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How to Deal With Garage Housing Units


The death of a Sun Valley woman and her two granddaughters in a fire that trapped them in an illegal garage apartment has left community leaders, city officials and affordable-housing advocates struggling to find answers.

Last week, Councilman Richard Alarcon called for the creation of a task force to study ways to make the city's estimated 50,000 to 100,000 illegal garage dwellings safer.

Forcing landlords to pay to make such structures legal could simply drive such families, who cannot afford any other housing, into the street.

What alternatives are there for the poor families living in garages?

Jan Breidenbach, executive director of Southern California Assn. for Non-Profit Housing:

"It depends on how short term and how long term you want to consider. . . . The problem with living in a garage is they are not homes. They are not meant to be dwellings. . . . People shouldn't be living in garages in the first place."

Jeff Farber, director of programming for L.A. Family Housing Corp.:

"I think what he's [Alarcon] doing makes sense in that these are the city departments that need to look at the issue. . . . [But] we have accepted the fact that people are living in garages in the city of Los Angeles. That, I think, is part of the problem. . . . I don't think . . . rehabilitating the garages is an answer to the problems of a lack of housing. . . . If the city is going to assist to fix garages to bring them into code, I can't understand why they don't use that same money to build more affordable housing."

Robin Hughes, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Design Center:

"A lot of people talk about the high housing vacancy rates in Los Angeles, but usually they're talking about one- and two-bedroom units and the people in need are large families. . . . I think we're living in an economy where the costs of housing are increasing and where the wages and income levels are not increasing at the same rate. . . . How do we get to the level where people can afford the housing? . . . There are . . . creative ways of using housing stock, for instance, older buildings and bank REOs [real estate owned property], that would be bought and refurbished as affordable housing."

Melanie Stephens, assistant director of the Esperanza Community Housing Corp.:

"Absolutely, there is an alternative, and that alternative is affordable housing. The mayor's office looks at the issue of people living in garages as a code enforcement issue, not as an affordable housing issue. . . . But we know from experience there are alternatives for families. . . . We at Esperanza Community Housing Corp. have had a lot of experience of opening up a new building and having people move in from the immediate community who had been living doubled and tripled up and living in garages. . . . That kind of housing makes an enormous difference in their lives and there needs to be a lot more of it."

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