By Lisa Robins
“Everyone wants to help the homeless….but Not In My Backyard!”
This is the overwhelming challenge facing the implementation of HHH, the LA City measure approved by 77% of voters providing funding for housing for the homeless.
Several months back, there was an opinion piece in the Argonaut titled “Confession of a Venice Nimby”. The self- appointed NIMBY, a founding member of the community group Venice Vision (fightbackvenice.org), seemed to have some convincing arguments.
The Venice NIMBY argues that oversized housing projects and an over concentration of services will exacerbate the impacts of homelessness in our community. “Venice is world-famous for its big heart and open mind, and we want to continue doing our part to help address homelessness with both services and housing. WE ALL WANT TO HELP, BUT SQUEEZING MOST OF THE WESTSIDE’S HOMELESS SERVICES AND LARGE SUPPORTIVE HOUSING PROJECTS INTO A SINGLE NEIGHBORHOOD JUST ISN’T FAIR”, he says, (direct quote, including caps), in the Argonaut article.
So, is our councilperson, Mike Bonin, attempting to squeeze most of the Westside’s homeless services and large supportive housing projects into Venice?
Bonin represents District 11, covering all or a portion of the following: Brentwood, Del Rey, Mar Vista, Marina del Rey, Pacific Palisades, Palms, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista, Venice, West Los Angeles, Westchester and LAX.
The scope of issues surrounding the homeless population in our city are vast. And there are many aspects of Councilperson Mike Bonin’s “Plan to End Homelessness,” which greatly irk a small but very organized, well-funded, and vocal population of Venice.
In this series of articles, I’m going to focus on one element of his plan, the Reese-Davidson Community, a Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) development currently in the pre-development stage. PSH is a category of affordable housing designed specifically for chronically homeless persons.
Since I’ve started amassing information in an attempt to answer this question with regards to Reese Davidson Community, much has happened to overshadow this potential project. Currently, the biggest issue is whether to allow the long vacant Metro lot on Main St. to be used for temporary bridge housing. A report on the VNCHC vote is found elsewhere in this issue.
Meanwhile, here are the basics…
Measure HHH is a ballot initiative authorizing $1.2 billion in bond money funded by property taxes, to pay for homeless housing. HHH will provide 10,000 units in a city whose estimated homeless population is 28,000. (As a side note, a friend of mine told me he just read that FORTY percent of children are at or below the poverty rate in LA. This, after the Trump regime stated the “War on Poverty” is over, because it is: A SUCCESS!) As part of a program designed to implement HHH, and address the overall housing crisis, approximately 40 land parcels throughout LA have been identified as “opportunity sites”, city owned properties which are underused or vacant. 30 of these 40 have been designated for development to provide affordable housing thus far.
The Reese-Davidson Community is the largest “opportunity site” in the District 11 pipeline, and has not yet been approved. Venice Community Housing Corporation (VCHC), who was given a two year option to develop the Venice median into a PSH development, will submitted their formal application to the City this summer, and is now starting the public approvals phase.
Formerly known as Venice-Dell-Pacific, or the Median Project, the rebranding of the development as the Reese Davidson Community, “Honors two amazing leaders who were instrumental in building and maintaining an inclusive and innovative Venice: ARTHUR REESE was a Venice resident and community leader from 1905 to 1963 — a decorator, inventor, entrepreneur, and more. Among the founders of Venice and first African American homeowner, he helped establish a diverse and inclusive Venice. RICK DAVIDSON was a Venice resident and community leader from 1961 to 1999 — an architect, poet, activist, and more. Among the founders of Venice Community Housing, he helped promote a diverse and inclusive Venice,” according to the VCH website.
Jim Smith, previously on the Beachhead Collective, writes, “Rick (Davidson) was a friend of mine. I got to know him well in the early 70’s when he opened his house on San Juan Ave for meetings of our Venice Vietnam Veterans Against the War chapter. He was one of two founders of the Free Venice movement, along with John Haag. When we revived the Beachhead in July 2002, we dedicated the first issue to him. Rick was born in Florida, but spent most of his life in Venice. He ran for L.A. City Council in the 70s on a platform of cityhood for Venice. He was involved in every struggle in Venice during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Rick was a people’s architect. There are many examples of his work around Venice. He was a poet for most of his life. Lots of them turned up in the Beachhead”.
If approved, the development named for these illustrious men would replace the existing parking lot between Pacific and Dell, bordered by North and South Venice Blvds.
