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Op-Ed: Does it make sense to build affordable housing in Venice?

Pedestrians stroll along Venice's Abbot Kinney Boulevard in October of 2015.

Pedestrians stroll along Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard in October of 2015.

(Los Angeles Times)

A single block from the famous Venice boardwalk and near Gold’s Gym, there’s a newly vacant 3.5-acre lot. For decades, it was a bus yard.

It would be a good spot for a lavish beach pad or fancy condo development. Maybe the head of Google Venice, catty-corner across Main Street, would snap up a unit within Wi-Fi range of work. But if Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin has his way, Metro will forgo the chance to sell this real estate gold mine to the highest bidder.

Instead, it will build “affordable housing.” Of course it will take years before the first tenants move in, what with the inevitable NIMBY outcry and the often-abused environmental review process. The California Coastal Commission will have its say too, even on an asphalt lot where buses once parked.

Citywide, it’s no secret that the rent is too damn high. It’s been rising faster than inflation for years, vacancy rates are low and, on average, Angelenos spend almost half their income on housing. In this fantastically expensive city, Venice is among the priciest neighborhoods. On Abbot Kinney Boulevard, once America’s coolest street, gentrification has reached the point where luxury clothing boutiques are being priced out by still more exclusive boutiques.

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Little wonder that Bonin is eager to put a dent in the problem. But his plan, though better than nothing, is wildly inefficient.

There’s an opportunity cost associated with building affordable housing where millionaires want to live. Factoring in the value of land so close to the boardwalk, these will be fantastically expensive apartments to create. Why not sell to a developer and use the money to build many more units a half-mile inland?

The Argonaut, a Venice Beach newspaper, put the larger philosophical question to L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “Is it better to spread affordable housing construction throughout the region,” reporter Joe Piasecki asked, “or to focus on neighborhoods where land is cheaper?”

I suspect this project ... will ultimately house more savvy young renters with rich parents than working class families. That’s who most wants to live in today’s bourgeois Venice.

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She sided with the former on the grounds that it’s better to have mixed-income areas than isolated enclaves of rich and poor. “Otherwise whole swaths of the city are totally out of reach,” she told Piasecki, “and they’re usually the most desirable swaths — beach access, green space, all the kinds of things that make life better.”

To a point I agree. A busboy at the restaurant Gjusta shouldn’t have to commute from Inglewood. But is he really better-served living on the block where he works, rather than a 15- or 20-minute bike ride away, given that the bahn mi at his place of employment runs $16, the last cheap Mexican joint just got priced out of the neighborhood, and even taco trucks are getting steep? Putting rent aside, the cost of living in Venice is sky high.

That’s why I suspect this project, if it comes to fruition, will ultimately house more savvy young renters with rich parents than working-class families. That’s who most wants to live in today’s bourgeois Venice.

One small affordable-housing development cannot alter the neighborhood’s trajectory, but that doesn’t mean ever more rapid gentrification is inevitable.

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If eight-story apartment buildings were allowed on Venice Boulevard west of the 405; if they rose up on Venice’s stretch of Lincoln Boulevard too, displacing the auto repair shops and carwashes; if homeowners could legally rent their alley garages to lower-income tenants; and if developers weren’t forced to set aside so much land for parking, rents would come down. And enough non-rich people would live here to sustain a diversity of businesses to serve them.

But the Venice residents who fight over what gets built in the area don’t want that future. Insofar as they’re able, they want to preserve a low-rise community of beach bungalows; and adjacent neighborhoods want to preserve their charm too.

Who can blame them? It’s lovely here. Let’s just be straightforward about the trade-off. Tiny, symbolic projects are not going to make the Westside of Los Angeles cheaper. Only significant changes to its aesthetic, its density and its transit will do that. Preservation or affordability: pick one.

Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

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