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Twin issues of homelessness and development dominate debate in District 11 council race

Twin issues of homelessness and development dominate debate in District 11 council race
Residents listen as City Council candidate Robin Rudisill, left, and incumbent Mike Bonin debate at Winward School in Los Angeles. (Christina House / For The Times)

For more than a decade, two highly intertwined issues have dominated the political debate in Venice: gentrification and homelessness.

The oceanside district, once a shabby haven for artists and hippies, has been transformed into one of L.A.'s most expensive and trendy neighborhoods. The already hot real estate market went into overdrive in recent years with the rise of Snap Inc. and other tech companies that make up Silicon Beach.

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But as Venice has gotten richer, the situation has gotten more desperate for the people at the bottom. The Venice Boardwalk has long attracted homeless people, and many believe the numbers have increased in recent years, stoking tension in the neighborhood.

Now, voters in City Council District 11 — which includes Venice, Mar Vista, Westchester and other neighboring communities — are set to weigh in on the twin controversies.

Councilman Mike Bonin is seeking reelection Tuesday, and the vote is shaping up to be a referendum on his policies on homelessness and development.

Bonin has focused much of his first term trying to find a policy to deal with the homeless problem.

His detailed plans have divided the district. Some praise Bonin for making bold proposals on homelessness, while others worry these ideas will turn Venice into even more of a homeless magnet. His cleanup plan, critics say, will mean security guards harassing the homeless and lead to more gentrification. A plan to turn an abandoned senior center in Venice into a storage facility for homeless people and a plan to use public land for homeless housing have also been hotly debated.

Much of the district's rapid upscale development over the last few years is also seen through different lenses. Some like all the new eateries and shops and don't mind Venice's chic vibe. But others say Bonin has not done enough to control development, which they say has worsened traffic, led to ugly and impractical housing projects and made the district even less affordable for people of modest means.

Venice is famous for its political activism, and these debates are fierce. Bonin is being challenged by two mainstays in the political life of Venice: Robin Rudisill and Mark Ryavec.

Rudisill has been a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council and is a community and coastal advocate. An accountant, she was an outspoken critic of the California Coastal Commission when the board fired its executive director last year.

Ryavec founded and leads the Venice Stakeholders Assn., which advocates for neighborhood improvements. He's also worked in politics before and previously served as a real estate lobbyist — even working for Donald Trump when he tried to develop the Ambassador Hotel site almost 30 years ago.

On a sunny day last month, Ryavec pulled up to an encampment at Rose and 3rd avenues in a white Audi where dozens of homeless men and women were situated with their belongings. "People just store their crap here," he said.

It's illegal to store belongings overnight, but they do, he noted. Part of his plan would be to ban homeless storage units within 300 feet of any residences and for the police to enforce current laws.

The encampment has been a source of tension between Ryavec and other Venice residents. In February, former Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks glanced off an email to her friends and associates about Ryavec and how, in 2012, he posted her home address and the addresses of nine others online.

Ryavec objected to their opposition to his goal of clearing homeless people's belongings and trash along the drag. He sardonically wrote that these folks shouldn't mind if people sleep outside their homes, then offered homeless individuals $20 if they camped outside their homes.

"My plea to you is not to fall for the glossy mailers presenting a mild mannered person. He is the opposite," Lucks wrote.

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For his part, Ryavec, who eventually took some addresses down, said a death threat he received justified his actions. He called the residents who express sympathy for the homeless as long as they're not outside their homes hypocrites. That some of them felt threatened was his only regret.

Rudisill criticized Bonin's opposition to Measure S, which would restrict development in the city, and his support of a large development project at West Olympic Boulevard and Bundy Drive that will create hundreds of apartments and hundreds of thousands of square feet in office space.

"Every neighborhood I go to feels betrayed that he's very nontransparent and making poor decisions," she said. "He's approving projects that are significantly reducing the quality of life."

Bonin addressed those concerns as he sat in his cramped but bustling campaign office on a recent Friday night.

His volunteers were hurriedly folding signs and making calls. His 3-year-old son, Jacob, ran around flipping the lights off and on.

"You always have pockets of people who have gripes. That's legitimate," Bonin said.

Cities can't enforce their way out of homelessness, Bonin said, adding that courts have said it's unconstitutional. The solution, he said, is more housing and more services for homeless individuals — many of whom suffer from severe mental illness or substance problems.

Hating the traffic is one source of agreement in a district where most questions of policy turn into political food fights. Bonin points out that he secured $2 million from the city to relieve the jams that occur on Sunset Boulevard near the 405 Freeway.

It's an issue on which he solicited community input and hustled to find a solution, he said.

At a recent candidate forum, one person held up a sign, "Venice 4 Sale Mike Bonin Realty." Ryavec didn't attend but sent recorded responses to questions.

When asked about the homeless situation at Rose and 3rd avenues, both challengers pounced.

"[Bonin has] done almost nothing to protect residents from the burden of these encampments," Ryavec said.

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After Rudisill spoke, Bonin addressed the audience, saying it seemed Ryavec cribbed many of his ideas from his platform.

"If there's a single reason why we have a culture of encampments and tents... it's because of the failed strategy that Mr. Ryavec and people like him have advocated," Bonin said to cheers. "That is a strategy, which has said we need to enforce our way out of homelessness."

As the candidates made their closing statements, Sergio Diaz of Mar Vista said Bonin had offered the most substantive answers throughout the night. He had voted for Bonin in 2013 but had been disappointed by his tenure.

"As much as I'm not a fan of Bonin, he clearly knows how the city works," he said.

Lucks, who is not endorsing a candidate, agrees. She believes that Rudisill could be a stout advocate for the district.

But she said the notion that Bonin has acted without consulting the community on homelessness and traffic problems isn't true.

On his homeless initiative, "I know there were years of meetings in the social services and activists and community leader," Lucks said. "He's being sandbagged as a lone wolf, and I know that's not true."

Twitter: @boreskes

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