In Venice, homes be­come ho­tels

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - ROBIN ABCARIAN robin.abcarian

On any sum­mer week­end, Venice Beach is the ul­ti­mate ur­ban beach car­ni­val: ex­hil­a­rat­ing, loud, funky and di­verse. No won­der Ocean Front Walk is one of the state’s pre­mier at­trac­tions: It’s amaz­ing en­ter­tain­ment, and it’s 100% free.

But un­like other tourist spots, Venice is still pri­mar­ily a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood. Be­cause of that, Venice has be­come an epi­cen­ter of Los An­ge­les’ strug­gle over short-term rentals, what you might call the Airbnb Prob­lem.

To get a sense of it, I took what some lo­cal hous­ing ac­tivists have dubbed a “Lost Hous­ing” tour of Venice. I vis­ited half a dozen build­ings on or very close to the Board­walk that have been con­verted, without per­mits, from long-term rental apart­ments to short­term rentals, or — yes — let’s call them what they re­ally are: ho­tels.

If you are won­der­ing why the rental hous­ing mar­ket in a place like Venice Beach is so tight, look no fur­ther than your near­est lap­top. Fire it up and find dozens of web­sites ad­ver­tis­ing ho­tels and houses “just steps from the sand.”

These places, by the way, are not ex­tra rooms, guest houses or homes of­fered by the own­ers who want to cover part of their sum­mer trip to France. They are apart­ment houses and en­tire homes that have been con­verted to short-term rentals by dis­plac­ing longterm ten­ants.

In­sid­eAirbnb is a web­site that tracks how Airbnb im­pacts city rental stock. It es­ti­mates that at least 76% of Airbnb rentals in Venice are en­tire homes or apart­ments, which means, es­sen­tially, that those units have been re­moved from the rental mar­ket at a mo­ment when the city’s hous­ing short­age is Topic A on the lips of ev­ery politi­cian.

(The num­ber of con­verted units is al­most cer­tainly higher be­cause not ev­ery “ho­tel” that has been con­verted from an apart­ment house uses the Airbnb plat­form.)

I hate to break it to fans of Harry Perry, the tur­baned, roller-skat­ing bard of Venice Beach, but the noise of rolling suit­cases threat­ens to sup­plant his wail­ing guitar as the sound­track of Ocean Front Walk.

My tour be­gan at the El­li­son, at 15 Paloma Ave. It’s an early 20th-cen­tury brick apart­ment house, with two build­ings side by side, ex­te­rior hall­ways and spectacular wa­ter views .

Renters used to oc­cupy all of the El­li­son’s 57 rentsta­bi­lized units. Now, about 12 are left, hold­outs in a build­ing cited by the city for an il­le­gal ho­tel op­er­a­tion. (The owner, Lance Rob­bins, is vig­or­ously con­test­ing the com­plaint.)

A few blocks south, on Ocean Front Walk, we popped into Venice Beach Suites, a 30-unit rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ment house whose rooms are now oc­cu­pied by tourists and trav­el­ers. “Are there any apart­ments avail­able here?” some­one asked the desk clerk. “No,” he replied. “This is a ho­tel.”

On Rose Av­enue, Air Venice used to have 59 rentsta­bi­lized apart­ments. It is now a ho­tel. The Rose Ho­tel also used to be an apart­ment house, with 25 rentsta­bi­lized apart­ments.

One of my guides, Bruce Ki­jew­ski, 68, has lived in the El­li­son for 40 years. He pays $1,640 a month for his 450square-foot apart­ment, a cor­ner unit on the fifth floor with spectacular views of the ocean and moun­tains. His neigh­bor, Bil­lie Mintz, pays $2,400 for a stu­dio with less spectacular views.

In the past few years, Ki­jew­ski said, the land­lord has rid the place of ten­ants — ei­ther by at­tri­tion or evic­tion — in order to cre­ate “The El­li­son Suites,” a tourist ho­tel.

House­keep­ers with clean­ing carts roam the hall­ways; peo­ple with suit­cases ar­rive and de­part in a con­stant stream. The re­mod­el­ing noise is con­stant, and the land­lord reg­u­larly hosts am­pli­fied con­certs in the in­te­rior court­yard, which Ki­jew­ski be­lieves act both as a draw for tourists and a way of tor­tur­ing ten­ant hold­outs like him.

