Tenants of The Ellison Suites say they’re being displaced for more lucrative short-term vacation rentals

Unite Local 11 organized a March 8 picket outside The Ellison Suites to complain that tourists are replacing tenants
Photos by Maria Martin

By Gary Walker

Bruce Kijewski can remember waking up to crashing waves and ocean breezes in his apartment on a quiet walk street in Venice in the late 1970s. He also remembers long-term tenants at The Ellison Suites before it became a short-term vacation rental three years ago.

“I had neighbors for 20 years. Now I’ve got neighbors for 20 hours,” Kijewski said of changes in the building where he’s lived for 40 years, covered by the city’s rent stabilization ordinance.

Of the 60 units at the Ellison, only 12 are now occupied by permanent residents — 10 of whom are organizing to fight what they allege are the landlord’s attempts to force them out, thus freeing up their units up for more lucrative short-term vacation rentals.

“It used to be sort of paradise, and now it’s become a party hotel,” said Brian Averill, an Ellison tenant of 15 years. “It’s a disaster.”

What’s happening at 15 Paloma Ave., a block from the beach, is all too common in Venice and throughout Los Angeles, affordable housing activists say.

Unite Here Local 11, a labor union which represents hotel, restaurant and airport workers in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, called attention to the issue by staging a picket in front of the Ellison on March 8, protesting its apparent conversion into an income-generating vacation rental property.

“Our members are the most vulnerable to the housing crisis. We see [vacation rental brokers such as] Airbnb as a direct threat to their ability to live near their workplaces, which are often in affluent neighborhoods, and have the same access to the resources in their neighborhoods,” said Unite Here Local 11 research analyst Danielle Wilson.

The Ellison Suites’ website currently offers rooms for rent starting at $149 per night.

Lance Robbins, a real estate attorney and owner of the Ellison, could not be reached at his office. In 2001, then City Attorney James Hahn called Robbins “one of Los Angeles’ most notorious landlords” for repeated code violations, and a spokesman for the office confirmed convictions for multiple violations dating back to the 1990s. Rosario Perry, a Santa Monica attorney who has represented Robbins in previous litigation, did not return calls.

Mar Vista attorney Amanda Seward has represented two Ellison tenants who have won unlawful eviction cases against Robbins and is currently representing a third tenant.

“I think he’s the worst landlord that I’ve encountered,” Seward said of Robbins.

Housing advocates complain that the city isn’t doing enough to rein in landlords who illegally convert permanent rental housing into de facto hotel rooms, and that L.A. City Council members are dragging their feet on approving new regulations initially proposed by Councilmen Mike Bonin and Herb Wesson in June 2015.

“It’s been way too long, and there haven’t been enough prosecutions in the interim — especially considering the critical shortage of housing,” said Seward, a former member of the Venice Neighborhood Council.

Wilson points to vacation rental ordinances in Santa Monica and West Hollywood as examples of proactive leadership on the issue.

Kijewski, who has addressed the L.A. City Council and Venice Neighborhood Council about vacation rentals, argues the problem isn’t as complicated as the municipal legislative process is making it out to be.

“We want them to enforce the law that’s on the books. You don’t need new legislation to do that,” he asserted.

Averill said he plans to stay at the Ellison as long as he can.

“I love Venice, so I’m just sort of digging in for the long haul,” he said.