Sharing the American Dream Through Granny Flats and Garage Units

Urban Planning Professor Vinit Mukhija joined the podcast UCLA Housing Voice in a two-episode appearance focused on how American neighborhoods are being reshaped by the addition of living spaces to existing lots. Often unpermitted, these spaces run the gamut from a fully appointed backyard unit to a storage shed used for shelter. Mukhija’s new book, “Remaking the American Dream,” shows how single-family living has been transformed to meet the growing demand for adequate housing. He delves into the issue with podcast hosts Shane Phillips of the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and Paavo Monkkonen, UCLA Luskin professor of urban planning and public policy. Their expansive conversation includes an assessment of state and local government efforts to bring unregulated housing out of the shadows and encourage the construction of permitted accessory dwelling units. Policies that increase housing density, Mukhija says, allow more people to share the American Dream by “sharing single family lots, … sharing neighborhoods, sharing cities, sharing suburbs.”


What Large Metropolises Can Learn From Ghettos and Granny Flats

Urban planning professor Vinit Mukhija is known around the globe for his shrewd insights into what shantytowns and other self-built neighborhoods can teach large metropolises about smart urban planning. With its shortage of affordable housing, Los Angeles can benefit from the pragmatism and ingenuity emanating from these “informal” developments, Mukhija told UCLA Magazine. “I wanted to make better cities, where people are better to each other. And this means taking the best of what economically disadvantaged people build for themselves — slums or ghettos or, as in L.A., unpermitted developments within existing homes,” Mukhija said. His research suggests that, of the more than half-million single-family houses in the city of Los Angeles, at least 50,000 of them have some kind of accessory dwelling unit, many unpermitted. “Instead of trying to wipe them out, we should be bringing them into the mainstream,” he said. In the magazine profile, Mukhija also speaks of planners around the globe who think about the design of a community rather than a single dazzling building. And he offers guidance to governments grappling with the dearth of affordable housing: Provide property owners with grants and loans to upgrade their informal units to safe levels in return for a guarantee that they will not increase rents on any tenants for several years. Also needed: the construction of social housing, as “we cannot expect cities to become inclusive, magically, by themselves.”

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Mukhija on the Complex Challenges of Easing the Housing Crunch

“Can subdividing the American dream fix the problem of unaffordability?” That question is posed in a New Republic review of the latest book by urban planning professor Vinit Mukhija, which focuses on the informal, un-permitted units that have proliferated on single-family home lots, providing needed shelter amid an intractable affordable housing crisis. Los Angeles alone has about 50,000 of these un-permitted second units, Mukhija estimates in “Remaking the American Dream: The Informal and Formal Transformation of Single-Family Housing Cities.” Unless more housing is built, we will see more un-permitted units, some of them unsafe, the book argues. It also emphasizes that we must invest in and upgrade existing informal housing units, which play a vital role in expanding affordable options for shelter. As the review notes, “A quiet housing revolution is taking place. But if policymakers don’t adapt to the new construction, the changing market is likely to reproduce the same instability and abuse that poor tenants currently suffer.”


Creating More Inclusive Cities Through Just Urban Design

“Just Urban Design: The Struggle for a Public City,” co-edited by urban planning faculty members Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Kian Goh and Vinit Mukhija, includes writings by urban planners, sociologists, anthropologists, architects and landscape architects who focus on the role and scope of urban design in creating more just and inclusive cities. Published by MIT Press, the book seeks to strengthen “the potential of cities and city regions to foster inclusive urban public life” by envisioning how to deliver social, spatial and environmental justice in cities. Too often, the opposite is true — the concept of justice rarely appears as an explicit concern in urban design discourse and design practice. “Market-driven urbanism of the last decades has exacerbated injustice through privatization, gentrification, displacement and exclusion,” the editors say. By focusing on justice, urban design scholars and practitioners can reinvigorate their work and help create public cities that are attuned to power dynamics and attentive to the historically vulnerable and disadvantaged.


Mukhija on Bringing Un-Permitted Housing Out of the Shadows

A Los Angeles Times editorial calling on city leaders to make it easier to legalize backyard homes cited research by urban planning professor Vinit Mukhija, an authority on the informal economy of un-permitted housing units. Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are a relatively easy way for Los Angeles to add more housing at a lower cost. L.A. had at least 50,000 un-permitted secondary units on single-family lots in 2014, according to research by Mukhija, author of “Remaking the American Dream,” a new book on the transformation of an urban landscape once dominated by single-family homes. While recent state laws have eased the process of legalizing ADUs that were built without a permit, regulations in the city of Los Angeles continue to be complicated, time-consuming and expensive, the editorial maintained. It urged city leaders to do everything in their power to help property owners bring their un-permitted units and tenants out of the shadows.


