Garages – the new affordable houses?

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Rethinking how we use urban spaces could help tackle an unaffordability crisis in many cities.

Would you ever set up home in someone else’s garage? Or let a stranger move in to yours?

More and more people are asking, “why not?”

Let’s consider just how hard it’s becoming for people to afford housing in big cities. From Berlin to Singapore to Stockholm, rents have soared. And forget buying: research last year showed that 40% of young adults in England, for example, can’t afford to buy even the cheapest homes in their area – even with just a 10% deposit.

Could living in a converted garage be an answer?

Maybe. In parts of the United States, a lack of affordable housing means garage conversions are taking off. In car-centric Los Angeles, for example, 117 garage conversion permits were issued to residents in 2016 – but in 2018, thanks to a change in the law, that number rocketed to 4,171.

These garage flats could represent a lot more than the opportunity for an extra stream of income for homeowners. Proponents say they could help remedy cities’ housing problems, and even fight homelessness.

According to a survey by the state's housing authority, California will need to build 180,000 homes each year to 2025 – but currently builds only 80,000 (Credit: Alamy)

According to a survey by the state's housing authority, California will need to build 180,000 homes each year to 2025 – but currently builds only 80,000 (Credit: Alamy)

‘Essentially invisible’

In an April CityLab article, three urban planning experts made the case for how single-family garages could ease California’s housing crisis. They pointed out how the number of garage conversions has rocketed in Los Angeles – a city brimming with garages.

“Is this an opportunity to swap cars for people?” asks Anne Brown, assistant professor at the University of Oregon and co-author of the CityLab article. “The really interesting thing is that this type of housing is essentially invisible – the built environment [of the neighbourhood] won’t look that different.”

In other words: it’s a way of housing more people, without having to actually build more houses.

So, who lives in these garages? Boomerang kids, older relatives who need care, Airbnb guests. And this shift is not limited to converted garages. Backyard cottages, repurposed garden shacks, those famously twee tiny homes – they’re all known as ADUs, or accessory dwelling units. In the UK, they’re sometimes known as granny flats or annexes, referring to the intergenerational nature of these units: today’s tool shed can be your gran’s pied-a-terre tomorrow.

The potential of a garage

Cherry Tung is a YouTuber living in Los Angeles who found her converted garage flat on a Chinese version of Craigslist. She says the biggest reason she chose it was the price: rent is $950 a month, compared to a more typical $2,000 in her area. She has a kitchen, a bathroom and a wall that separates the living and bedrooms.

“It’s actually decent. I do have enough space for myself and two cats. It’s relatively quiet, cheap, no upstairs neighbour, and separate entry from my landlord,” Tung says. “The garage rental situations are pretty common on the Chinese Craigslist.”

Today’s tool shed can be your gran’s pied-a-terre tomorrow

She does think that garage flats could help tackle the affordable housing problem, but caveats that with “the legality of it can be quite tricky and risky, depending on the local laws and regulations.”

That’s something fellow LA resident Ira Belgrade knows all too well. He and his wife ran their own talent agency in Hollywood. But after his wife died 10 years ago, Belgrade relied on rent from his converted garage, now a two-story house, as an extra stream of income.

“Everything fell apart in my life. I had a two-and-a-half-year-old son and I needed to make my mortgage,” he says. “If I could convert the whole [garage], make it a kitchen, I could rent the whole thing out. The city said no.” But he did it anyway. Four years after successfully (but illegally) renting out the finished space to a tenant he found on Craigslist, an anonymous neighbour reported the activity to the city’s authorities.

Los Angeles-based Ira Belgrade converted his garage into a rent-ready home that he has used to help pay off his mortgage (Credit: YimbyLA, LLC)

Los Angeles-based Ira Belgrade converted his garage into a rent-ready home that he has used to help pay off his mortgage (Credit: YimbyLA, LLC)

Belgrade became one of the city’s most vocal advocates to make ADU permits easier to obtain. That California law was finally passed in 2017, which has led to that increase of permits in LA. Now, not only does Belgrade continue to rent out his converted garage, but he runs his own company that helps others navigate the legal waters of building an ADU.

Since the law changed in 2017, LA has “seen a more than 1,000% increase in the number of permits requested by homeowners to build both new construction ADUs and convert existing structures – garages and pool houses, for example – to ADUs,” says Alex Comisar, press secretary for Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles isn’t the only city on the West Coast where this trend is on the rise. Portland and Seattle, in the US states of Oregon of Washington respectively, have also prioritised ADU development. Plus, around 200km north lies another world leader: Vancouver, in the Canadian province of British Columbia. (And yes, you guessed it – rents in all three cities have steadily climbed over the past couple of years.)

