Steve Clare, executive director of Venice Community Housing Corporation (VCHC), remembers the beginning of the housing crisis on the Westside.
“It was in the mid-’80s,” he says. “Rents were going up rapidly at the time, forcing out a lot of people, particular the elderly Jewish community on the beach.”
In 1983, longtime tenants who were paying under-market rates at the rundown 40-unit Cadillac Hotel at Dudley Avenue and Ocean Front Walk were informed by the new owner that they would have to vacate to allow for renovation.
Four years later, an agreement between the landlord and those residents who hadn’t died or gone to nursing homes was reached and the landlord guaranteed their occupancy for life with no increase in the rent.
The Cadillac Hotel is now a youth hostel.
“At the same time, there were more and more homeless who were appearing in our area,” says Steve.
In the summer of 1987, the homeless situation on Ocean Front Walk and Rose Avenue grew to such an extent that it pitted people against each other, caused tempers to flare, produced threats and even violent turns and saw mediation attempts fail.
The beach campground issue was so volatile that it made national news in Time magazine.
This is when homeless activist Ted Hayes initiated his community-to-community trek to draw attention to the plight of the homeless along the California coastline.
His “Tent City” campaign made quite a statement, but the effort was to no avail. A ban on overnight sleeping on the beach was passed by the Los Angeles City Council.
New Venice groups rallied into action around their homeless causes, whether for or against.
One was Neighbor to Neighbor, a group of landlords, home owners, renters and homeless people, whose mission was to advocate for affordable housing, educate around those issues, support the homeless and support organizations that were providing services to the homeless.
Soon after, the group had run its course.
“People lose their interest and focus,” says Steve. “People drift away. Venice Neighbor to Neighbor fell into that same category of lethargy and eventual demise.”
But not everyone lost interest. A smaller group decided that advocacy and education weren’t enough.
“We really needed to address the loss of affordable housing in a more concrete way and to try to build an organization that would bring resources to the community and preserve and create affordable housing,” says Steve.
Thus was born Venice Community Housing Corporation, incorporated in 1988.
The corporation’s mission is to preserve, maintain and expand affordable housing opportunities for low-income people; provide economic development opportunities and support services; and preserve the economic, racial and social diversity of Venice.
The focus is on developing housing.
The flagship program provides 121 units of affordable housing in 11 buildings in Venice and Mar Vista, including a 32-bed transitional shelter for formerly homeless mothers and their children.
Steve is now optimistic about getting affordable housing back on the agenda.
Councilwoman Ruth Galanter “was instrumental in helping us in our effort to create affordable housing,” says Steve. “After she got farmed out to the Valley for the end of her term, Cindy [Miscikowski, who was the local councilwoman after redistricting] was not interested in affordable housing and we weren’t able to get help from the council office.
“Now that Bill [Rosendahl] has been elected and he’s been, I think, a good advocate for affordable housing, we’re optimistic that there will be support for developing affordable housing in the community,” Steve said.
Although its focus is on developing housing, the Venice Community Housing Corporation considers itself a community development organization that is responsible for bringing resources of all kinds to the community.
“Not just build physical assets, but also human assets,” says Steve. “After the gang war in 1993 and 1994 — 17 killings and 55 shootings in a nine-month period — it was a really horrific time.
“We decided that there was no other community group that was stepping up to address this issue. In fact, most people had the same opinion about black and brown youths that people had about the homeless earlier in the 1980s — just get rid of them.
“We knew that we had to provide some alternatives to the streets for these kids.”
Venice Community Housing Corporation’s YouthBuild trains at-risk youths in the construction trades, helps them develop leadership skills, supports them to obtain their high school diplomas or GEDs and connects them to jobs so they can transition into long-term employment or continue educational pursuits.
Steve remembers when they started the program in 1995 with five Shoreline Crips and five Venice 13 gang members.
Other programs of Venice Community Housing Corporation include:
n Infant Toddler Development Center, a partnership with St. Joseph Center, which provides care for children ages three months to three years;
n CommunityWorks for Kids, which provides after-school arts and recreation activities for at-risk children ages six to nine;
n L.A. Bridges — a gang-prevention program which provides after-school activities, tutoring, mentoring and leadership skills for Mark Twain Middle School students ages ten to 14;
n HandyWorker, which provides free home repairs for low-income elderly and disabled homeowners; and
n Law and Justice Program at Venice High School, which provides Teen Court, Truancy Reduction and Law Club.
The accomplishments of Venice Community Housing Corporation have not gone unnoticed, and here are just a few.
Its Construction Job Training Program received the coveted California Community Foundation Governor’s Award and was chosen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as one of only 69 organizations to receive YouthBuild funds in the country.
Tabor Courts housing project received the Award for Excellence from the Los Angeles Department of Community Development;
Steve was named “Advocate of the Year” by the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing for his leadership in leveraging more than $50 million in Proposition A job money for programs that serve inner city at-risk youths.
He also received the Agape Season for Non-Violence Community Hero Award and the Community Service Award from People’s College of Law.
A couple of years ago, Steve tried to leave Venice Community Housing Corporation, but it was not meant to happen yet.
The board did a search for another executive director without coming to a consensus decision.
“Many organizations suffer what they call ‘founder’s syndrome’,” says Steve. “The guy just refuses to leave. The organization can’t continue to develop outside the capacities of the original founder.
“I don’t want that to happen to VCHC. It’s a dynamic organization that has good leadership within the staff and a good board that is focused on bringing in resources and also understands the mission of community development, which is important.”
A strategic plan does envision a transfer to a new executive director sometime in the next three years.
As with any nonprofit organization, Venice Community Housing Corporation depends on the largess of benefactors and the community.
In addition to normal business expenses, funding is needed to pay wages of youths when they are working on a job site learning a trade and stipends given while they are in class for their life skills education.
Venice Music Festival, Venice Community Housing Corporation’s annual fundraiser, will take place on Sunday, September 17th.
A trio of events — champagne brunch, silent auction and world music — will raise money for ongoing efforts to provide affordable housing, social and family support services to low-income families and at-risk youths.
Information, Venice Music Festival, Kristen Laskaris, (310) 399-4100, extension 106.
For volunteer opportunities, Mary Beth Abella, (310) 399-4100, extension 104. The VCHC Web site is www.vchcorp.org