It’s been a home for decades but has only been legal for a few months

As a designer specializing in residential buildings, Luis Martinez lived this at home and has now made it his profession. His design company Studioo15 has grown significantly in the past two years as residents across Los Angeles used new state laws to add thousands of backyard units. But around half of his clients are people like his parents who want existing units to be legalized.

Bernardo and Tomasa Martinez, both in their early 60s, immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico in 1989. They worked in the low wage sector – she was a waitress; he was a laborer loading a truck – they settled in a two-bedroom house in South Los Angeles that was home to four families and 16 people. Luis Martinez, who crossed the border as a child, was surrounded by love and family, in a house where money was tight and there was no privacy.

Eventually the family was able to buy a small three-bedroom room in Boyle Heights, east Los Angeles. It stands on a block of fading houses with chain link fences in the front and a detached garage in the back. In order to supplement the family income, the Martinez converted the garage into a rental unit without a permit. Bernardo Martinez and a group of local artisans raised the floor and installed plumbing that led into the main house while Luis helped paint.

Luis recalls that nobody complained, probably because the neighbors were doing the same. “It was normal,” he said, “like ‘I live in the garage’ and some garages were nicer than others.”

Mr. Martinez attended East Los Angeles College after high school and then moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received an architecture degree in 2005. In the years after graduation, when the Great Recession broke out, his father lost his job and, after a period of unemployment, took a minimum wage job mowing the lawn on a golf course. To help with the bills, they rented the garage to Bernardo Martinez’s brother for $ 500 a month. With of the minimum wage, you cannot afford to pay a mortgage and groceries for everyone, ”said Tomasa Martinez.

Updated

Dec. 17, 2021, 5:39 p.m. ET

The point about informal housing is that it’s hard to spot – they’re built to avoid building authorities or anyone else who might be noticed from the street.

Jake Wegmann, professor of urban planning at the University of Texas at Austin, describes this as “horizontal density”, by which he means additions that use driveways and courtyards instead of climbing a second or third floor. Since neither the tenants nor the owners of these units want to be discovered, there is basically no representation of interests for illegal apartment hunters, even if the number of tenants nationwide easily runs into the millions.

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