Lessons from Los Angeles: The United States' Path to Regulating Accessory Dwelling Units

Lessons from Los Angeles: The United States' Path to Regulating Accessory Dwelling Units

Cities in the US are embracing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to address the nationwide housing crisis. Often built on existing single-family home lots, ADUs offer an affordable option for increasing housing availability in established neighborhoods. However, like any new housing development, effective regulations are critical for widespread adoption. Los Angeles has emerged as a testing ground in using ADUs to address its housing shortage, providing valuable insights for other cities. The city’s experience underlines the challenges of establishing regulations, while also promoting the benefits of ADUs as an affordable housing solution.

In 2017, a California law aimed at easing regulations for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) – basement suites, garage apartments, and backhouses – went into effect. The impact in Los Angeles was dramatic. Within two years, building permits for ADUs jumped by 30%, making up a significant one-fifth of all new housing permits issued. In stark contrast, big cities in other states like Seattle saw a much smaller impact, with ADUs making up only 2% of new housing permits during the same period.

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Across the country, ADU adoption has been slow. However, Los Angeles’ success suggests they implemented effective policies. This experience serves as a valuable blueprint for other cities struggling with housing shortages:


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Streamlining the Permitting Process

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One of the earliest hurdles faced by Los Angeles was the cumbersome and costly permitting process for ADU construction. Recognizing this barrier, the city streamlined the approval process, reducing fees and eliminating certain zoning restrictions. By simplifying the permitting requirements, Los Angeles made ADUs more accessible to a broader range of homeowners, encouraging greater participation in the program.

Addressing Neighborhood Concerns

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As ADUs became more prevalent in Los Angeles neighborhoods, concerns emerged regarding potential impacts on parking, privacy, and neighborhood character. To address these issues, the city implemented guidelines and standards to ensure that ADUs complemented their surroundings’ existing aesthetics and scale. These guidelines covered size limitations, setback requirements, and styles.

Regulating Short-Term Rentals

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A major concern in Los Angeles has been the potential for ADUs to become short-term rentals, further squeezing the already tight housing market. The city addressed this by implementing the Home Sharing Ordinance, which regulates short-term rentals in ADUs. This aims to strike a balance: ensuring ADUs remain a source of long-term, affordable housing while allowing homeowners some income from rentals.

Encouraging Affordability

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Los Angeles recognizes the potential impact of ADUs on affordability and has taken steps to encourage the creation of accessible housing options. The Backyard Homes Project provides a comprehensive package for homeowners willing to rent their ADUs to very low-income residents through Section 8 housing. This includes project management, affordable design and construction, and even landlord training – making the process more manageable. The LA ADU Accelerator Program connects homeowners with qualified older adults as tenants, offering stable rent payments and streamlining the process in exchange for affordable rent.

Los Angeles’ experience with regulating ADUs has been a learning curve, that offers valuable insights for other cities on similar paths. By addressing issues such as permitting, neighborhood compatibility, short-term rentals, affordability, and safety, Los Angeles has demonstrated the importance of comprehensive regulation in maximizing the benefits of ADUs while mitigating potential downsides.

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The housing crisis continues to grip the US, but Los Angeles offers valuable lessons for other cities. Their success with ADUs illustrates an effective mechanism for boosting housing supply and ensuring affordability. By implementing well-designed regulations and adapting to challenges, cities can experience the benefits of ADUs to solve housing crises.

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