Low-income housing is disappearing in rapidly gentrifying Venice because the city is not enforcing a state law designed to protect affordable housing in the coastal zone, according to a study conducted by a UCLA graduate student.
The law, the Mello Bill, was passed by the state Legislature in 1982 and requires that demolished or converted low- and moderate-income units be replaced, restricts demolition or conversion of residential units and sets affordable housing requirements for new construction.
The study concluded that Los Angeles building, planning, zoning and housing departments at best have a spotty approach to implementing the vague law and at worst don't enforce it at all.
Venice is one of the few coastal areas in the city of Los Angeles where affordable housing historically has been available.
Most of the city officials contacted by The Times had not seen the study but generally did not quarrel with its basic conclusion: The city lacks any consistent policy for enforcing the Mello Bill, named for state Sen. Henry Mello (D-Watsonville).
"No one is enforcing the spirit and intent of Mello," said Bob Sutton, a Planning Department official.
The Venice Community Housing Corp., a nonprofit organization concerned with affordable housing, commissioned the study, conducted by Anne Murphy as a master's thesis in urban planning at UCLA. Its objective was to look into the city's efforts to enforce regulations that were designed to preserve and provide affordable housing.
Murphy did a case-by-case analysis of public records relating to construction and demolition since 1982 and interviewed city officials.
She found that only nine affordable housing units were added since 1982 as a result of the Mello Bill.
The study identified a minimum of 271 housing units demolished in the Venice coastal zone since the Mello Bill was passed, but was able to find only five units of affordable housing replaced as a result of the law.
And of the 1,200 housing units built in the Venice coastal area within the past eight years, only four affordable units were built under requirements of the law, the study found.
It is probable that the bulk of the demolished units were low- or moderate-income because it is those properties that are typically redeveloped, the study reported, citing a housing study done by the city of Los Angeles.
None of the nine new affordable housing units are for very-low-income families. Monthly rent on a very-low-income two-bedroom unit for a family of four in Venice is $440. On the same low-income unit the rent would be $516, and for moderate income it would be $902.
Murphy's investigation of the city's implementation of the law uncovered confusion and finger pointing.
"The Planning Department insisted that the Department of Building and Safety was primarily responsible for enforcing the Mello Bill. The Department of Building and Safety placed this responsibility on the Planning Department," said the study.
"Both the Department of Building and Safety and the Planning Department said the Community Development Department was responsible for . . . monitoring all the low- and moderate-income housing. Not a single department has developed any procedures for tracking the enforcement of the Mello Bill provisions through the various stages of the permit process," the study concluded.
In interviews with city officials, The Times also found similarly conflicting notions of when, why and by whom the law should be applied.
"You may have found the essence of the story there," said Jim Bickhart, planning deputy for Venice-area Councilwoman Ruth Galanter.
According to Bickhart, he experienced the confusion firsthand in the past few years, leading Galanter to recently push a measure through the City Council to enforce the law in Venice by linking it to an interim control ordinance designed to manage development. A brief moratorium on demolitions in the Venice coastal zone was also approved.
Galanter said the study's findings coincided with her own perceptions.
Officials in the city attorney's office said they have been studying the law's enforcement and will try to sort out who is responsible for it.
In the meantime, the Board of Zoning Appeals recently sent a letter to the mayor, City Council and Planning Department saying it would grant exemptions from the low- and moderate-income housing requirements of the Mello Bill to all those seeking them.
"The state law appears to require that the city adopt an ordinance to implement the Mello Bill. No such ordinance exists," wrote James D. Leewong, the then-head of the board in the Aug. 1, 1990, letter.
The law that has spawned the confusion is actually a watered-down version of a previous law, in terms of enforcement, under which the California Coastal Commission was in charge of ensuring that affordable housing in the coastal zone be maintained. The previous law was based on the theory that the beach is an area that should be accessible to all citizens, Galanter said.