The Airbnb founder has launched Samara, a startup that aims to provide high-design prefab accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs. But with prices starting at $299,000, will the venture make a dent in California’s housing crisis?
California is suffering from extreme homelessness and overcrowding. In particular, Los Angeles recently counted 15,000 chronically unsheltered individuals—a figure forecasted to 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 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 tripled and now comprise a staggering one-fifth of permits issued for all homes.
Now, a new startup launched by Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia is getting involved. The venture, named Samara, plans to sell factory-produced prefab units to homeowners with extra space. Starting prices for Samara’s initial range of ADUs, called Backyard, range from $299,000 for 430-square-foot studios to $339,000 for 550-square-foot one-bedroom units in the Bay Area, with lower prices in Southern California. “California’s just a glaring opportunity,” McNamara says. “There aren’t enough housing units, and the cost of housing is extremely high. We have to find ways to get more units to the people and we have to find ways to get more units more approachable in price. So, that one is already here.”
Each home is equipped with rooftop solar panels that generate more electricity than they use, which CEO and co-founder Mike McNamara described as a high priority in the design process. “Our first step toward sustainable energy production is to not use very much,” he tells Fast Company. “So, first, we made it really tight, really well-engineered, and really efficient.”
Samara began as an innovation lab inside Airbnb that ideates new products in pursuit of social change. Gebbia had long wanted to build ADUs on his land, but wasn’t impressed by any options on the market. Witnessing the grave condition of California’s housing crisis compelled Gebbia, who departed Airbnb in July, to explore designing and building tiny homes full-time. “It got to the point where we both realized this needs to be an independent company,” Gebbia told the Wall Street Journal. While Samara is an independent startup, Airbnb still owns a minority stake.
Skeptics have noted Backyard’s vaguely Scandinavian minimalist design scheme bears a resemblance to Airbnb stock images. With prices starting at $299,000, a rate still high for the unhoused, it remains to be seen whether Samara’s design-forward dwellings will help solve the problem. While accommodating relatives or complete strangers is indeed an option, Samara has also pitched its prefabs as suitable for a wide range of uses, such as secluded home offices or creative studios for the remote work crowd. The units also look like they’d be great Airbnbs, leading some to criticize Gebbia as “capitalizing on the problem” his former company exacerbated in the first place.
Samara is also hardly the first company venturing into the ADU market and faces steep competition, especially in California. Cottage, Adobu, Rent the Backyard, Homestead, and even Dwell magazine have entered the space after state lawmakers passed new regulations facilitating greater housing density, homeowners associations be damned. The state even launched a program offering a variety of pre-approved single-family ADUs designed by esteemed architects in order to fast-track securing construction permits, a months-long process often mired in red tape. It seems to be getting results: California issued nearly 20,000 building permits for ADUs in 2021, up from a mere 1,160 in 2016.