Silicon Beach and Gentrification
The growth of hi-tech companies in Venice has created controversy and frustration in a historically African-American neighborhood of Venice. Some long-time residents of Oakwood are angry about the gentrification of their neighborhood, the construction of huge modern homes in traditional neighborhoods, and the loss of affordable housing. Reporter Cara Santa Maria talks with realtors, home hunters and local residents about the dramatic changes happening in Venice.
Cara Santa Maria: This is the Venice most of us know. The beach, the boardwalk, interesting characters. But there are lesser-known parts of Venice--older, quieter neighborhoods, like Oakwood. Laddie Williams’s grandfather bought this bungalow way back in 1905. She’s well known around Oakwood, so it’s not uncommon for residents to stop and vent about their concerns for the neighborhood.
Laddie Williams: That’s my neighbor. Say it again, Mitt!
Man in Car: You have to believe in the neighborhood and not just the price per square foot.
Cara Santa Maria: Oakwood is a historically African American district. It’s one of few on the Westside, and the only one near the beach. It also just happens to be next door to the LA tech boom currently encompassing Venice’s beach community. Young techies are creating demand, looking for homes close to work. Real estate investors are capitalizing on this, so they’re tearing down many of the bungalows in this historic neighborhood and building large, modern homes.
Laddie Williams: But see what I’m saying is that, you see how when they have a party up there?
Cara Santa Maria: Yes. Oh, they can...
Cara Santa Maria: Laddie took me on a tour to see it first hand.
Cara Santa Maria: And this one’s huge.
Laddie Williams: And this one’s huge, and that’s gonna be a roof access up there. it looks down on this house, and it looks down on that house to the east.
Cara Santa Maria: Yeah, no privacy in that house at all.
Laddie Williams: No privacy. And that’s what is happening. That’s what I call architectural domain, where they’re just making it so you sell the house, which the people to the east have sold their house.
Cara Santa Maria: Laddie is the main plaintiff in a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and the Coastal Commission. She says they’ve approved construction that violates many of Venice’s building codes.
Cara Santa Maria: How often are you seeing these popping up?
Laddie Williams: These are popping up every day.
Cara Santa Maria: Laddie says the existing building codes are meant to preserve the socioeconomic diversity and single-story character of the neighborhood.
Pedestrian: This is an atrocity.
Laddie Williams: See?
Pedestrian: It’s disgusting!
Laddie Williams: Told you. There you go. Say it again babe.
Pedestrian: I’ve been here over a decade. It’s an atrocity!
Laddie Williams: Come here, explain why you say that’s an atrocity.
Pedestrian: Oh, so many reasons it’s ridiculous. There’s not even a yard here! It’s like, what’s the point? And why do we want this in our neighborhood?
Laddie Williams: Told you.
Pedestrian: It’s an eyesore.
Laddie Williams: At the next construction site, affordable housing was demolished to make room for new condos.
Laddie Williams: I’m showing you the house that was in the back.
Cara Santa Maria: Uh huh.
Laddie Williams: And then there was an apartment building in the front, a one bedroom on the bottom and a four bedroom on top.
Cara Santa Maria: So you can't just rip out affordable housing and put in a single family?
Laddie Williams: A single family, yeah, and this wasn't even a single family, it’s gonna be two condos.
Cara Santa Maria: Condos. But definitely not affordable.
Laddie Williams: Not--definitely not affordable.
Cara Santa Maria: Once again, a neighbor stopped us to air his grievances.
Paul Eckstein: The reason I moved to Venice when I did 12 years ago was the diversity, the culture. That's lost to a great degree now because of this gentrification, not only because of the Silicon Beach coming down here and taking over and raising up the prices, crazy, but very clearly there was an organized effort by people in this city, whether it’s real estate developers or parole or police or the sheriffs. You know, how do you try and save your neighborhood from people who are more rich and more powerful than you?
Cara Santa Maria: Whether or not city officials are to blame, rapid development isn’t confined to Oakwood. Throughout Venice, demand is rising for these so-called “McMansions.”
Tracy Thrower Conyers: Over a dozen, maybe 20 houses, that have sold at fifteen hundred dollars a square foot.
Cara Santa Maria: Jeez!
Cara Santa Maria: Realtor Tracy Thrower Conyers is showing this 5-million dollar, 5,000 square foot home to Garrett Hendricksen, the CEO of a startup called Shootly.
Cara Santa Maria: Hey Garrett.
