October 7, 2022

Oledammegard

Types of civil law

The Tents of Venice Beach

17 min read

Venice is Los Angeles’s bohemia. For decades it has been the stomping ground of the eccentric, the quirky, the artistic, and the stoned. It’s home to the fabled boardwalk and the weightlifting spectacle known as Muscle Beach. Many of its beachfront buildings feature ornate arched entranceways, expansive windows, and murals of long-departed movie stars. The airy, light-filled houses along the canals, a few blocks from the ocean, are as beautiful—and these days as expensive—as any homes on earth.

What has made this little community of roughly 35,000 residents work has always been its diversity—not just its many coexisting cultures but also its economic span. Venice has had room for both the millionaires of the canals and the low-income residents in the rent-stabilized buildings lining the boardwalk and the alleyways to the east, as well as just about everyone in between.

“I’ve lived here for 21 years,” says tenant activist Mark Rago. “One thing I’ve always loved about Venice is the community aspect of it. I fell in love with Venice. I live on a street, Breeze Avenue, where fences were low and you could see your neighbors. We had a strong bond of community, looked out for each other, had barbecues together, knew each other’s names.”

But around 2014, things started to change. Since the founding and precipitous growth of the online short-term rental platform Airbnb in 2008, property owners have increasingly catered to tourists rather than locals. “When Airbnb got bigger and bigger, it turned a lot of landlords into slumlords,” says Rago. “They’d harass tenants, try to get them to leave, so they could rent out apartments as short-term rentals.”

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Another resident, who asked that her name not be used, was served with multiple eviction notices by her landlord in 2017. Even though she ultimately ended up winning her legal cases and was able to stay, all of the other apartments in her six-unit building were converted into short-term rentals.

“Tenants were disappearing and being replaced by revolving-door strangers,” says Judy Goldman, a longtime Los Angeles resident who is the cofounder of an affordable housing advocacy group called Keep Neighborhoods First. In the mid-2010s, it began tabulating illegal rentals and calculating the loss of affordable housing units. The group proceeded to pressure the LA City Council to take the problem seriously.

“It went on almost two years, where they just jerked us around,” Goldman recalls. “Everyone was in love with the ‘sharing economy,’ which I started to think of as the ‘stealing economy.’ People don’t understand how pernicious it is when tenants get kicked out, developers come in, and rent-stabilized units become a commodity.”

Becky Dennison, the executive director of Venice Community Housing, which works with philanthropic donors and government partners to develop and build affordable housing in the area, agrees. “Airbnb comes in at the back end of the gentrification of Venice, between seven and eight years ago,” she explains, sitting at an outdoor table on the boardwalk. “It was very intense and quick in Venice—hundreds, if not over a thousand units right off the bat. That’s a lot.” Once the tenants are evicted, she continues, “getting back into housing in Venice is next to impossible, unless you’re very wealthy.” In 2019, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning (DCP) estimated that there were 32,000 short-term rentals scattered throughout the city; in Venice alone, there were around 2,900. For years now, the market has created perverse incentives for landlords to kick out long-term tenants and replace them with weekend renters.

Then came the pandemic. As Covid-19 took root in 2020, encampments of unhoused residents multiplied in California. Despite the opening of thousands of hotel beds to the homeless under Governor Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey and Project Homekey, long rows of tents proliferated in areas of Los Angeles like Venice. With other priorities taking precedence, law enforcement agencies stopped carrying out sweeps aimed at disrupting the formation of these camps. The beachfront encampments rapidly became the latest manifestation of Venice’s—and LA’s—dysfunctional housing market.

“It’s difficult to see this, and a block away there’s rent-controlled housing being used for hotels,” says Nancy Hanna, an attorney who works with the tenants’ rights group Better Neighbors LA. As she talks, her colleagues distribute fliers to passersby, some local residents, others simply in Venice for the day to enjoy the sunshine and the beach. An older Black man, Kevin Morgan, wearing a face mask adorned with peace signs, bicycles up and stops to talk. He’s been living in Venice for more than 40 years, he says, and lacking stable housing, was fortunate enough during the pandemic to qualify for a room in a hotel via Project Roomkey. But too few are provided such options, he says: “We get questionnaires, fliers, but what we’re not getting is housing. City is fighting county, county is fighting city, instead of cleaning up the homeless population.”

Today Venice has a homelessness crisis on an epic scale, rising street crime, and a massive shortage of affordable housing. These conditions have led to the beginnings of a political backlash that is putting tremendous pressure on the city council to find housing solutions, and on the county sheriff and city police to clear the sands and the boardwalk before the summer tourist season gets fully underway. Dennison says self-proclaimed liberals in the community tell her they have “compassion fatigue” in the face of the spiraling homelessness crisis.

