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Venice residents fight over homeless housing project — and character of the neighborhood

Venice residents fight over homeless housing project — and character of the neighborhood
Chris Buck wheels his portable home, which has a bed inside, along the boardwalk in Venice Beach. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A proposed homeless housing development in Venice — ground zero in Los Angeles' debate over how to deal with its homelessness crisis — would provide apartments for artists and low-wage workers.

Released Thursday, the proposal incorporates 68 studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments for currently homeless people on a city-owned parking lot along Venice Boulevard between Dell and Pacific avenues, in the middle of one of Los Angeles' swankiest neighborhoods. Low-income artists and low-wage households would also be allocated 68 units.

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"By serving multiple groups, we're getting at the historic diversity of Venice and creating opportunity for people" to remain in the area, said Becky Dennison, executive director of Venice Community Housing. The advocacy group, along with the Hollywood Community Housing Corp., is behind the Venice proposal.

Opposition to building shelter for homeless people in the rapidly gentrifying beach community — which has seen an influx of tech giants such as Google and Snapchat — was on display in a raucous series of public hearings last fall. Residents protested that more homeless people could be helped by selling the lot and building housing in less pricey neighborhoods.

In addition to apartments, the plan calls for ground-floor retail shops that also would serve as job-training sites. There would be green space along the canal that bisects the property, a rooftop garden, four onsite property managers and supportive services provided by four full-time case managers.

The original cost estimate to develop the lot — $304,000 a unit — will change depending on the project's final makeup of living and community space, Dennison said. The financing is still to be decided, but it would include public subsidies.

City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents the area, said he would withhold judgment until a formal plan was submitted. But, he said, the proposal was encouraging.

To Christian Wrede of the community group VeniceVision, however, the project is too big and not economical. He and other opponents have accused Bonin of trying to place too many low-income units in Venice residential neighborhoods.

"The only lot Bonin has tagged for development outside of Venice is the site of the former animal shelter in West Los Angeles, which is on a commercial corridor and is but one-fourth the size" of the Dell-Pacific project, Wrede said in an email.

Residents expressed fears for their children during last fall's meetings, and homeowners sued to stop the conversion of a refurbished senior center into a storage facility for homeless people's belongings.

Supporters pleaded to expand affordable housing, which they said underpinned the beach town's traditional bohemian and artistic flavor.

Both sides said the outcome of the housing fight could permanently change the town's character.

Venice Community Housing held public meetings and visits to other apartments for formerly homeless people to gather community ideas for the housing plan, which could receive funding from a $1.2-billion bond that L.A. voters approved in November.

The project could also draw from Measure H, a quarter-cent county sales tax increase that would be used to provide support for people living on the streets. The measure is clinging to a slim lead after Tuesday's election, with strong support from Venice voters.

Dennison said it was too soon to set a date for the project to break ground. The plan must undergo further community review and a formal planning process.

"We're going to try to move as fast as we can, because the need is overwhelming," Dennison said, "but going at a pace to make sure the surrounding community has a true voice."

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Twitter: @geholland

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