The REESE-DAVIDSON COMMUNITY would contain 140 Apartments:
68 supportive housing apartments for formerly homeless individuals and families
34 low-income artists’ apartments
34 lower wage households’ apartments
8 On-site trained professional staff apartments
3 Community rooms for tenant services and recreational opportunities
Preventing the development, along with stopping the MTA Bridge Housing, is the target of much of Venice NIMBY energy. Their main organization appears to be Fight Back Venice”, (previously also known as “Venice Vision”), whose members are furious at Councilmember Bonin, sponsoring a “Recall Bonin” campaign. Labeling Venice-Dell-Pacific the “Monster in the Median”, their main concern seems to be a lack of fairness and a fear of being overrun by the homeless. And perhaps, a dip in property values.
1) Venice already has too many homeless residents- “Unfair!” They fear Bonin is luring homeless to Venice with too many new PSH units and services. .
2) New housing will serve too many Non-Venetians- “Unfair!” They argue there’s no guarantee the residents will be from Venice, and many might come to scam the system.
3) Too Big-“Unfair!” They fear the development will be too large, with too many units.
4) Wasteful and Inefficient-“UNFAIR!” NIMBYs point out the city land is prime real estate and could be sold, with the money used to create far more housing in a less expensive area. And, why build new developments instead of refurbishing existing buildings?
5) Cheating –“UNFAIR!” Venice NIMBYs claim VCH is aiming to skirt zoning laws.
6) It Won’t Work-“Unfair!” NIMBYs fear is that we’re enabling people to take advantage of the system asking nothing of them such as sobriety, etc.…
Underlying all of it seems to be a POV that if we care for those living on the street it will encourage more to do so. They point out that many have chosen this “lifestyle”, and it’s unfair to expect us to spend our city funds, and potentially reduce the value of our property, to support them. There’s the sentiment that although many homeless people are benign, there are those who aren’t, and exposing themselves and their children to this population reduces their quality of life.
I met with Becky Dennison and Linda Lucks from Venice Community Housing Corporation, the potential developer of Reese Davidson (with Hollywood Community Housing Corp). I met separately with Will Hawkins, an elected official of Venice Neighborhood Council (an unpaid volunteer position), who was elected by the VNC to chair the homeless committee (VNCHC).
Our conversations were several months ago, and some of their sentiments (particularly Hawkins’) have evolved, (such are the hazards of working as an unpaid volunteer journalist!). But it’s precisely the turnaround that’s the most exciting and contains the most potential for change.
I’ve been trying to compare their points of view, with Councilperson Bonin, the “Venice NIMBY”, and my own observations. I’d like to boil our opinionated community down to two factions, “Bleeding Heart Liberals”, and the “NIMBYs”, but it’s more complex than then that, and tricky since many NIMBYs are generally liberal…they just have a vastly different POV of how to get the homeless off the street.
Venice Community Housing Corporation (VCH): “To reduce homelessness, maximize affordable housing, empower residents, provide social services, and advocate for public policy that protects and strengthens the economic, racial and cultural diversity of Venice and other neighborhoods on the Westside of Los Angeles.”
Venice Neighborhood Council Homeless Committee (VNCHC): “To reduce homelessness via a three pronged attack (the three R’s)”
1) Reduce the influx of Homeless
2) Reunify homeless with family or prior community whenever possible
3) Rehouse with priority existing homeless
City Councilman Mike Bonin’s “Plan to End Homelessness”: “Preserving Affordable Housing, Building Affordable Housing, Building Homeless Housing, Coordinated Entry System, Enhanced Outreach, Enhanced and Expanded Services, Street Strategy”
“We must do everything we can to end homelessness throughout Los Angeles by providing those who need it and want it with housing and appropriate services. That is going to take collaborative effort, innovative approaches, A LOT more affordable housing, and implementation of our countywide ‘Housing First’ strategy. It is a daily focus for me and my team, and I’m not going to rest until we get it done.” (11thdistrict.com/issues/homelessness/)
Venice NIMBYs: “Committed to informing, engaging, empowering and mobilizing our community to ensure the equal application of the law for all who live, work and visit in Venice.”
I’m seeking common points of view as well as where they differ.
From what I can tell, the NIMBY POV seems to be in opposition to VCHC, VNCHC, and Bonin’s plan; although some on the VNCHC share some common NIMBY concerns.
Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to assume that all factions want to help house our homeless citizens. All want a better Venice. But there are major differences on how to achieve these goals. I’m planning to have an ongoing conversation, using each of the following issues as a starting point. I’ll be circling back as I learn more, and I invite letters to the editor shedding light on these complicated matters.