Of the more than 35,000 residents of Venice, nearly 2,000 are homeless people living on the streets, according to a Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority count from January 2020. It is one of the most depressing ratios of housed to unhoused people in the country. In the early days of the pandemic, as Covid cases spiked and tourists stayed away, the boardwalk and the stretch of golden sands between it and the waves of the Pacific were taken over by tents and shacks. From Rose Avenue southward for about a mile, the shanties proliferated, along with the bags, boxes, bicycles, and propane and butane cooking stoves of their residents. In the alleys off the boardwalk were more encampments. And on streets a few hundred yards inland, additional encampments lined the sidewalks, abandoned lots, and industrial parking areas.

Earlier this summer, in response to a public outcry over safety concerns and under pressure from local businesses desperate to reclaim the boardwalk, local LA City Councilman Mike Bonin announced an ambitious multimillion-dollar plan to provide shelter to all the homeless people on the boardwalk—and to send in teams of outreach workers from local nonprofits to canvass them about their needs and inform them of their options. Over a six-week period, rooms in hotels and bridge housing around the vast city would be found for the several hundred boardwalk denizens—but if those tent dwellers refused to relocate, they would be swept off the boardwalk regardless, allowing it to present a cleaner face to the world as it reopened for tourism. The promise of housing would be strictly limited, however, to those camped out on the boardwalk—meaning that the residents of the bigger but less visible encampments just inland wouldn’t be showered with social service interventions and housing options. In a city with more than 60,000 homeless people and a state with more than 150,000—the majority of whom live on the streets—their tragedy would continue unabated.

For Mark Rago, the situation is particularly frustrating. Rather than genuinely attempt to confront the homelessness crisis and the related crisis in affordable housing, he says, the city has embraced window-dressing solutions.

Rago has recently filed complaints with the city against landlords who have been eviscerating the rent-stabilized housing stock. As affordable housing options have dwindled, he says, and as short-term rental platforms—not just Airbnb but also VRBO, Expedia, Bookings.com, and a host of building-specific sites—have mushroomed, homelessness has spiraled. “It’s gotten worse and will continue to get worse until the city, county, and state do something about it. This is the second-biggest tourist attraction in the state,” he says. “They come by the thousands—and they see tents lining the beach.”

I lost my apartment in June of last year,” says 31-year-old Glenn, who lives in one of the tents along the boardwalk. He is a tall man, muscular and tattooed. He also suffers from the skin ailments that seem shockingly common among the tent dwellers, who have limited access to the few public showers and restrooms on the boardwalk. “I had three jobs, all food service,” but the businesses “came to the realization they weren’t going to make it through the pandemic.” Glenn says he was let go from all three jobs, went through his savings, lost his apartment, and ended up living in an abandoned lot. Eventually he lugged his possessions down to the boardwalk and pitched a tent. He’s been living there for the past four months.

“It should be a day on the boardwalk, not life on the boardwalk,” Glenn says. “You’re not supposed to live here.” And yet hundreds do.

“I’ve been out here six years,” says 52-year-old Leslie Russell, who shares her small gray tent, covered by a darker gray tarp, with her partner and her dog. The tent is pitched on a raised area of sand between the boardwalk and the beach that residents call the Hill. “I went through a divorce and lost my house in 2013. Here on the Hill, it’s OK, beautiful. You feel the breeze. I trust the people around me.”

Leslie, who was sitting outside her dwelling on a broken-down folding chair with no legs on the day we met, had planted a tiny American flag in the sand outside her tent. She says she’s working with a social service agency to access either a Project Roomkey apartment or Section 8 housing. She worries, in the meantime, about basic things—such as how to find a bathroom at night, after the public restrooms are locked. Like so many of the tent dwellers, she has skin infections. She’d recently started on antibiotics, and the health clinic she visited had shaved her head. The resident of the tent next to hers had a deep, hacking cough that reverberated across the Hill. As for food, “I’ve lived off of sandwiches forever,” Leslie says. She did have a little butane stove, but when the homeless fire up their stoves, she adds, law enforcement swiftly intervenes.

Housed residents of the community see these problems from a different perspective. They’ve reported large increases in crime in recent months, while public health officials worry about the spread of communicable diseases—in San Diego a few years back, encampments were the source of a large hepatitis outbreak. Fire marshals fear the consequences of open gas flames and wood-burning fires. At various times in the past few months, significant conflagrations have occurred around the encampments, with devastating results: Several buildings abutting tent communities have burned. Today, the fenced-off lots stand empty, monuments to the colossal failure by Los Angeles’s political leadership to provide the support services and investment needed to tackle the city’s burgeoning epidemic of homelessness.

