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Even a Starchitect’s Homeless Housing Project Won’t Sway Venice Beach NIMBYs

Cyclists pass homeless encampments along the bike path in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. Photo: Jim Ruymen/UPI/Shutterstock

“The first thing I want to say is that there are hundreds and hundreds of people who live in Venice who support what we’re doing,” says Becky Dennison, executive director of Venice Community Housing, when she meets me on Venice Boulevard a block from the Pacific Ocean on a gloomy June morning. To the south is the Venice Beach seen in postcards: the scenic canals fronting bougainvillea-fringed yards, reflections of arched bridges forming perfect ellipses in the still water, canoes and rowboats clustered appealingly along narrow pedestrian walkways. When we turn 180 degrees to face the north, however, the view is decidedly less picturesque. Here, occupying some of the most valuable real estate in the country, is a massive, rippling 2.65-acre expanse of asphalt: two parking lots, connected by a bridge built a century ago for streetcars, rising over a boat ramp that’s one of the only public access points for the Grand Canal, where a half-submerged canoe bobs among empty plastic bottles. It seems inevitable, in a neighborhood with construction crews sculpting glass-balconied mansions seemingly on every block — average home sale price: $1.65 million — that this won’t remain a blacktop wasteland for long. This particular lot, however, is owned by the city of Los Angeles, which has turned the property over to Dennison’s nonprofit to develop a $75 million affordable housing project. Yet, perhaps not unexpectedly, a small group of Venice homeowners are planning to sue to stop it, hoping to contest the legality of a state law that allows affordable housing projects to skip environmental review.

The plans Dennison lays out are ambitious: 140 apartments for formerly homeless residents, low-income families, and local artists; storefronts including a cafe; a theater named for longtime Venice resident Gregory Hines; a revitalized canal with improved public access; and — very importantly, notes Dennison — a parking structure for double the capacity of the surface lot today. The project, named the Reese-Davidson Community after Venice Community Housing’s co-founder Rick Davidson and Arthur Reese, the first Black homeowner in Venice, is briskly moving forward; it was approved by the city’s planning commission a month ago. But the argument from the opponents, according to their website, is that the Reese-Davidson Community is the latest effort to turn Venice into a “homeless containment zone” by building “hundreds of units of free housing for life on some of the most desirable lots in the world.” They want a 43,000-square-foot, 600-space parking garage on this desirable lot instead. This is not the first legal action that these Venice homeowners have taken to stop homeless housing. In 2019, many of the same people raised over $200,000 in an attempt to stop a 154-bed bridge shelter from being built nearby. (Before construction was completed, a device made to look like a bomb was found on the site.) The bridge shelter opened in February 2020, just before the city locked down for the coronavirus pandemic, and although it was designed for temporary stays, some people have lived there for over a year, as there is no permanent housing available for them to move into. Part of the reason for that, says Dennison, is because of intense neighborhood opposition to any homeless housing projects over the last few decades. “In VCH’s 30-plus year history, we’ve only been able to build from the ground up in Venice two times,” she says. “So even when things were affordable here, we were largely doing housing preservation, and doing new construction in other neighborhoods.” I ask why she thinks NIMBYs have such a powerful hold on Venice. “This is true across coastal California,” she says. “Privilege and money buys access, which is why VCH was formed.” But don’t call them NIMBYs — it’s too nice, she says. “These are segregationists.”

According to 2020 data, Venice has nearly 2,000 unhoused residents, the highest-density population outside downtown’s Skid Row. Until recently, about 200 of them lived along the Venice Boardwalk, where tents and improvised structures have long co-existed among the drum circle participants, skateboarders, and sidewalk wind-chime vendors — some of whom are themselves unhoused, and reside right here on the beach. Two weeks ago, L.A. city councilmember Mike Bonin secured $5 million to place all 200 people living on the boardwalk into hotels and motels as part of a broader strategy to add more interim housing options to his district; so far, 104 people have been temporarily housed. This week, in the darkness of early mornings, the city has begun issuing a last-call for shelter to those who haven’t yet relocated, as tents are cleared by law enforcement, block by block, and an eviction date nears when people will no longer be allowed to sleep on the beach.

