As a designer specializing in residential structures, Luis Martinez experienced this at home and has now made it his career. His design company, Studioo15, has grown over the past two years as Los Angeles residents used new state laws to add thousands of garden units. Yet about half of his clients, he said, are people like his parents who want existing units legalized.

Bernardo and Tomasa Martinez, both in their early 60s, immigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles in 1989. Working in the low-wage service industry – she was a waitress; he worked as a laborer loading a truck – they moved into a two bedroom house in South Los Angeles that had 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 privacy nonexistent.

Eventually, the family was able to purchase a small three bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights, east Los Angeles. It sits on a block of faded houses that have chain link fences in the front and a detached garage in the back. To supplement the family income, the Martinez converted the garage into unlicensed rental accommodation. Bernardo Martinez and a group of local DIY enthusiasts lifted the floor and installed the plumbing that supplied the main house, while Luis helped paint.

Luis remembers that no one 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, then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with an architecture degree in 2005. In the years following graduation. After graduating, when the Great Recession hit, her father lost his job and, after a spell 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 per month. With minimum wage, you can’t afford to pay a mortgage and food for everyone, ”said Tomasa Martinez.

The point of informal housing is that it is difficult to see – it is built to escape the zoning authorities or anyone else who might notice it from the street.

Jake Wegmann, professor of town planning at the University of Texas at Austin, describes this as “horizontal density,” by which he means additions that use walkways and yard space, instead of going up a second or a third floor. Because the tenants and owners of these units don’t want to be discovered, there is essentially no advocacy for the dwellers in illegal housing, even though the number of tenants easily reaches millions nationwide.


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