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Affordable Housing Is A Westside Problem:

In 1996, a 900-square foot home in Venice sold for $200,000. Today, the same house sells for $975,000. For many buyers, those prices have made owning a home impossible. It’s also meant trouble for renters on the Westside.

On Saturday, April 8th, Liberty Hill Foundation, Santa Monica’s largest public foundation, took three dozen foundation supporters and reporters on a tour of the Westside. The van tour gave residents a first hand look at how Los Angeles’ affordable housing crisis has affected the Westside.

The group first met with residents in Marina Del Rey who are living on their boats. These residents are called “live-aboards.” Today, there are about 570 live-aboards living in the Marina, many of whom feel threatened by rising property values and new developments. One resident, Helen Garrett, who lived aboard her 42-foot sailboat for $560 per month in 2003, saw her rent nearly double three years later. A former secretary and mother of two, she found she could no longer afford rent. Facing the threat of homelessness, Garrett got involved with one of the Westside’s most effective community organizations, POWER, People Organized for Westside Renewal.

POWER has helped Garrett and others like her enforce the Mello Act of 1981. The Mello Act’s purpose is to preserve residential housing units occupied by low- or moderate-income families. It requires any development within one mile of the California coast to include a minimum of 10 percent of its units for low- or moderate- income families. But the act has no enforcement provisions, leaving residents little recourse if developers don’t comply with the law.

Since 1999, POWER has built relationships with and organized residents of Venice, Marina del Rey and Mar Vista to advocate for affordable housing. In 2005, POWER and Westside residents worked with city supervisors to enforce the Mello Act, securing 10 percent of the units in a development adjacent to Marina Beach for low- to moderate-income families. Garrett, who now lives in one of these “Mello Act” units, continues to work with POWER to insure that longtime residents in the Marina and other Westside communities don’t lose their homes. Says Garrett, “POWER empowered me.”

Chris Gabriel, Executive Director of POWER since 2004, led Liberty Hill’s van tour. He insists his organization doesn’t give power to residents, but “develops the human spirit. It’s the organizer’s role to rekindle hope in forsaken communities. We help them figure out ways to transform their community.”

Gabriel also introduced participants to Barbara Williams, a special-ed teacher at Westwood Charter School, who has lived in Venice for 37 years where she now owns a home. She fears the growing property values and developments that exclude low-income families are a threat to the community. Through her work with handicapped students, Barbara has learned “inclusion is the best model in all things.” The community thrives when residents of all income levels can thrive in it. Barbara is not alone in her beliefs. Seventy-six percent of Americans say they would support affordable housing in their community. Sixty-three percent say they would support it next door.

In addition to working to revamp the Mello Act, POWER is currently working with the support of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on an innovative deal to buy a Section 8 building in Venice from a private owner. Section 8 is a federal housing program which provides housing assistance to low-income renters and homeowners through rental subsidies. The deal could serve as a model for other low-income residents currently living in Section 8 housing. Many of the Westside’s Section 8 buildings were developed with 40-year mortgages that are coming to term. As a result, families living in them could face eviction.

Summing up what many residents expressed on the tour that day, Carla Andrus, a 51-year-old live-aboard said that for her, living close to the water, to nature, and all she loves represents freedom. “Twenty years ago, people could say the rents were reasonable. Now, it’s become a yacht harbor for the super wealthy, but the coast belongs to all of us.”

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