by Bailey Porter
photography by Gloria Diaz

Charging only $650 per month, La Verne resident Mike Riggs has rented out his 400-square-foot garage apartments during the last 10 years without raising his price. Mostly single men and women have lived in the apartments, but there have been three families in residence, as well. / photo by Gloria Diaz

Charging only $650 per month, La Verne resident Mike Riggs has rented out his 400-square-foot garage apartments during the last 10 years without raising his price. Mostly single men and women have lived in the apartments, but there have been three families in residence, as well. / photo by Gloria Diaz

When Kathryn Pfaltzgraff Eller and her husband Enten moved to La Verne from Indiana a year ago, they found the perfect house: spacious living room, early 1900s charm and located on prestigious Third Street. And it came fully equipped with a 75-year-old man renting out the second unit on their property.

In a buyer’s market that has increased in value rapidly over the last few years, this was a true find. The white, wood-paneled home also had enough extra bedrooms to allow the couple to rent out rooms to others and take advantage of the need for housing in Southern California.

The Pfaltzgraff Eller house has become something like an international hostel. They rent out four of their five bedrooms for $565 each per month, and along with the second unit, this extra income helps supplement the cost of their new home. And the rooms are in high demand, especially for students in the fall. They had to turn six people away this fall because the rooms were already full.

They call it Gidan Salama International Rooming House (which means House of Welcome and Peace where Kathryn grew up in Nigeria). Lory Maleengam, a past ULV grad student, currently taking classes at Chaffey College, is from Thailand and has been renting for one year. A professor who recently got a job with the ULV College of Law is renting from the couple until he finds a house and his family can join him. Two men from Spain needed a place to stay for four months while they completed pilot training at Brackett Field Airport.

Enten says there are currently four to five businesses working out of the house. Enten was a team pastor with Kathryn for eight years, executive director of mediation services in Lafayette, Indiana, and ran his own computer service. Now that he is on disability for chronic fatigue, he dedicates a lot of time to the house, driving renters to the airport, lending them his computers or laptops or fixing theirs. “It’s just hard [for them] to do these things by themselves,” he says. He still maintains his computer service of 20 years. Kathryn is the part-time chaplain at Claremont Manor and is starting a business called Simple Blessings, which focuses on spiritual retreats and women’s circles.

“The cost of housing is so expensive. A year ago we bought our home for $480,000, and now it would go for $586,000,” Kathryn says. “That’s ridiculous, so more and more turn to renting back units.”

Back units. Back houses. Second units. Granny flats. Many names are given to this unique form of housing. The tradition of granny flats, or second units, added originally to accommodate a grandmother or family member separate from the main house, has continued over the years and is now holding its own as a viable answer to the housing question. And La Verne, a community fighting the same issues of high real-estate costs as most cities in California, is looking to optimize housing and quality of life by investing further time and interest in second units.

“The city is trying to allow for expansion without creating the mansionization of these older neighborhoods,” says Hal Fredericksen, La Verne community development director. “All of Southern California has experienced an increase in value over the last six years,” says Paula Johnson of Realty Benefit, whose listing on Third Street is now in escrow and comes with a second unit. “Specific to the downtown neighborhood, buyers are attracted to historical housing, established neighborhoods and the old town charm,” she says.

Recently, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the Steinberg Bill, legislation that would have tightened the state’s grip over cities’ control of second units. The La Verne City Council actively opposed what Fredericksen calls a “one size fits all” approach the Steinberg Bill would have taken. Instead, the city wants to continue to set regulations. Conditional use permits developed by La Verne Senior Planner Arlene B. Andrew involves its citizens in public hearings, regulates parking and size issues and discourages out-of-town speculators from building, Andrew says.

The city’s attention to detail with building permits has also impacted the family structure in La Verne. In a society constantly redefining what it means to be a family, second units and rentable rooms offer a new meaning. For example, Kathryn says her experience has been fascinating. With her own children grown, she says Lory is more like a daughter than someone paying for board. “It’s like one great, big family,” she says.

And Lory found in her renting situation a support system that she was missing when she first moved from Thailand and rented an apartment with some friends. “You get a family this way. They are my mom and dad—my second home. I have more friends here this way, and it’s better feeling more comfortable,” she says. “They have plenty of time for me,” she says, to which Kathryn answers, “You matter to us.”

Maria Wortham rented from the Pfaltzgraff Ellers when she and her dog, Big Guy, needed a temporary place to stay while her La Verne residence was being remodeled. Wortham now counts herself as a friend. “They’re community builders by nature. It was a difficult time to be out of my home, and it was great to have supportive people,” she says. It was necessary to find a place that would accept her dog, she says, and Big Guy fit right in with the resident dog, Bella, as well as several cats.

Early on, the Pfaltzgraff Ellers tried to have dinner together with the renters once a week. But as in most busy families, schedules conflicted. Instead, they try to share meals once a month. Kathryn says the 75-year-old renter has been invited to join in, but he is more of a recluse and has not taken them up on the offers. “The only time we hear from him is when he is watching football, and we hear ‘Yeah!’” Enten says with a smile.

Lory has cooked Thai dishes or other meals like curry, omelettes and rice for the group. “I cook a lot and can’t finish it myself so they help me,” she says. This open-kitchen policy has led to large holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving dinner last year when 18 people, including the couple’s family and renters, came together. They ate in the backyard to accommodate everyone. “My sons were able to come last year, but I don’t know if they can join us this year because I paid for their travel last time,” Kathryn says with a laugh.

