One of Venice’s oldest apartment buildings is barred from operating as a short-term rental hotel

By Gary Walker

The Ellison Suites has been advertising weekend stays for as
much as $790
Photo by Maria Martin

The owner of an historic Venice Beach apartment building that has been replacing his tenants with tourists has been blocked from converting his property into a de-facto hotel for short-term vacation rentals.

On May 15 the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission voted 3-0 to reject landlord Lance Robbins’ appeal to legally operate the 58-unit Ellison Suites, located just 250 feet from the Venice Boardwalk at 15 Paloma Ave., as a hotel.

Robbins and attorney Thomas Nitti argued that Ellison Suites, built in 1913, had historically operated as a hotel, but city officials and the few remaining permanent residents of the Ellison counter that Robbins has been operating most of the building as a hotel without proper city permits for years.

Listings on the Ellison’s website recently offered two-night stays in garden and gallery suites for $370, or up to $790 for two weekend nights in one of several ocean-view suites.

Zoning Administrator David Weintraub stated during the hearing that all city documents indicate that Los Angeles officials have always permitted the Ellison as an apartment house.

Commission member Lisa Waltz Morocco noted that Robbins’ request is the second occasion that a landlord has pressed the commission to redefine an apartment building as a hotel.

“Basically, they’re asking us to legalize this illegal use. I find it disturbing that right now they are not in compliance and are operating illegally. I find it troubling that Building and Safety has orders to comply out there for four years, and that’s the frustrating part to a lot of folks out there,” Waltz Morocco said. “All the evidence points to this as being an apartment, and I believe that it is an apartment. Eighty-five years of permitting identify it as an apartment, and I wholeheartedly deny this appeal.”

Len Nguyen, a senior planning deputy for Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, said Robbins’ appeals ended with the commission’s vote, as he cannot appeal to the City Council or the California Coastal Commission.

Bruce Kijewski, a 40-year Ellison tenant who has led the fight against the property’s conversion into a short-term rental hotel, was only partially happy after the commission’s ruling.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but history has shown that I have a right to be pessimistic because there are laws on the books and if they were enforced we wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

“Over the past three years the transition from being an apartment complex into a hotel has been intense,” said Taylor Hornecker, a three-year Ellison resident.

Hornecker said tourists are paraded through the complex with little regard for the few remaining tenants.

“I feel like I’m an animal on exhibit,” she lamented.

Nitti’s argument on behalf of Robbins included a claim that commissioners did not have the authority to make rulings about short-term rentals. He referred to a March 18 case, Greenfield v. Mandalay Shores Community Association, in which a California court ruled that only cities and the California Coastal Commission could regulate short-term rentals.

Nitti also asked them to dismiss public comments made during the hearing about his client’s history of code violations and consider the case without regard to the shortage of affordable rental housing in Los Angeles.

“This is not a popularity contest, nor is it about the need for more housing. The necessity for more affordable housing should not enter into your deliberations,” Nitti told the commission.

The commissioners’ ruling comes shortly before the city’s new short-term rental ordinance is set to go into effect on July 1 and continues a broader public discussion on the loss of affordable housing in coastal regions and throughout Los Angeles.

Commissioner Ester Margulies noted how many speakers talked about the importance of affordable housing but said her decision focused solely on if Robbins had a valid appeal.

“From the testimony and the case file I have seen nothing to support that this is a hotel, and I think the evidence shows that it is an apartment house and this is what it has always been according to the city,” she said.