Florentine Christian

From working in construction as a kid to working in real estate as an adult and learning what was missing in the ADU industry, Florentine Christian, founder and CEO of Sidekick Homes, discovered she had what she needed to help fill that gap. Now Florentine and the team at Sidekick Homes are working diligently to smooth the way for their clients and others to build ADUs and address the housing crisis, help elders age in place and build financial resiliency from generation to generation.

ADU Magazine connected with Florentine about her background, passion, and organization. Following find selected highlights and excerpts of that Question & Answer Session.

It dawned on me; this was the moment. This was the big moment I felt like when Sidekick Homes was initially formed. I stepped back and I was like, you know what, no one here is going to do this, no one here is going to be the boots on the ground. Then I started looking at my life and my life experience up until that point, and I realized I have everything I need to do this. I mean, my life experience has set me up. What’s stopping me from going and being the solution in this space? That was really the moment when it occurred to me that you need to get out and do this.

– Florentine Christian

ADU Magazine: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Florentine Christian: I have a pretty broad background that has had me working for construction, construction suppliers, architecture, engineering, real estate, property management, commercial lending. So, I’ve worked in all of the periphery industries that affect ADUs, and then I also have a career background in training and organizational development and leadership. I feel like all the experience in my life has culminated to really prepare me for this journey that I’m on right now with Sidekick Homes and working within the ADU space.

ADU: How did you transition from your background into ADUs?

Florentine: I actually got my start in construction as a kid. My dad is a contractor, and so starting at age 14, that was how I earned my money to buy my school clothes and buy my first car. It was either work to earn that income or my school clothes were going to be t-shirts that said Christian Construction and Roofing. You know, that’s not cool for a high schooler. So, I had to work, and I worked with my dad, who was working in residential construction. By the time I graduated high school, I had gained experience in every aspect of residential construction, from pouring that initial foundation to installing the final finishes.

I had that great start and foundation, and my dad was not one who was wanting me to follow in the family footsteps. He wanted me to go to college. That was really big focus of his. I did. I went to college and really had more of a corporate life for a lot of my career, again, working in training and development and in leadership roles. I was a real estate salesperson and also the team leader at a Keller Williams Market Center when I really started looking into the ADU space.

I was at an event, it was a sustainable development event, and there were probably about 200 or 300 people in the room. I remember that a lot of the conversation was around how to create regulation to force developers to do this or force developers to do that as it relates to sustainable housing. And I felt like the developers were kind of being painted as the bad guys, and in my mind, they’re one of the key people that are responsible for helping us create much-needed housing. I felt like the developers ought to be represented. They should be part of the conversation, not necessarily made out to be the bad guy.

I remember I stood up at that meeting at one point and said, “you know, we’re talking about legislation here, but we already have this amazing legislation that has passed.” This was prior to the legislation that just passed, went into effect in 2020, so this was probably 2018. We have this great legislation that has passed that enables every homeowner in the state pretty much to build in their backyards. I said, what we need right now is not so much new legislation as boots on the ground. We have a lack of skilled tradespeople. We need tradespeople, we need lending vehicles to enable homeowners to be able to afford to build. We need to get the word out, because up until this point, in most cities here in Southern California, homeowners were punished for building a second unit.

So many people have had either a very punishing story themselves that cost them a lot of money or they’ve heard a story from somebody they know where they’ve been punished, and it’s cost them extensively for having an unpermitted unit in their backyard. So, to now try and get everyone to do the opposite of what we’ve been doing up until now, there needs to be public information. I was really going from the standpoint of we need to take action. What’s needed is action, not just more laws to control developers.

At the time, I was in real estate. I wasn’t trying to get into the ADU space, I was just trying to have my voice be heard. But then after I stood up and said what I had to say, I was imagining that I would have people being like, “Yeah! Let’s go do this thing!” And that’s not what happened. What happened is they went back to talking about how to bully the developers into doing this and doing that. I thought for sure, at lunch, someone would be like “Hey, let’s do this!” But no, no one was interested.

It dawned on me; this was the moment. This was the big moment I felt like when Sidekick Homes was initially formed. I stepped back and I was like, you know what, no one here is going to do this, no one here is going to be the boots on the ground. Then I started looking at my life and my life experience up until that point, and I realized I have everything I need to do this. I mean, my life experience has set me up. What’s stopping me from going and being the solution in this space? That was really the moment when it occurred to me that you need to get out and do this.

Then there was a lot of research that went into figuring out how to set this business up, what was needed in this phase, what was the gap between clients’ expectations, and what was currently being delivered by professionals in the space. So that was probably about a good year and a half of just diving deep into the ADU space and seeing what was going on before we actually launched Sidekick.

ADU: Then in terms of the legislation and helping to advance the ADU industry, how has Sidekick Homes participated?