Angela Kosbab finds renting from the couple a solution while she is establishing a business in La Verne. “La Verne is so expensive to start out,” she says. “Kathryn and Enten are nice, nice people, and they send us newsletters and invite us to gatherings.” She has converted part of their basement into a makeshift store displaying her scented candle products until she makes a name for her business in the city. “We all have to start little somewhere,” she says.

The only real drawback to a house full of renters is the lack of privacy, Kathryn says. “We get the biggest room,” she says. “I am somewhat of an introvert, believe it or not, and when I need time to myself, I have to go to my room.”

She says many people rent out rooms or second units to students because the University and other nearby colleges do not offer enough housing. She says this is more of a problem for graduate students since most undergraduates can find on-campus housing.

In the past, Ben Hines, long-time La Verne resident and landlord for 10 rental properties in close proximity to Old Town, rented some of his properties to his baseball players who opted to rent instead of live in the dorms for more independence. ”It was an oddity when it happened,” he says, but Hines would get the occasional three to four players renting a two-bedroom house. “And they may have gotten a little break,” he chuckles.

Similarly, the second unit on Mike Riggs’ property, which he rents to ULV students, proves beneficial to his growing family’s needs. Riggs, a teacher at Ramona Middle School, and his wife, Jenny, also a teacher at El Roble Intermediate School in Claremont, moved into their home on Second Street 10 years ago and found that the extra income from the second unit renter they inherited was the only way they could afford the house. It became more convenient when one renter became the nanny for their two children, now 3 and 6. He says the children enjoyed spending time in the nanny’s unit or playing in their backyard, which separates the Riggs’ house from the two units on the property.

“You can have kind of a close relationship with some renters,” says Riggs, who used to coach football at ULV. Recently, a past renter invited the Riggs to her wedding. She was a student at ULV when she started renting and stayed for four to six years, Riggs says. “I remember she used to say that [the second unit renters along the alley] formed a community calling themselves the ‘alley people,’ which I never knew.”

Renting a second unit can be positive for the renter and landlord, Riggs continues. There is no yard work for them, and it is easy for the renters to communicate with him if there are any problems. “We’re right here to unplug toilets,” he laughs. A single mom and Mt. San Antonio College student currently rent the units.

John Schrock rents a second unit near the Pfaltzgraff Ellers, which he calls “off the beaten path.” Being quiet-natured himself, he likes the lack of traffic and quiet atmosphere. John is adopting “Trooper,” a three-legged kitten who is taking up temporary residence with the Pfaltzgraff Ellers while he is being cared for by his rescuer, Lory.

Opening their home to strangers is not an issue for the Pfaltzgraff Ellers. But it does come with some risks. They experienced one case of a problem renter. “We knew there might be a problem because he had problems with drugs, but we really hoped to help him,” Kathryn says. Instead, the renter stole from them and did not pay his rent so he was asked to leave. After this, they installed combination code locks on their doors to assure their safety and the safety of their other renters. This way, past renters’ keys could not be used. Enten has worked on other features that are meant to help the renters, including a high-speed wireless Internet connection and an E-phone service for free calls in the United States and Canada.

The influx of renters in the area also increases the maintenance and upkeep of the properties, another slight downfall to renting second units, Ben Hines says; however, residents who rent out second units are subject to the same building codes and safety measures as others who seek approval for the remodeling of their personal homes. He says he knows three people who were turned down by the city and not allowed to continue with their plans to build second units because they did not meet the city’s building qualifications.

Hines says the new units popping up in many La Verne residents’ backyards are more attractive than some of the pre-existing ones. In fact, the conditional use permit lays out strict guidelines homeowners must adhere to when planning second units, according to the city planners. The additions have to be consistent with the architecture of the existing house, says Fredericksen. Property owners expect this and appreciate it because it maintains Old Town’s historic character and beauty, he says.

The apparent charm and practicality of second units does not threaten Hines. Instead, Hines sees the second units as an additional way to bring families into what he says is a small, unique environment. It has worked that way for Joe Fiero, who moved to La Verne with his family from neighboring Pomona two years ago. They were drawn to this similar idea of a unique environment. Fiero lives in a second unit on a property that houses four separate, rentable units.

Fiero, who works for an asphalt company, was attracted to the quiet neighborhood of Old Town La Verne. Extended family often comes to visit and share in the surroundings.

Renters in La Verne are a mixture of young families starting out and older couples. Hines says he rents one place to a ULV student, another to a young man who is studying medicine at a nearby college and other people already established in their professions. “Granny flats are a good idea because it’s the basis of making more property and housing available to low income families,” he says.

Enten Eller says living with renters who come and go, extend their stays or keep in touch once they move away allows for experiencing “different life perspectives and ways of looking at things.”

A lifelong resident of La Verne, Mike Riggs is one of many homeowners renting out second unit space behind his home on Third Street. One of his former residents worked as a nanny to his daughters in lieu of paying rent. / photo by Gloria Diaz

A lifelong resident of La Verne, Mike Riggs is one of many homeowners renting out second unit space behind his home on Third Street. One of his former residents worked as a nanny to his daughters in lieu of paying rent. / photo by Gloria Diaz