Issue #1) Bonin inviting homeless to Venice-Too many developments.
The Venice NIMBYs claim Venice is set to host more homeless per square mile than any other part of District 11. They point out that the LA City Council reversed the “policy of containment” that gave rise to Skid Row on the grounds that it is not good for communities or the homeless. To NIMBYs, Venice is already an established homeless hub, therefore reversing “containment” and ensuring “geographic equity”, should apply to us.
The NIMBYs charge is that there is an unfair distribution of new PSH units in Venice. They point out four supportive housing projects in the pipeline in Venice: Reese Davidson Community on the Venice Median (140 units), VCHC’s Headquarters on Rose Avenue (34 units), Thatcher Yard, and the MTA Lot (units TBD).
I asked Becky from VCH, “Is Bonin shoving all the homeless in District 11 into Venice? Is he ignoring Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, and Mar Vista?”
Becky told me that there are currently 4 properties in CD 11 approved for HHH funding.
The first is a city-owned property: the former animal shelter on Pico in West LA. The next three are not city-owned properties, on the VA campus within West LA/Brentwood, and the VCH Administration site on Rose
There are two more sites in predevelopment that will likely access HHH funds – two city owned sites in Venice (Reese Davidson and Thatcher Yard).
The Metro Bus Depot (MTA) in Venice, which has sat vacant for many years, is currently being considered for temporary Bridge Housing for the homeless. This is not a city-owned property slated for development for the homeless, contrary to reports from Venice NIMBYs. Becky clarifies, “The MTA Lot is not a supportive housing site. MTA allows for all kinds of housing levels, and only requires 30% affordable. There is no priority or requirement for PSH.”
Prior to HHH passing, and the city-owned land programs, the last 3 projects approved in Council district 11 were in Del Rey, which already has far more supportive housing than Venice; VCH and P.A.T.H’s (People Assisting the Homeless) last development, along with a Tom Safran mixed supportive and affordable/senior development containing 30 low income units for homeless seniors- for a total of 71 units.
The numbers of PSH in Mar Vista are low, and VCH and others will pursue development there.
Playa Vista contains 83 new units for low income seniors which opened a year or two ago.
I’m still working to amass data on current affordable housing numbers, but Becky can confirm that only 42 out of 6,000 existing PSH units citywide are currently in Venice.
Previously, the VNCHC position has been that Bonin’s plan is not fair. The council was concerned that Bonin doesn’t seem to have any PSH planned for Pacific Palisades or Brentwood, even though they are each more than five times larger than Venice. But when I mentioned that during my conversation with Becky, she countered that Brentwood is slated to have more supportive housing than any other area; New Direction for Vets and others on and near the VA campus. The first 200 units are now approved; with a total of 1200 units planned. She tells me a master developer is being considered now.
With regards to the VA Campus, Will stated “We have an obligation and moral responsibility to make the most vulnerable on the street have services and housing.” One of his actions has been to negotiate placement of 200 motor homes on the Veterans Administration grounds for housing homeless men and women who served in America’s armed forces. The child of a military man, Will deplores the fact that there seems to be “No plan to serve when they come back…they are 16% of those on the street…shameful tragedy”. He claims the new VA facility has the ability to house 5,000 people – and they have been renting out the building. I recently was on the grounds to see a play, and was horrified and astounded by all the gorgeous, empty space. Unoccupied buildings. Lush grounds. What the hell?? The city of LA is looking for places of worship to host safe parking, but Will points out the VA has 1,000 parking spaces. He urges the VA to “take care of what it was meant for…they fought for our freedom”. According to http://everyoneinla.org/count/, there are 3,910 unhoused vets countywide, with a 21% decrease in chronic homelessness. We also spoke of the many mentally ill homeless, a large percentage of those on the street, but that’s for another article.
Hawkins takes pride in trying to be fair, and points out that being a centrist doesn’t make everyone happy. The fact that homeless advocates feel he’s not doing enough, and NIMBYs feel he’s doing too much, might prove his point. The VNCHC currently supports the temporary Bridge Housing at the MTA lot, and is working with Bonin and Mayor Garcetti to bring it to fruition. They face much NIMBY ire for their efforts. The VNCHC is sponsoring a big Town Hall on homelessness in Venice planned for September to inform the community about affordable housing, and to “correct misinformation”. Will bemoans the “super polarized name- calling…unproductive”.