Florentine: We’ve had our toes in a number of things. I am a member of the Casita Coalition, and I do sit on a couple of the working groups on the Casita Coalition. One is really targeted at helping homeowners locate qualified ADU design, build, and lender professionals. Another working group is really focused on government code and making sure that city planners are knowledgeable about that government code and also potentially advising on future code.

I sit as a member of those two committees. But we’ve been really active with educating cities, especially as we’re submitting plans. I’ll say about half the time when we submit plans to the city, they come back with corrections that actually are not allowed by state law. Oftentimes, these are very costly, to the tune of thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars for a homeowner. What we do is work to educate the cities, and in a number of cases, we’ve been able to change how cities are reviewing ADUs through the cases that they deal with, with us.

For example, we had a city that was requiring fire sprinklers for ADUs, because they are required for new build construction, but they’re not required for ADUs if the main house has fire sprinklers. We were able to save a homeowner $10,000-15,000 on fire sprinklers that were otherwise going to be required. We had a city that whenever a homeowner would convert the attached garage in the front of the house, they wanted the driveway eliminated. And I had heard from other ADU colleagues in the space that this city was requiring people to remove the driveway as part of their condition for approving the ADU plans. We were able to come back and demonstrate that they can’t require that. Not only did that help our clients, but it helps everyone who comes after that.

Oftentimes, it’s not just my say-so that gets the change made. A lot of times I have to bring in support from colleagues in the ADU space who work for HCD or some of the attorneys in the ADU space to back us up. Obviously, we have an interest. We’re representing a client who is trying to get plans approved. So sometimes, we have to pull in a third party with a higher level of authority to help make that change.

Just by doing consultations with clients and reviewing cities’ ordinances, we’ve been instrumental in getting ordinances changed where the city’s ordinance doesn’t comply with the ADU law and the state ADU code. Again, that usually requires getting somebody else involved, getting either HCD or an ADU attorney involved to be able to write a letter to the cities to educate them on how the ordinance is not meeting the code.

There’s kind of a web within the ADU industry of colleagues and partners. In a kind of an informal way, we have had to figure out how to work together to help get everybody online with the new state mandates. I don’t for one bit blame the city planning departments, because the state law is not necessarily written in the most clear manner. There’s a lot of gray area. There are a lot of parts that are easily misunderstood. The cities I know have worked hard to put ordinances in place before 2020, and then 2020 rolled around, and then their new ordinance had to be completely altered. I know cities have been putting in a lot of work around figuring out what to do around ADUs and keeping their constituents happy.

So, kudos to the city planning departments for all the work that they have been doing around ADUs. I just want to put that caveat in there that we very much see the planning departments as our partners and are happy to do whatever we can to support them with having an ordinance that meets the standards.

ADU: Let’s talk about the challenges that you’ve experienced and then the opportunities you see in the space?

A Florentine: What are the challenges? The challenges are many. I think one of the things that’s challenging for homeowners is knowing where to start. Building an ADU is pretty much a custom home build, and most homeowners have no building experience. Many don’t even have experience with a remodel, which is a much smaller scale than building a custom home. Even when you’re doing a garage conversion, you’re pretty much building a custom home, because the garage has to be retrofitted in so many ways to accommodate for that. I just think it’s a big challenge for homeowners because they’ve never taken on this kind of an endeavor before.

I think financing is also a challenge. It’s hard to find one source of financing. Oftentimes people are having to depend on a few different sources of funding for their ADU project. One big issue in the lending environment has to do with appraisals and that there hasn’t been a consistent way of appraising properties with ADUs. This leads to a number of challenges from the standpoint of when you go to sell a property with an ADU and the market wants to pay a certain value, but the appraisers not giving it that value simply because they have to look at the past. They have to look at historical information.
Meanwhile, we’re part of this tsunami wave of something new. It’s not showing up in the past, it’s the future. So, they’re really struggling with determining value for ADUs and doing that in a fair way. That affects when people go to sell a property with an ADU, but it also affects when someone’s trying, for example, to get a renovation loan to build their ADU, and the renovation loan is based on the future value of the property. After the ADU is built, the future value is going to be based upon an appraisal and what an appraiser believes the value will be after the home is built. So, appraisals and financing have been a big obstacle for ADUs. And I’m sure you’ve heard that from other people as well.

Another challenge that we’re facing is the skilled labor shortage that we’re seeing in Los Angeles. There are a few things that have gone into this. First of all, back in the last recession, back in like 08-10, there was a big drop in homebuilding in construction. The Los Angeles market didn’t recover as quickly as other markets, and so we lost a lot of tradespeople to other markets, where the jobs came online a little bit faster. That was one thing.