In our building, it’s 75 percent Airbnb,” says a Venice resident who lives in a large complex a couple of blocks from the coast. “There are transient people, doors left open, security concerns. It’s nice to know your neighbors—there’s a sense of security.” But now, “every time I walk in my building, there’s a stranger. It’s becoming more transient, and the Airbnb thing supports that—community and residents get almost pushed out.” And that reinforces the downward spiral. While long-term residents have a strong incentive to organize politically to tackle crises like homelessness, short-term renters have no such need: They come in, sightsee and party, and then leave.

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an economic justice organization, estimates that there are a whopping 360 short-term units per square mile in Venice now. Over the past several years, despite a home-sharing ordinance by the LA City Council aimed at curbing the practice, numerous rent-stabilized units have been illegally converted into short-term rentals, with the original tenants either evicted or driven out by relentless harassment campaigns—everything from landlords taking away tenants’ parking spots to endless, noisy “renovations” outside their windows. They use “every bully trick in the book,” says Brian Averill, an action sports photographer who has lived in Venice for two decades and is a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council. When landlords drive out long-term tenants, renters are left vulnerable to homelessness, and the low-income housing that the city could use for people in the encampments is instead offered to tourists at inflated prices.

By the summer of 2021, according to the watchdog website Inside Airbnb, there were nearly 40,000 Airbnb listings in Los Angeles, more than 60 percent of them for entire houses or apartments. While other sites aren’t monitored as closely—partly because Airbnb was the only listing service that negotiated data-sharing agreements with the city after the ordinance was passed—much of the short-term market is non-Airbnb. It is likely that tens of thousands of additional dwellings in the city are rented out on these other sites.

The DCP claims that since the home-sharing ordinance was passed, short-term listings citywide have plummeted—from a high of more than 32,000 to approximately 4,000 today. In Venice, the department estimates that the number has dropped from 2,900 to between 400 and 500. But activists on the issue aren’t convinced. More than 2,000 of the short-term listings recently analyzed by Inside Airbnb were in Venice, a huge number for a community of some 35,000 people. And most of these holiday rentals are concentrated in the streets immediately off the beach—the same streets that, historically, have had the most rent-stabilized and affordable housing units in the area, and that now border the homeless encampments.

Los Angeles’s home-sharing ordinance is good on paper. Passed in 2018, it bans landlords who aren’t the primary residents of a property from renting out rooms as short-term rentals—the idea being that if a resident rents out a spare room, no housing is being taken off the market, but if a landlord rents out the entire property to overnight guests, that’s one less unit available for tenants to rent. For similar reasons, the ordinance limits the number of days per year that people can rent out properties on the short-term market.

In practice, critics argue, the ordinance is largely toothless, and today, with tourism resurgent, short-term rentals are again becoming omnipresent in places like Venice, many of them listed on platforms that don’t coordinate with the city.

The malfeasant platforms are likely helped by the fact that coastal communities are overseen by multiple jurisdictions, including the LA City Council, the state Coastal Commission, and the County of Los Angeles. Inland off the boardwalk, the Los Angeles Police Department has jurisdiction; on the sands of the beach, county sheriffs are in charge. The result is a mess, with each organization palming off responsibility on the others.

A November 2020 review by Better Neighbors LA found that many rental platforms were allowing hosts to list properties without including a city-mandated registration number, making it all but impossible for Los Angeles to monitor them. It also found properties pretending to have a hotel or bed-and-breakfast license or other zoning exemption that would allow them to engage in overnight rentals. Some platforms were even listing “driveways, trailers, and vehicles as rental housing.” This past April, the group identified 151 properties that were fraudulently claiming to be bed-and-breakfasts and nearly 200 that were illegitimately declaring themselves hotels.

In June, Better Neighbors sent the LA City Council a scathing letter charging the DCP with failing to enforce the home-sharing ordinance against any platform other than Airbnb and neglecting to fine violators, citing the fact that almost no fines had been issued since Labor Day of 2020. As of June, just 854 fines had been issued in the 18 months since the city allegedly began enforcing the ordinance, with not a single one levied against the platforms that host the listings for these illegal rentals. “Planning’s lack of response to neighbors’ complaints not only results in the removal of housing stock but exposes the public to unnecessary threats to their safety,” the letter said. A legal note sent in mid-June to the DCP and the LAPD identified a rent-stabilized property in Mid-City that “operates as a hostel in that it offers accommodations by the bed and accepts multiple simultaneous reservations.”

The DCP denies these claims, estimating that, as of July 1, it had issued 10,831 first warning letters starting enforcement proceedings against illegal short-term rentals. Of these, all but 1,849 had complied with the city, the department estimated. Another 922 properties were thought to be noncompliant but had not yet been sent legal letters from the city. “We continue to proactively find ways to shut down fraud and abuse as to best safeguard residents, visitors, and the housing market,” a DCP spokesperson said in an e-mail.