NIMBYs claim Bonin is selling off city properties in other areas to fund building in Venice. Taylor, from Bonin’s office, says that’s false. I wrote to Fight Back Venice, to ask them to get specific, but have received no response. Until proven otherwise, I’ll consider it a rumor.
Current PSH units
I tried to find a current list of PSH units in LA but found it surprisingly difficult to locate. . Becky tells me the United Way is working on amassing the statistics and led me to the following website which was interesting but incomplete.
The website states that each LA councilperson has committed to providing a minimum of 222 new supportive housing units. District 11 has 190 of 222 approved, and 63 existing units. However they don’t specify where the units are.
Some current statistics for Permanent Supportive Housing in LA are as follows:
There are currently 6,000 units of supportive housing citywide.
The entire Westside hosts only 5% of LA’s Permanent Supportive Housing.
Venice contains 42 existing PSH units, and less than 1,000 affordable housing units.
Santa Monica has around 350 PSH units, and 3000 affordable housing units.
Del Rey has 71 existing PSH units
Brentwood’s VA site will contain 1800 units of PSH currently in development, stemming from a federal program specifically for veterans.
Pacific Palisades and Malibu host zero PSH units as far as Becky knows. However there are many homeless residents camping in the hills and on the streets.
Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey currently host 216 units of VCH affordable housing. (http://www.vchcorp.org/housing/our-properties)
Previously, the stance of VNCHC has been that no other city (in District 11) has been asked to carry the weight. At a meeting a few months ago, VNCHC asked “How many shelter beds are currently in District 11? Where are they?” The 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless County states that in Venice there are 121 sheltered homeless, and 854 unsheltered. Mar Vista has 4 sheltered homeless, and 174 unsheltered. Malibu 0 sheltered homeless, and 155 unsheltered. Westchester/Playa Del Rey has 16 sheltered, 318 unsheltered. Marina Del Rey has 0 sheltered, 12 unsheltered. Pacific Palisades 0 sheltered, 107 unsheltered. Brentwood 0 sheltered, 34 unsheltered. For more complete results check out their website –https://www.lahsa.org/dashboards?id=13-count-by-city-community
Becky tells me that there has been no new affordable housing development in Venice for 20 years, but Will says that being built and created are 2 different things. There have been units created, but not built from scratch. He feels we should take the existing buildings and convert them-subsidize and integrate into the community. There are other plans backed by the VNCHC which I’ll cover in the future.
I asked Becky the NIMBY question, “What gives you the right to house homeless people a block from the beach, while others work their butts off and don’t get to live here?”
Becky responded, “The city owns property where they own property. They have to use city owned property…Every city owned property is being considered for one of these developments”. But more importantly, she says that low-income people also work hard, and that income diverse neighborhoods are important, and the City Land Program is designed to help develop PSH in a wide range of neighborhoods.
Becky points out that there are homeless folk all over the city and county of LA. There aren’t more here than parts of SM, parts of Downtown or South LA. Santa Monica has well over 1000 homeless, some housed now. She points out that Santa Monica sets a good example. There’s been a concentration of homeless in SM for many years; they invested heavily in services (far more than Venice). SM has 350 units of PSH compared to 42 in Venice. There are fewer homeless on the street now. She tells me “SM is bigger, but a similar beach community with tourists and welcoming to homeless folk… But Venice has very little housing now- so the idea that people are drawn here for shelter or housing isn’t true…People move around, they’re drawn to neighborhoods…go where there’s community…. We can’t point to a place where there’s more homeless or encampments because of PSH –opposite is true.”
To circle back to my original question; Is Bonin exacerbating the Venice homeless “crisis”, luring more homeless to Venice by providing more PSH and services?”
I believe the Venice NIMBY would say yes. Betsy, on behalf of VCH, would say no. Will Hawkins, on behalf of VNCHC would try to walk the middle – there are other ways to help our homeless neighbors rather than building new housing, including temporary shelter. Mike Bonin would say no, but I intend to find out why he doesn’t seem to be focusing on housing in areas outside of Venice. Are there city property “opportunity sites” in other areas of District 11?
I would have to say…it’s complicated. The homeless population is already here, and what we do about it determines our character. As our NIMBY states, “Venice is world-famous for its big heart and open mind”, and I would add “Our Bohemian spirit.” I believe that’s what’s drawn people of all sorts to our city, not the promise of easy housing and services. The homeless population is comprised of many different types of people and circumstances which require many different types of solutions. And I strongly believe we must work together to treat all our residents, including those living in the streets and vans, in a generous and courageous manner that reflects who we are, the greatest city on earth.
To be continued….