Another factor that’s been affecting our skilled labor is that we have people retiring from the trades and not enough new people coming in to fill their shoes. That’s a big issue. And then in Los Angeles, we’re in a unique situation in that our city right now is preparing for the World Cup, the Super Bowl, and the Olympics. We have a lot of big commercial infrastructure projects going on. We have a $6 billion airport renovation underway. If anyone’s been to the LA airport recently, there’s a ton of production. We’ve got a $3 billion Clippers stadium being built in Inglewood. There’s the development happening at the LA waterfront. In San Pedro, we’ve got billions of dollars worth of light rail infrastructure that’s being built. In the state of California, we’re trying to get our 3.5 million units of housing built by 2025. So, we’ve got apartment buildings being built. What’s happening is all of our skilled trades people, plumbers, or electricians or HVAC techs, pretty much everybody, want the commercial jobs.

So, there’s not a lot of labor left to do these skilled trades jobs for something like an ADU, which is considered a very small project for a good plumber, electrician, HVAC tech, etc. So we don’t have a huge pool to pull from. The people that are well-qualified to get the job done are all charging premium prices, and it’s hard to get them on schedule.

In my mind, this is one of the biggest issues we face. I think it’s really interesting how our studies are focusing on helping get premade ADU plans to save homeowners on the permitting costs or on bridge financing for ADU loans. And I feel like one of the least expensive things we could be doing that could impact the cost, the affordability of ADUs and how quickly we can get them built would recruiting people into the trades and getting them trained.

What I would really love to see is more women recruited into the trades. Women make up 9% of workers in construction, and most of those jobs are more HR and accounting type jobs. I would love to see women coming into the trades jobs. They’re sustainable, good-paying jobs. A lot of times you can get paid to get your education rather than taking on huge student loans. I think they’re great jobs.

I think there’s also opportunity for people who are looking for a second chance in life, maybe people who are formerly incarcerated or people who are coming back from serving in our armed services who have a lot of great skill and discipline and dedication, and they may be just need to be retooled for a new career as they move into civilian life. I think we have people who are looking for a new opportunity. Even high school and college grads, I think it’s a smart option right now with the cost of college tuition as high as it is.

It’s an opportunity to create good local jobs, because construction is not something easily outsourced. Even construction that’s done in factories, even our prefab ADUs, they still have to be built relatively close by. We’re not shipping houses from China right now. They’re not getting stuck on ships in the Suez Canal. Homes are being built locally, and so there’s a huge opportunity for local jobs.

ADU: What then excites you about ADUs?

Florentine: I see ADUs as being the solution to a number of social and environmental challenges. First of all, of course, we all know ADUs create housing, which is great. We need more housing. In order for housing to be affordable, there needs to be more of it. I do feel like it contributes to the housing shortage, and also the housing crisis where we have affordability.

Before COVID, I remember reading the LA Unified School District was considering opening up their parking lots to families to be able to park there overnight so that their students who were living in their cars would have a safe place to be at night. It really struck me that wow, homelessness is at such a rate that we have working families who are living in their cars right now and not just one here or there. There’s such an issue that a whole school district is considering this as a policy. So, I’m very keenly aware that we need housing, and I think that’s a motivation for a lot of people.

But I also see ADUs as doing other things that support our communities. I think they’re an amazing opportunity for the middle class, as well. I feel like in recent decades, the middle class has very much had the rug pulled out from under them. It’s a great way for someone who maybe owns a home, but might not be able to afford a second rental property, to be able to dip their toe into this idea of passive income and having real estate that produces income.

I really feel like it creates financial resiliency. People talk about generational wealth, but I’d love to just get to a place of generational financial resiliency. I think that having that second unit provides that. Whether it’s creating that rental income that can be that extra income to support a family, to prepare for retirement, to pay for college education, whatever it is. Or having a family member live there, and living there for a much more cost-effective way than if they were paying market rent somewhere.

I know from my personal experience, when I graduated college, I was able to live with my grandma in her house for a couple of years while I saved up to put a down payment on my first house when I was 24 years old. But that wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have a grandma who had a spare bedroom for me to stay in.

I just see how my grandma’s ownership of a house that had some extra space really set me up and set many other members of my family up to be financially resilient because of the extra space that she had for family members to live in. I also see a lot of multigenerational living, which I think is just good for the psychosocial wellbeing of families. When little kids get to grow up with their grandparents, and the grandparents aren’t having to suffer from loneliness in their older years when they’re retired and living by themselves, I just think from a psychosocial standpoint it’s amazing for families.

And then the last thing that really excites me about ADUs is that it keeps rental income circulating in the communities where people live. So oftentimes, what happens, especially in lower-income areas, is that a lot of people are renters, and a lot of apartment buildings are owned by people who don’t necessarily live in that low-income area. They maybe live in another neighborhood, maybe another state, maybe another country. So, what happens is the rental income – which, for a lot of people, the majority of their income and their highest monthly expense is the rent that they pay – all of that income goes to the rent and then leaves the community and goes somewhere else.