“It’s de­lib­er­ate, mil­i­ta­rized chaos,” said Ki­jew­ski. “They use noise as a weapon to try to get us out.”

Mintz added, “This used to be a com­mu­nity. Now we live in a res­i­den­tial build­ing that’s been turned into a ho­tel without any re­gard for us. It’s a non­stop bar­rage of loud peo­ple.”

Ap­par­ently the tourists don’t like it that much ei­ther. The El­li­son’s Yelp re­views are atro­cious.

It has taken groups like Keep Neigh­bor­hoods First years to light a fire un­der city of­fi­cials. “I’ve al­ways been in­volved in hu­man rights is­sues,” said group co-founder Judy Gold­man. “Hous­ing is such a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right.”

Two years af­ter it be­gan look­ing at ways to con­trol short-term rentals, the Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil has still not adopted an or­di­nance to reg­u­late them. A draft or­di­nance has been ham­mered out, but it’s not clear when the City Coun­cil will vote, or how such rentals will be limited.

Last year, City At­tor­ney Mike Feuer filed civil cases against two Venice land­lords, among oth­ers, al­leg­ing they were il­le­gally op­er­at­ing ho­tels that should be rental hous­ing.

“In a city with a pro­found short­age of af­ford­able hous­ing, un­law­fully con­vert­ing rental units to op­er­ate ho­tels has got to stop,” Feuer said at the time. “My of­fice will con­tinue to in­ter­vene to keep rent-sta­bi­lized units on the mar­ket and hold own­ers ac­count­able for not com­ply­ing with the law.”

The cases have not been re­solved.

One of the de­fen­dants, Andy Lay­man, 69, owns the afore­men­tioned Venice Beach Suites on Ocean Front Walk. He has op­er­ated it as a ho­tel for years, claim­ing that was its orig­i­nal use when it was first built in 1912. In 1986, he bought the build­ing out of fore­clo­sure, fig­ur­ing that, with 40 feet of Board­walk frontage, it would be worth some­thing one day. Even then, it had been an apart­ment house for decades.

All his ten­ants even­tu­ally left vol­un­tar­ily, he said, and he be­gan in­vest­ing money to cre­ate what his web­site de­scribes as “a bou­tique ho­tel of­fer­ing 24 fully-fur­nished queen-bed stu­dios with mini-kitchens & pri­vate bath­rooms and ex­posed red-brick walls & hard­wood floors in the heart of Venice Beach.”

Un­like some of the land­lords the city is go­ing af­ter, said Lay­man, “I am a small, in­de­pen­dent mom-and-pop op­er­ated prop­erty. It’s the only prop­erty I have.”

Maybe so, but he turned his apart­ment house into a ho­tel and only asked for per­mis­sion af­ter the city sued him.

I called Roy Sa­maan, a re­search and pol­icy an­a­lyst for the Los An­ge­les Al­liance for a New Econ­omy, a pro­gres­sive out­fit that pushed hard for a city min­i­mum wage in­crease in 2015. Also that year, Sa­maan wrote a deeply re­searched re­port on the ill ef­fects that short­term rentals were hav­ing on neigh­bor­hoods in Los An­ge­les. I asked him the ob­vi­ous ob­nox­ious ques­tion: Venice is ex­pen­sive now. Why shouldn’t land­lords be able to get rid of rent-sta­bi­lized ten­ants in order to max­i­mize profits?

There are two an­swers, he said. The first is prac­ti­cal, the sec­ond ex­is­ten­tial.

First, the city has de­vel­oped pro­cesses — neigh­bor­hood coun­cils, hear­ings, per­mits, etc., — that are meant to gov­ern land use. You can’t just take a rentsta­bi­lized apart­ment house off the mar­ket be­cause you feel like start­ing a ho­tel.

As to the sec­ond is­sue: “It comes down to why peo­ple want to go to Venice in the first place,” Sa­maan said. “There’s a lot of coast­line, but Venice is a hot spot. It’s unique, and you have to ask why. If we con­tinue to lose af­ford­able hous­ing and move peo­ple out, you change what makes Venice Venice.”

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

BRUCE KI­JEW­SKI has lived at the El­li­son in Venice for 40 years. He’s one of the last ten­ants in a rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ment house that’s be­come a beach­side ho­tel.

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