New Book by Mukhija Redefines Single-Family Living and the American Dream

A new book by urban planning professor Vinit Mukhija tracks the evolution of single-family living, once held up as an expression of American individuality and prosperity but now under reexamination as homeowners modify their property in response to economic, social and cultural demands. In “Remaking the American Dream: The Informal and Formal Transformation of Single-Family Housing Cities,” published by MIT Press, Mukhija uses Los Angeles as a case study and includes lessons from Santa Cruz, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and Vancouver. Across the U.S. and in other countries, homeowners are building backyard cottages, converting garages, basements and recreation rooms, and carving out independent dwellings from their homes to increase and diversify the housing supply. In addition to such un-permitted “informal housing,” some governments are modifying once-rigid land-use regulations to encourage the construction of additional units on lots formerly zoned for a single home. These trends have resulted in a transformation of both the urban landscape and the American psyche, Mukhija writes. He urges planners, urban designers, and local and state elected officials to broaden their thinking on housing options, particularly for disadvantaged groups. “After almost a century of public policy and cultural support for an ideology of single-family housing homeownership, there is a growing recognition that the social, economic and environmental cost of single-family living may outweigh its benefits,” Mukhija writes. “I see the potential for a more open, diverse, just and sustainable American city.”


Mukhija, González on Legalizing Informal Housing Units

Urban Planning Professor Vinit Mukhija and Latino Policy and Politics Initiative research director Silvia González were featured in a New York Times article about the prevalence of informal housing units nationwide. The affordable housing crisis has prompted people of every income level to decide to build themselves, creating a vast informal housing market that accounts for millions of units. “This is one of the most significant sources of affordable housing in the country,” Mukhija said. Priced out of many housing options, many renters choose unpermitted living situations that are unsafe or overcrowded, González said. Legalizing informal housing would make units safer, add value to homes and give tenants the security of a sanctioned unit, she said. González participated in research for the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful that found that informal units can help combat gentrification by creating low-cost housing and allowing families to pool resources.

Mukhija on Shortcomings of Housing Relief

Professor of Urban Planning Vinit Mukhija spoke to the New York Times about the failures of the federal housing relief packages created during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, Congress created a $46.5 billion fund for emergency rental assistance, one of the biggest infusions in federal housing aid in generations. However, resistance from landlords and difficulties navigating the informal housing market made it difficult for residents to access aid packages, and much of the aid is unspent. The relief package did not account for informal and un-permitted housing arrangements, including subletters and roommates whose claim to their space often isn’t documented. “There’s a completely hidden story about how do we access millions of tenants that are in un-permitted units,” Mukhija said. In Los Angeles County, there are an estimated 200,000 illegal housing units, highlighting the contrast between the low-income rental market and the rest of the housing market.

Mukhija Highlights Difficulties in Fixing Unpermitted Housing

Urban Planning Professor Vinit Mukhija shared his expertise on unpermitted housing units in Los Angeles on KPCC’s “Take Two” and in an LAist article. In 2019, there were more than 2,700 violations associated with unpermitted housing, but citations for these units plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving tenants in unsafe living conditions. “Unpermitted housing is very common in the city of L.A.,” Mukhija said. “People end up in illegal units because public housing assistance is extremely limited and L.A. wages haven’t kept up with skyrocketing rents for legal units.” Mukhija said many people end up “living wherever they can find housing they can afford.” The Unpermitted Dwelling Units program, created to bring units up to code, has failed to make a large difference. “I am very happy that instead of shutting down the units, the city is trying to preserve them,” Mukhija told “Take Two” in a segment beginning at minute 22:20. “But this is a difficult task.”

Mukhija on New Backyard Homes Project

Professor of Urban Planning Vinit Mukhija spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the launch of the Backyard Homes Project, a new initiative that aims to address the affordable housing crisis in Los Angeles. Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are becoming more popular since state regulations have eased. The Backyard Homes Project, led by the nonprofit LA Más, aims to provide homeowners with affordable design and construction of ADUs if they agree to rent the units to Section 8 voucher holders for at least five years. The goal of the program is to confront high housing prices by making ADU rentals affordable and helping low- and moderate-income homeowners become landlords. “We are nowhere near running out of space for housing in most American cities, including L.A.,” said Mukhija, who also serves as a board member at LA Más. He welcomed the incubation of new ideas in a city that’s long been known for advances in residential design.