In Venice, residents greet these numbers with incredulity. Throughout the community, one can easily find large apartment buildings that have essentially become informal hotels. There is the Rose, a dull-gray two-story building with over 30 rent-stabilized units, its front boarded up for cosmetic renovations, which local activists say is now largely operating as a short-term rental. The owners are hardly hiding the fact: Over the door is a small sign reading “Hotel.” Then there’s the V Hotel, an apartment building previously called the Waldorf, whose landlord has made a similar leap, activists claim, into the more lucrative business of short-term rentals. The DCP recently found that it was using Bookings.com to advertise as a hotel and sent a warning letter on July 5. To date, the property is still noncompliant, according to the department.

There is also the large apartment building at 14 Breeze Avenue, which has enraged locals for the past seven years by repeatedly renting out rent-stabilized units to tourists. And there’s the 32-unit Venice Suites, most of whose apartments now serve as short-term rentals, according to activists. The DCP sent out a warning letter to the owners in November 2019 and again in February 2020. But the owners have appealed the process, and as a result the citations are still on hold. “Me and my neighbors, we live in a hotel zone, basically,” Rago says angrily. “We’re hoping to have the city enforce the laws—because there’s a total lack of enforcement.”

A spokesperson for Airbnb denied that the site had active listings for any of these addresses, lamenting what she called the “Kleenex effect,” in which activist groups conflate any and all short-term rentals with Airbnb simply because it’s the best-known of the platforms. Without up-to-date registration numbers issued to landlords by the city, Airbnb claims, it won’t let an apartment be listed. “Airbnb is the only short-term rental company that has launched a compliance system to aid the City of Los Angeles in the enforcement of its home-sharing ordinance,” the spokesperson said.

For residents, however, the issue isn’t which platforms are being used; it’s the fact that rent-stabilized units are being listed in the first place. In fact, of all the large apartment buildings in Venice converted into short-term rentals, only one—the Ellison, a huge complex built around an old interior courtyard—has been reconverted to long-term rentals, the result of a years-long public battle by tenants.

David Wachsmuth, a professor of urban planning who has been researching these trends for years, published a report in December 2019, a year after the passage of the home-sharing ordinance. It concluded that 7,289 units of housing around Los Angeles, much of it rent-stabilized or affordable housing, had been lost to short-term rental practices.

“It has a big impact on affordability [and] availability, and that hits the most vulnerable,” Wachsmuth says. “There is direct eviction and displacement, and we know homelessness is produced for many people at the end of a long process of housing instability. And when the market becomes more expensive, their housing situation becomes ever more unpredictable and precarious.”

In the face of this, the DCP and the city attorney’s office have been largely impotent, activists say, unable or unwilling to enforce the home-sharing ordinance. Officials claim they do not have the resources to monitor everyone who rents out a property, to count how many days per year that property is being rented, or to determine whether an owner is simply renting out a spare room or taking the unit off the housing market and turning it into an unregulated hotel.

But even when a violator is identified—often after angry neighbors, tenants’ rights groups, or unions representing hotel workers have reported the problem—the city, instead of fining the owner for every violation, goes through a lengthy process of issuing two warnings. Only after a third violation does it hand out a $500 fine—just a single fine, rather than one for each night the unit is rented out. As a result, that $500 is seen by serial violators as simply a cost of doing business, a tax rather than a deterrent. Or at least it is by the small percentage who bother to pay it, since most of the fines go unpaid and the city hasn’t worked out a process to chase down non-payers. The DCP claims that, since June, it has been issuing only a single warning and heftier fines, but it remains to be seen how strictly the department is enforcing these new protocols.

Later this summer, according to officials at the DCP and the city attorney’s office, the department will send out letters to noncompliant platforms demanding that they take down illegal listings. But that belated response may be too little, too late to rescue affordable housing in high-tourism areas like Venice.

Because of the city’s weakness in the face of these transgressions, tenants’ rights organizers like Bill Przylucki of Ground Game LA worry that as Los Angeles gears up to host a series of major tourist-attracting events, from games in the upcoming World Cup to the 2028 Olympics, more and more neighborhoods will be cannibalized by short-term rental platforms. Mayor Eric Garcetti prioritized the creation of hotel rooms for the Olympics over the provision of housing for the unhoused and leaned on the DCP to approve ever more hotel units, Przylucki says. The “poison fruit” of all this, he believes, is that Garcetti also incentivized short-term rentals and further undermined the city’s already vulnerable affordable housing.

Back in Venice, tents still line the streets. Locals, especially those struggling to maintain their foothold in the rent-stabilized apartment buildings just off the boardwalk, continue to seethe. “This is a tragedy and a scandal,” says Brian Averill. “We’re the second-biggest city in the country, and we’re completely dropping the ball in this situation.”

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