The great opportunity that I see with ADUs is that when people have units in their backyard where they live, a lot of that rental income then stays in the local community and it continues to circulate in the local community. And in this way, it supports local communities. It supports the communities where people live. That’s one of the most exciting things for me about ADUs and working with homeowners is the social change that I feel like it really contributes to.

ADU: Looking forward a bit, what do you see is kind of the next big thing for ADUs?

Florentine: I feel like we’re in the midst of the current big thing. Personally, I’m really looking at new funding models, potential bridge financing for homeowners just to have the means to build, and then they can refinance after the property gets built. But I’m really looking forward to better financing models for people to be able to build.

You know, right now, I think most of us that are in the ADUs space can barely keep up with the workload, just help the people who can afford to build. But I’m really excited for the people who, if they just had that bridge financing, they’d be able to get the job done. And those are probably the people that would benefit the most. They would experience the biggest change in their life from having an ADU, and they’re probably the people that the financing, the affordability, is just barely out of their grasp. So I’m looking forward to better financing options and maybe some new and innovative ways of getting these ADUs financed.

ADU: Is there anything you wanted to add?

Florentine: I would just like to tell you just a little bit about Sidekick Homes and what our approach is. Prior to launching Sidekick Homes, I talked to a number of people in the industry. I had contractors come over to my house and tell me what I could build in my backyard. I talked to a lot of the people in the industry.

The big thing that I saw that was really missing was really a beginning-to-end service and a way to help homeowners through the whole experience, because they’ve never been through it before. Contractors have built a lot of properties, and designers have designed a lot of properties, and they know how things work, but the homeowner oftentimes knows nothing. What I saw is it’s really important for the homeowner to have a trusted guide, who number one really knows the ADU laws and can advocate for them, especially when getting their plans approved by the city or when inspectors are out on-site telling us we need to do things a certain way. They really, really need an advocate.

But also, they need someone that can make the process seamless and as easy as possible. Construction is a big undertaking. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. It costs a lot of money. There’s a lot involved with it. It’s a complicated process, and the typical ADU is going to probably have a good 20-25 people working on it when all is said and done. It’s a big undertaking. So, one of the big things that we’re focused on is the client experience and just making sure from beginning to end that the client has communication and that they know what’s going on.

We have a portal that our clients can log in and basically see behind the scenes. It’s our project management portal. They can see everything that we’re working on their project, so they really feel like they know what’s happening. We also do consultations at the beginning of our projects that are really geared at helping them understand fully what they can do on the project and helping them figure out what makes the most sense for their project. We do cost calculators; we’ll run different scenarios for people just to help people tease out what’s going to best help them meet their goals.

So, whereas I was finding a lot of people in the space who’re just wanting to come in and build a box, we’re trying to understand why is this important to you? How are you going to use this? How does this affect your life in the medium as well as in the long-term future? And sometimes, it helps us come up with ideas for their ADU that people hadn’t even considered. They’re things that they should include that they hadn’t even thought of. I really feel like yes, we’re a design-build company, and also, we’re a consultant that’s trying to get them the best outcome for their life goals.

So I would just say that, I just think the way in which we’re going about having an ADU business, I think matters. We have gotten feedback, especially from women clients, that they feel heard and respected by us in a way that they don’t often feel that men in construction regard them. Sometimes women feel like they’re easily taken advantage of, or they have fears of being taken advantage of, and so their mind is at ease working with a woman who listens to them.

I’m a big encourager of women in the construction space in general. I think there’s a huge need for it. I think there’s a huge space for it. I would just encourage any woman that’s thinking about getting into the trades or getting into construction to seriously go for it. Because our voices are needed, we tend to do things a little bit differently, and I think it matters to people.

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Colleen Valles is an award-winning writer who helps organizations tell their sustainability stories. After nearly a decade spent as a reporter, which included covering environmental issues for the Associated Press, she turned her research and writing skills toward communications in complex industries including housing and land use, water, transportation, energy and education. Colleen has written a variety of content for publications, public and private organizations, executives and elected officials, always with an eye toward making complicated issues engaging and relatable. Her work combines the two things she's passionate about: writing and making the world a better place.


Colleen Valles is an award-winning writer who helps organizations tell their sustainability stories. After nearly a decade spent as a reporter, which included covering environmental issues for the Associated Press, she turned her research and writing skills toward communications in complex industries including housing and land use, water, transportation, energy and education. Colleen has written a variety of content for publications, public and private organizations, executives and elected officials, always with an eye toward making complicated issues engaging and relatable. Her work combines the two things she's passionate about: writing and making the world a better place.