The battle over short-term rentals policy heats up around Venice Suites
By Gary Walker
Neighborhood tensions about the impact of short-term rentals on the price and availability of long-term rental housing in Venice divided the room during a packed Feb. 16 neighborhood council discussion over the fate of a 32-unit complex on the Venice Boardwalk.
Venice Chamber of Commerce President Carl Lambert was before the council seeking support for obtaining a city change of use permit to officially convert the designation of his Venice Suites property at 417 Ocean Front Walk from apartment building to hotel.
The council instead voted 10-6 against recommending approval for city planners, creating a temporary setback for Lambert and a momentary victory for community activists battling a proliferation of short-term rentals that they believe pits tourist dollars against housing affordability in Venice.
“This project is a clear threat to affordable housing and our community stability. The vote sends a clear message that our community doesn’t want our homes turned into hotels, and these types of short-term rentals are a real threat to Venice,” said Judith Goldman, a Venice resident and founder of the local activism group Keep Neighborhoods First.
Venice Suites wouldn’t be Lambert’s first short-term rental property. The California Coastal Commission recently supported a long-pending apartments-to-hotel status change for his 31-unit Venice Breeze Suites building at 2 Breeze Ave.
Lambert’s plans for 417 Ocean Front Walk will next go before a city zoning administrator for approval.
Supporters of the Venice Suites conversion, including many area business owners, drastically outnumbered opponents at the neighborhood council meeting.
Venice Neighborhood Council President Mike Newhouse noted that he received 108 requests to speak publicly on the matter, underscoring passions on both sides of the issue.
“During all my time as president and vice president of this council, we’ve never had this many cards,” Newhouse said.
The council’s Land Use and Planning Committee had previously voted to discourage the full council from supporting Lambert’s plan for Venice Suites, citing possible violations of the Mello Act, which is a state law that protects low- and moderate-income housing in coastal areas.
“The [LUPC] staff report is highly inaccurate,” Lambert told the council. “The question is ideology versus good planning.”
Several speakers during the meeting attested to Lambert’s philanthropic support of local charities and his overall reputation as a good neighbor.
“When I came to Venice Beach, I was unemployable. I came here just with my duffel bags and nothing else,” said Scott Branch, a manager at Venice Suites. “But Carl took a chance on me, and now I have a family, a kid and affordable housing. It’s turned my life around.”
Cara Brown, a Lambert supporter, said transient occupancy taxes that the city collects from hotels could be used to create more affordable housing.
“There is a lot of fear and disappointment that folks don’t have a lot of affordable housing. But this could be the answer. So you could all just go with the premise that maybe this could work for everybody and use these taxes for affordable housing,” Brown said.
But opponents say Lambert’s record of goodwill toward the community shouldn’t allow him to take permanent rental housing under rent stabilization controls off the market.
Venice Breeze’s certificate of occupancy describes it as an apartment building and not a hotel, said land-use attorney Amanda Seward, a former Venice Neighborhood Council member.
“The area is zoned for residential use, and short-term rentals are illegal in R3-zoned areas. This is not about how nice a guy Carl Lambert is. … This is about following the rules,” Seward said. “We need to save our long-term housing in Venice.”
Sue Kaplan, who lives on a walk street where several short-term vacation rentals operate, said denying Lambert’s conversion was about more than just following rules.
“Whatever happens, no matter what Mr. Lambert says, we have to remember that it would be unconscionable for Venice to not support affordable housing and rent-stabilization policy, and that’s what’s going on here. It is a moral issue for me, and I hope it is for all of you,” Kaplan told the council.
After the meeting, Lambert said he was optimistic about his chances at the city planning level.
“The zoning administrator looks at codes and facts, and the neighborhood council was making emotional pleas for something that they can’t have,” said Lambert, referring to affordable housing in coastal areas.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin has an ordinance pending before the City Council that would regulate short-term rentals and prohibit apartment units from being converted into short-term rentals.