What to do about affordable housing?

By Steve Clare

In Venice, where last year’s median home price was $465,000, the opportunities to create affordable housing are next to nonexistent. And numerous forces cause us to lose affordable housing every day.

A weak rent control law allows landlords to raise below market rents at will. Affordability restrictions imposed by HUD have been removed on 59 apartments at 5 Rose Avenue and 50 senior apartments at 1 Venice Boulevard. Safe and habitable garage apartments and bootleg units have been closed down by the City’s new systematic code enforcement program (SCEP). Plus, the demolition of Lincoln Place Apartments is in limbo. And as we all know, “market rents” in Venice are affordable to fewer and fewer members of our community. But there is hope.

Venice has its own nonprofit community development corporation--a resource that develops and manages affordable housing. Venice Community Housing Corporation (VCHC), the first and only nonprofit developer of affordable housing in Venice and Mar Vista, provides rents starting at $258 for 1 bedroom apartments for qualified households, in addition to other community development resources, such as a job training program for at-risk youth, childcare for infants and toddlers, and an arts training program for young people.

It is impossible for any housing developer to purchase and develop affordable housing on land in Venice that costs between $75-$150/ square foot. Even using land costing $30/square foot (e.g. in Central and East Los Angeles) the development cost requires charging rents in excess of $1000/month for a two-bedroom apartment. The only way that housing affordable to working families earning between 35% and 80% of the median income can be developed in Venice is to build on city owned property. And that’s exactly what VCHC tries to do.

On August 16th, Venetians will have a chance to show their support for affordable housing by attending a hearing for a zone change affecting a portion of Abbot Kinney Boulevard between Palms and Venice Boulevards, and a narrow strip of city-owned land behind Abbot Kinney. If approved, zoning would change from limited industrial (M-1) to commercial (C-2), which permits residential development.

A confusing notice of public hearing has caused consternation among Venice residents, but these are the facts:

Two separate requests for zone change from M-1 to C-2 will be heard.

The first is presented by D.S. Ventures (“Ventures”), a for-profit real estate developer, to enable them to build a 25-unit apartment building, including 2 “affordable” units on the vacant lot on the northeast corner of Abbot Kinney and Venice Blvd. Ventures’ application includes various exceptions to the Venice Specific Plan, including a height variance from 34 to 42 feet.

The second request is submitted by the City of Los Angeles on behalf of Venice Community Housing Corporation (VCHC) affecting a narrow strip of vacant land, formerly the Pacific Electric Rail Road Right of Way (RRROW). The Notice states that the project envisioned by VCHC is a “26-unit, four story, 45 feet in height low income housing development” but there is no request pending and no approval sought for that development or any VCHC development at this time.

VCHC and Ventures are not related in any way, and the two applications are separate requests for the same things submitted by two different parties.

The Venice Specific Plan currently designates all property fronting both sides of Abbot Kinney between Main Street and Venice Blvd as

C-2 except the portion between Palms Blvd. and Venice Blvd on the east side only.

The zone change will make the land use of these two sites consistent with both sides of Abbot Kinney between Main and Venice, which are zoned C-2.

Approving the zone change accomplishes several things:

1) it is the first step in creating an affordable housing development on the RRROW,

2) it permits mixed use commercial/residential on Abbot Kinney, and

3) it prevents potentially inappropriate manufacturing and industrial uses that might negatively impact commercial development in the area.

VCHC has not undertaken any design of the site, but its goal is to build as much affordable housing as the site will allow and the community will support. Prior experience anticipates that 30-40 apartments would need to be built in order to make the project financially feasible.

VCHC is committed to developing a project that will bring more affordable housing to our community and at the same time address other important community issues including sustainable development and energy conservation, additional parking for the public, aesthetic and design issues relating to neighbors’ concerns about light and shadow and the potential obstruction of sea breezes. VCHC is at the beginning of this design process, and will share its design proposals with community members once they get developed. And, VCHC will solicit input and feedback from Venice residents about our plans.

VCHC needs your help to ensure that the Planning Department grants the request of the City for a zone change from M-1 to C-2, at least on the RRROW and does not impose any other conditions on the RRROW site that would foreclose or make more difficult the development of a project.

Steve Clare is executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corporation.

Posted: Thu - August 1, 2002 at 05:40 PM