But the key word is “shelter.” L.A. recently purchased a Ramada hotel in the neighborhood that will be converted into 33 permanent units for a fraction of the former boardwalk residents, which is a good step, but it’s not enough to make up for over a decade of affordable housing loss, says Lisa Redmond of the Venice Catholic Worker. She’s wearing a shirt that reads JESUS WAS HOMELESS when we have lunch at a nearby taqueria. “The contrast here of wealth and poverty is so extreme that you’ve got people living right up against brand-new multi-million-dollar homes,” she says. “You go to these meetings and every project is another new development that’s a tear down of a two-unit, three-unit, four-unit building. Maybe they might be putting multiple units to replace it, but rent is $5,400 a month.” Redmond stops herself. “I’m not knocking people that want to buy homes,” she says. “But I am knocking the way they change the dynamics of a community. People say they want to leave it exactly the same — except tear down little bungalow apartments for their big concrete boxes.”

In 2019, an anti-homeless rant by a Venice homeowner made international headlines, describing a street taken over by “tent cities” with “vagrants moved in en masse.” It came from John Lydon — better known as Johnny Rotten, the frontman for the Sex Pistols, who once sang I wanna be anarchy / In the city — and it was held up as evidence for how much Venice’s ultra-moneyed class had deviated from its former identity. For most of the past century, Venice was one of the last affordable enclaves along a coast lined with exclusionary beachfront cities, a quirky haven for freewheeling artists who spent as much time in the surf as in the studio. In many ways, the Reese-Davidson Community manages to forge a connection between that past and the tenuous status quo. It’s designed by the firm of Eric Owen Moss, one of seven local architects in a legendary photo taken on Venice Beach in 1980 which has come to symbolize the neighborhood’s anti-establishment roots. Moss is standing in the sand alongside designers whose avant-garde work garnered the community international fame, including Frank Gehry, who would place a building shaped like a pair of oversized binoculars as a kind of architectural bookend at the neighborhood’s northern edge a decade later. (It’s now owned by Google.) The Reese-Davidson renderings fuse that funkier ’70s and ’80s architecture with Moss’s M.C. Escher-meets-Beetlejuice vibe, where angular carve-outs playfully peel away from the volumes to create balconies, hidden terraces, and a three-story crow’s nest jutting out towards the sea. It’s a low-rise deconstructivist sand castle that dissolves nearly seamlessly into the landscape, almost reverse-engineered to satisfy Venice’s legacy of high design while allowing families who have been displaced by Venice’s legacy of high rents to move back to the beach.

According to the city planning department’s just-released Plan to House LA, the westernmost part of Venice lost 10 to 20 percent of its (housed) residents from 2010 to 2019, and one small census tract lost nearly 24 percent. This is an area called Oakwood, which for many years was predominantly Black; 100 years ago it was settled by Black residents who built the area’s canals per developer Abbot Kinney’s vision, but were not allowed to live along said canals. An annual neighborhood picnic that was held last month has evolved from a block party into more of a reunion for those who have been priced out of the area, a phenomenon that accelerated after a 2000 gang injunction signaled it was “safe” for white people to move in, says fifth-generation Venetian Mike Bravo, who was recently re-elected to the neighborhood council. There have always been people who lived along the boardwalk, or in their cars, or on the sand, Bravo says — a 1987 Los Angeles Times article headlined “Homeless Flock to Beach, Angering Venice Residents” could have been published yesterday — but the difference is that the residents who were here 30 or more years ago funded programs to shelter their homeless neighbors. Now newer residents are trying to stop projects like the Reese-Davidson Community. “What they are working towards is a de facto gated beach community,” he says. “This is a welcoming place for all people, but they twist it to a false meaning, and most of these newer folks never really see it or appreciate it. They come for business reasons.”

One of the most egregious examples is Snapchat, later renamed Snap Inc., which snatched up dozens of buildings throughout Venice starting in 2013, intending to convert them to office spaces before abandoning the project and trying to lease about half of them in 2018. At the time, locals believed that the company’s real estate portfolio, about 90,000 square feet of which fronts the boardwalk, would be occupied quickly. But three years later, most of the buildings are still empty, creating an unsettling blight. “We got rid of Snapchat, but we really didn’t,” says Bravo. “The carcass remained and it’s still very toxic in the neighborhood. When they show the destitute situation at the boardwalk, they show the unhoused, but it really adds to the narrative when you show all these shut-down properties. They say it’s because of the homeless. But who was forced out, and why has Snapchat escaped scrutiny or accountability?”