Garrett Hendricksen: Hi.
Cara Santa Maria: Hey, nice to meet you. Alright, well why don't you guys go look at it, and I’ll kind of get the lowdown after.
Cara Santa Maria: Inside: three stories, high ceilings, and plenty of room to work.
Cara Santa Maria: Hey guys.
Garrett Hendricksen: Hey.
Cara Santa Maria: So what’d you think?
Garrett Hendricksen: I like it a lot actually.
Cara Santa Maria: Yeah?
Garrett Hendricksen: Um, I like the openness to it, I like how it could be combined with work-live.
Cara Santa Maria: Oh so is that kind of your purpose in buying a new home?
Garrett Hendricksen: Yeah, so I run a company, a startup here in Venice, so it would be nice to have the team here, um, you know, all under one roof.
Cara Santa Maria: I found out that probably about a year ago, this house sold for, like, half of what it's on the market for now.
Garrett Hendricksen: Oh gosh. Don’t tell me that! Jeez.
Cara Santa Maria: While that may seem over the top, the median home price in Venice is about 1.7 million dollars, and many houses in the area go for much more. Like this 784 square foot cabin on a double lot, ready for expansion. It’s asking price? Almost five million dollars. Back at her office, Tracy showed me how Silicon Beach home prices have dramatically risen over the last five years.
Tracy Thrower Conyers: The graphs basically are a straight upshot, and it's consistent in all the cities.
Cara Santa Maria: What kind of impact does this have on people who already live in the community?
Tracy Thrower Conyers: If they are planning on staying, they can just watch their property values rise and rise and rise. If they want to sell, they’re gonna make a tidy little amount on their property if they've had it longer than a year or two.
Cara Santa Maria: Are you worried that this gentrification ultimately leads to homogenization of you know, colors and perspectives and backgrounds in these communities?
Tracy Thrower Conyers: I do a little bit. I think one of the reasons that Venice has been so hot as like, the new heart of Silicon Beach is because of the grittiness and creativity. And, you know, I do worry that we can lose that.
Cara Santa Maria: Back at Laddie’s grandfather’s house, we’re joined by two neighborhood activists, including Jataun Valentine. She’s lived in Venice for 60 years.
Jataun Valentine: Gentrification to me is that people that they have no respect for the neighborhood that they come in. And, that’s all they want is, they really don't want to live with low income people or people of color. And it’s all they think about is, if they offer you money, that we're that ignorant that we're going to take it and go.
Cara Santa Maria: Judy Branfman says she was evicted from her apartment so the landlord could raise rent illegally.
Judy Branfman: We’ve lost, gosh, over a thousand units of rent-stabilized housing. That’s--those are houses that are legally, you know, lower, middle-income housing.
Cara Santa Maria: Why do you think it’s happening now?
Laddie Williams: Gentrification.
Cara Santa Maria: Laddie says gentrification has racial overtones.
Cara Santa Maria: How do you define gentrification?
Laddie Williams: Bottom line, racism. If it was happening in any other predominantly white community, they would not allow it to happen. It would be stopped. But since it was a predominantly African American and Latino community, turn the eye. I just call gentrification racism.
Cara Santa Maria: While many in the neighborhood point to Silicon Beach techies for unwanted change, the co-owner of Venice hotspot James’ Beach defends the newcomers.
Daniel Samakow: It's so funny because I bet in the last hundred years, people have said the exact same thing when the Beat Poets came to Venice, they probably said the exact same thing when the Doors and different kinds of musicians and Janis Joplin were here in Venice.
Cara Santa Maria: Daniel Samakow says the problem really rests with profit-seeking short-term investors.
Daniel Samakow: I think some of the prices have been being driven up by speculators from outside the area, trying to take advantage of it, but these creative people who’re coming here, I don’t blame them at all.
Cara Santa Maria: Meanwhile, Laddie and her neighbors plan to continue their legal fight to preserve their neighborhood.
Laddie Williams: I think people should be able to live in a community, be happy, as we were, for over 50 years. To me that's the most important, is community. It’s not about the property values.
Cara Santa Maria: A wave of change is moving from Silicon Beach, east to downtown LA, and beyond. What remains to be seen is whether newcomers and long-standing residents can seamlessly integrate. Whether opportunity will flow from Silicon Beach to LA’s more diverse communities, putting to good use the innovate spirit and creative solutions the high tech industry is famous for. I’m Cara Santa Maria for "SoCal Connected."