How Pre-Approved ADUs Will Tackle California’s Housing Shortage

Aiming to fast-track permits for accessory dwelling units, the city launches a program that offers a variety of pre-approved single-family homes designed by esteemed firms.

ADU by Welcome Projects

California is suffering from an extreme homelessness problem. In particular, Los Angeles recently counted around 15,000 chronically unsheltered individuals—a figure that’s forecasted to nearly double over the next two years. In 2017, to help combat the issue, the state enacted legislation that overhauled barriers to residential permits that have long contributed to the state’s drastic housing shortage. The program legalized the creation of accessory dwelling units—commonly known as “granny flats,” backyard houses, or ADUs—that are small-scale, standalone residences built on properties zoned for single-family homes. Within a short amount of time, the state received more than 1,900 applications for ADU approval. Since then, building permits for ADUs in Los Angeles have nearly tripled and now comprise a staggering one-fifth of permits issued for all homes. 

Unfortunately, that’s often easier said than done. One major drawback to securing ADU permits has been red tape: it often takes Angelenos four to six weeks of costly negotiations with the local government to approve their construction. A new initiative organized by Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s office in collaboration with the city’s Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) seeks to change that. The newly launched Accessory Dwelling Unit Standard Plan Program will offer homeowners more than 20 pre-approved designs for the increasingly popular housing typology, reducing the month-long review process to as little as one day. “This program is about making ADUs more accessible, more affordable, and more beautiful,” says Garcetti, “and making them part of the blueprint of our efforts to tackle our housing crunch and create more affordable communities citywide.” 

ADU by Amunátegui Valdés

Administered by the LADBS, the program includes options from such acclaimed firms as SO-IL, LA-Más, and wHY that range from small studios to roomier two-story structures. “The Standard Plan Program will dramatically streamline the process for homeowners of selecting and getting an ADU design approved by LADBS while at the same time supporting the work of Los Angeles architects and extending the city’s rich tradition of residential architecture,” says Los Angeles chief design officer Cristopher Hawthorne.

While the approved designs vary in style, many adhere to the indoor-outdoor lifestyle quintessential to California modernism and the region’s temperate climate. The ADU designed by Cristobal Amunátegui and Alejandro Valdés, who founded the L.A. and Chile-based firm Amunátegui Valdés, features floor-to-ceiling windows and a shaded roof deck accessible by a yellow spiral staircase. SO-IL’s design, meanwhile, perches the house atop a raised deck. Living spaces radiate outward from the kitchen-bathroom core in a starburst shape, which founders Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu describe as “channeling [the city’s] spirit of optimism and openness.” 

ADU by MALL/Jennifer Bonner

Jennifer Bonner, the founder of MALL, unveiled a 515-square-foot design that references American sheds while subtly nodding to stucco boxes and exaggerated false fronts—two styles commonly found within Los Angeles. “The imagery of the lean-to shed is less Los Angeles and more Americana, but points towards the DIY spirit of the single-family home,” says Bonner, who hints that her ADU would blend seamlessly with standard white house with a black trim. “The mantra ‘I can build anything in my backyard’ is optimistic and connects back to the problem at hand: a lack of housing units in the metro area.” 

Besides addressing the housing crisis head-on, the program also supports smaller, forward-thinking firms during a time when many are facing pandemic-induced financial uncertainty. According to a monthly index published by the American Institute of Architects, architectural billings have plummeted since the pandemic broke out one year ago. Specifically, Western firms that specialize in residential design have been hit hardest, reporting weakened financial conditions for three consecutive months as demand for multifamily housing has waned. Though outlooks remain positive with the vaccine rollout, one-third of surveyed firms don’t expect to return to pre-pandemic revenue levels until the end of next year. 

“Driving down the cost of building new units helps all communities increase affordable housing stock,” says City Council member Kevin de León, who recently led a motion for the Bureau of Engineering, LADBS, and City Planning to develop standard plans for modular multi-family homeless and affordable housing, which includes ADUs. In our eyes, any program that cuts the red tape to address the housing crisis is worth pursuing. Cities looking to increase density with stellar design, take note—ADUs may be the ticket.

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