The Tents of Venice Beach

Katie R. Ochoa

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.”

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.

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