As I walked down the Venice Boardwalk a few days ago, it was the Snap carcass that Bravo described — not necessarily the tents, many of which are now gone — which created the most jarring juxtapositions. One of Snap’s former spaces had burned earlier in the year, its façade still charred. A 30,000 square-foot building was entirely available save for a ground-floor Starbucks. The Thornton Lofts complex, at 45,000 square feet, is nearly half the size of the proposed Reese-Davidson Community, and it too is almost entirely available. Adding to the dystopian scene, many of the empty buildings’ parking lots were occupied by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies — whose secret gangs are currently under investigation — patrolling the beach’s homeless residents on horseback, in cruisers, and on sheriff’s-department-branded dune buggies. “You cannot build your way out of homelessness. You have to regulate public space,” said Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a press conference, after announcing that his deputies would start arresting anyone living on the beach after July 4. (He has since backed down, at least temporarily.) When L.A. County supervisor Sheila Kuehl denounced Villanueva’s actions, along with a coalition of dozens of homeless-service providers including Venice Community Housing and the Venice Catholic Worker, Villanueva responded by saying that L.A.’s board of supervisors, who are all women, “need to be taken to the shed, and they need to be beat down.” He was praised by local homeowners, including opponents of the Reese-Davidson Community, who encouraged sending letters supporting the sheriff directly to the county’s supervisors.

When law enforcement first descended upon the beach in late June, the deadline for eviction loomed ominously for Elizabeth Estes, who has lived on the boardwalk off and on for three years. Estes is Sioux, and moved from South Dakota to live with relatives in California until a relative’s spouse began making homophobic threats toward her son. Since coming to Venice, they have been in and out of shelters, and at one point were enrolled in Project Roomkey, the state’s pandemic-era initiative to place unhoused residents in hotel rooms. But her son was not allowed to be in the same room with her, and she relies on his help since she has low vision and limited mobility. So they headed back to the beach together, where they were joined by her other son. (“It’s not safe,” she tells me. But “it’s safer.”) In recent months, she says, the situation on the boardwalk had started to deteriorate, not only with the deputies, but also with the homeowners, who have begun telling her they have guns. “I’m tired of this treatment,” she says. “What did I do? A lot of us are not homeless, we’re just houseless. We need help, too. We’re human.” Last week, Estes was contacted by a service provider that had a hotel room nearby and would allow both of her sons to stay with her. It was a huge relief because she wants to remain in Venice, but she was unsure about how long she’d be allowed to keep the hotel room that was keeping her family indoors and intact. A few days before Estes’s family moved into the hotel, a longtime Venice resident named Michael Hall was murdered in his tent on the boardwalk. Family members said that he had recently started sleeping outside after his RV had received too many parking tickets.

One year from now, the Reese-Davidson Community is scheduled to break ground, barring lawsuit delays. If current trends continue, over the next 365 days, 1,825 more unhoused people, five per day, will die on L.A. County’s streets. Yet Los Angeles has doubled down on policies that will make it easier to criminalize homelessness, in a campaign that’s playing out through the orders of the sheriff, in the violent fencing-off of parks, in the city’s nascent mayoral race, over a high-profile case in a federal courtroom, and inside L.A.’s city hall. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of L.A.’s 60-odd billionaires, had been heavily involved with creating new citywide homeless policy, setting up meetings with enough councilmembers to ensure the smooth passage of a stricter “tents down” anti-camping ordinance, which would make it illegal to sit, sleep, or store property on broad, yet confusingly defined, swaths of L.A.’s sidewalks if an offer of temporary housing had been made. It passed last Thursday.

Mike Bonin, the Venice councilmember, was one of only two of L.A.’s 15 representatives to vote against the ordinance. In a remarkable moment on the council floor, Bonin revealed that, during his 20s, he himself did not have a home in Los Angeles. As he struggled with addiction, he said, he crashed on couches, scraped together money for motel rooms, and lived in his car. And sometimes, he said, he slept on the beach. “I can’t tell you how much turmoil there is in your heart when the sun is setting, and you don’t know where you can sleep,” he said. “I cannot describe how demoralizing and dehumanizing and defeating that experience is when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep. I can’t adequately express the combination of shame and frustration and anger and desperation and confusion you feel in that moment. And that’s why I keep asking you again and again, ‘Where can people sleep?’”

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