing at no cost to the public. They could add rentals and economic diversity to more neighborhoods. And they could expand housing options for a population in which baby boomers are aging and millennials are stuck at home.
Many neighbors, though, protest that a glut of backyard building would spoil the character of neighborhoods based on the American ideal of one family on one lot surrounded by verdant lawn. They fear that more residents will mean less parking. And they question whether small homes, particularly in wealthier neighborhoods with the most room to build them, would really constitute affordable housing.
And so across the country, homes like the Coffees’ remain extremely difficult – if not outright illegal – to build.
“We are determined to add needed units to communities without changing the look and feel of our neighborhoods,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who wants to remove barriers to second units.
Garcetti wants to add 100,000 housing units by 2021, with 15,000 of them affordable. In a city with 600,000 single-family homes, even a small fraction of homeowners building second units would help achieve that second goal. Other places offer similar opportunity. In Seattle, more than half the city’s buildable land is reserved for single-family housing. It’s estimated that the East Bay around Oakland, California, could get as much as half of its new infill housing from backyards.
But Los Angeles is particularly well suited to the idea, with excess capacity hiding among many postwar ranch homes built on spacious lots.
The battle in Los Angeles began in Mark Judaken’s backyard.
“This is the living room,” said his father, Len, 86, walking through a house where it is not clear that what he’s pointing to is a living room. “And I think the kitchen is over here.”
The 895-square-foot one-bedroom where he hoped to live is fully framed, with plywood floors. But the tony Cheviot Hills neighborhood is visible through the walls in all directions. This is the home that prompted the lawsuit.
“We live in America. It’s a free country,” said Judaken, who, like his son, has worked as a real estate developer. “You have a right to use your property to its best advantage.”
Carlyle Hall, a longtime land-use lawyer who lives two properties down, suspected the project was too ambitious to meet city rules for backyard dwellings. An old Los Angeles ordinance strictly limited the size and location of second units. But in 2010, Los Angeles began deferring instead to a more generous state law designed to encourage their construction, and under those rules, the Coffees and Judakens were given permission to build.
Hall’s lawsuit, though, accused Los Angeles of ignoring its own ordinance. And when a Superior Court judge agreed in February, several hundred property owners got caught in legal limbo.
Even if Hall didn’t have legal grounds for challenging the Judakens’ project, he said he would be troubled by what they’re building.
“It would certainly bother me, and it bothers the neighbors,” he said. “It doesn’t fit into the neighborhood. It’s really changing the character, and you can see it from everywhere.”
Vinit Mukhija, an urban planning expert at the University of California at Los Angeles, said opposition to second homes often involves calls to preserve a neighborhood’s “character,” a broad word that can refer as much to the social character as to the physical design of a community.
Secondary units threaten the concept of single-family living that has long been sacrosanct in America, conjuring the idea of one family living in one home surrounded by other single-family homes. The ideal is as much about neighborhoods as houses.
Secondary units don’t just alter the scenery or erode privacy. Build enough, and a neighborhood may not truly remain single-family anymore, with all its associations of middle-class stability and nuclear families.