The Vancouver versions of converted garages are called “laneway houses”: tiny detached units, but still around 700 to 1000 square feet – enough for a studio space, bedroom and bathroom. They’re built on the city’s extensive grid of very small side streets (laneways) that snake their way between the houses. The city says in the last 10 years, over 4,000 new laneway permits have been issued, and it hopes to add another 4,000 in the next 10 years.

The city says in the last 10 years, over 4,000 new laneway houses have been built, and it hopes to add another 4,000 in the next 10 years

“Even though we’ve been doing laneway houses for a decade, there’s been a pretty marked upswing,” says Graham Anderson, community planner at the city of Vancouver. “It is adding new housing choice – a gentle form of providing new density that doesn’t result in mass redevelopment.”

As the demand for affordable housing has become bigger than ever – a 2018 survey found that 90% of 200 cities polled were considered unaffordable – these cities have eased up the relevant planning laws. In LA, there were over 50,000 illegally run ADUs of all types prior to 2016 – an informal market that signalled a need.

Vancouver, where rents have risen substantially in the past decade, has seen an upswing in laneway houses – small units built on the city's side streets (Credit: Alamy)

Vancouver, where rents have risen substantially in the past decade, has seen an upswing in laneway houses – small units built on the city's side streets (Credit: Alamy)

ADUs have increasingly become the norm in Vancouver, too. The city says that 75% of new, single-family homes in the city – about 800 a year – come already built with either a laneway house, or some kind of secondary suite. For urban planners, this is a blindingly bright signal, and something cities should pounce on. We have “potential housing at our fingertips. It’s very low-hanging fruit,” Brown says. “And we should grab it.”

Helping homelessness?

Besides adding to the overall housing stock, could ADUs help fight homelessness? LA hopes so.

Los Angeles County saw a 12% increase in homelessness since last year, and the city proper saw a 16% climb. Close to 60,000 people in the county were sleeping rough during a January count, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has revealed.

Last October, a large philanthropy firm donated $1 million to LA to help Angelenos turn their garages into dwelling units for that very purpose as part of a new pilot programme. (It hasn’t been a perfect rollout, though – hangups like the locations of power lines have denied building permits to some residents.)

“We thought, what a great way to add to the many strategies that we have to try to end homelessness in LA to try to match folks who are building these units with folks who are coming off the streets,” Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti said in a radio interview in October.

Press secretary Comisar says that “homeowners will be part of the solution to end homelessness, and will benefit from steady rental income and increased home equity.” LA’s goal by 2022 is to “house at least 200 housing-insecure people across nearly 150 ADUs.”

The California researchers also highlight additional benefits: more sets of eyes in the neighourhood could keep the area safer, and an additional stream of income for the renter: “I have friends [in LA] who moved into the garage, and rented out the house itself,” Brown says.

So, what did that old California law require? That each single-family home have two covered parking spaces off the street. But no more.

Donald Shoup, urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on the garage project with Anne Brown, estimates it costs around $80,000 to convert a garage into a flat. Before the laws were relaxed in California, many of those illegal conversions led to electrical fires, as the buildings weren’t necessarily up to city standards. Now, the relaxed permits allow residents to do this in a safer (and legal) way.

But would it work in other countries?

Shipping it elsewhere

Places like LA or Vancouver have idiosyncrasies that might make the plan difficult to transfer beyond the North American West Coast, like the car-centric nature of these cities. But for any big city that thrives on driving, garage ADUs could have a huge impact on urban planning in the future. It’s why places outside of North America, like New Zealand, have recently begun examining the potential of ADUs in their cities. (Although, in New Zealand’s case, living in garages has served as a worrying symptom of the housing crisis, rather than a solution.)

“There is this larger idea of, in planning – especially in a car-centric place – planning gets driven too much by the needs of how do we park our cars, what happens to them,” says Vinit Mukhija, professor of urban planning at UCLA, who collaborated with Shoup and Brown. “It takes over, increases housing costs, becomes the driving force – everything starts getting driven by this one factor. We’re hoping to change that. We don’t need to provide so much off-street parking.”

Instead, people can park their cars on their driveways, and turn their garages – houses for their cars – into houses for people. Especially those people who can’t typically afford any kind of house.

Shoup thinks that the more cities can identify ways to house people in already-existing structures (like garages), and make it easier to issue permits to convert the spaces and rent them out, the better off the cities will be.

This might take the form of basement flats in New York, Shoup says. For instance, one setup could be a “richer family and a lower income young tenant, especially near universities. This allows for more diversity in a single-family neighbourhood – people who otherwise couldn’t afford to live in a good neighbourhood.”

If the numbers are any indication, garage conversions are becoming more and more mainstream. It could change the way we plan cities – and help us house all the people in them.

“It’s a bright spot,” Shoup says. “To think we spent so many years building a city around cars – now we can make it more around people.”

Bryan Lufkin is BBC Worklife's feature writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.