Venice Beach Artist Presents Exhibition: “Where Has All the (Affordable) Housing Gone?”

Judy Branfman

Writer and activist Judy Branfman stands next to a map she created as part of an exhibition installation at Beyond Baroque Gallery, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in the Venice Beach area of ​​Los Angeles. AP Photo/Richard Vogel

As more and more of her friends and neighbors found themselves unable to rent units in Venice Beach, Judy Branfman began photographing dozens of homes, bungalows and condos being sold, renovated and then relisted for double or triple the cost.

Branfman began with the vague idea that she should document the growing problem of evictions and housing unaffordability in her beloved West Los Angeles neighborhood. The writer and activist lamented that Venice, where tourists flock to the famous promenade and Muscle Beach, is slowly shedding its historic bohemian character and becoming another enclave for the wealthy.

Word spread about her photography project, and earlier this year Branfman began hosting community meetings where residents could share their experiences with evictions that forced them out of the area and, in some cases, into homelessness. Some people were reading poems. Others expressed themselves through paintings. People more academic than them began collecting housing and eviction statistics.

Branfman’s initial idea of ​​taking just a few photos has culminated in an unexpected but ambitious exhibition combining art and data titled “Where Has All the (Affordable) Housing Gone?” It is on display through Saturday at Venice’s famous Beyond Baroque gallery, a hub of cultural events and activity dating back to the late 1960s.

“The idea was to illustrate the problem, show what we’ve lost. You know, make it visible so people will walk in and be a little shocked, and want to do something about it,” Branfman said on the show this week.

Venice has become the epicenter of Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis during the coronavirus pandemic, when encampments mushroomed in residential neighborhoods and along the sand. The country’s second-largest city also has 46,000 homeless residents out of a total population of 4 million, according to the latest survey.

The area has been a flashpoint for its visibility as a city landmark — the boardwalk attracts an estimated 10 million visitors a year. A certain grit has always coexisted with the live-and-let-live ethos of the artsy beach community, but the widening wealth gap has become increasingly apparent as tech companies move in and sleek modern homes emerge.

As building owners seek to bring in more affluent tenants, long-time residents find themselves dealing with rent increases that overwhelm their finances. About 80% of low-income renters in Los Angeles pay more than half their income toward housing costs, according to data released this week by the nonprofit Angeleno Project.

The report found that while Los Angeles is on track to meet certain goals for new housing set by recent ballot measures, “supply is severely lagging demand.”

“About 3,500 housing units are at high or very high risk of losing affordability conditions, threatening to push more families into homelessness,” the report said. “The significant decline in affordable housing that began in 2022 after COVID-19 continues to trend downward.”

Upon entering Branfman’s gallery, visitors encounter her images on a huge, detailed map depicting, piece by piece, many of the 1,500 units that she says have disappeared from Venice’s housing market over the course of two decades. In many cases, the buildings have been sold to large corporations that are increasingly buying up properties and raising rents.

The map, and much of the display, places some blame for the problem on the Ellis Act, a 1985 California law that gave landlords broad power to evict tenants in rent-controlled buildings for redevelopment, and then later list the same units at market rates. Branfman said she was “acting Ellis” when she was evicted from a Venice apartment in 2003.

“Many tenants are afraid to fight back. Most of them don’t know what their rights are under the law,” she said. Even when tenants file complaints against their landlords, she said, the city rarely prosecutes those claims.

On the wall opposite the map is a poem composed of quotes about why many renters are afraid to deal with their landlords, such as: “I don’t want any problems” and “My neighbors are undocumented and they’re afraid they’ll be targeted if they say anything.”

Upstairs are mixed-media paintings and sculptures that artist Sumaya Evans calls “dignity dolls.” Evans, who was homeless in Venice for years before recently finding housing, said creating art gave her a sense of self-worth when she was living on the streets.

“I’m used to being ignored as a homeless woman. People don’t see you when you’re out there,” she said. “So being part of a project like this, being part of a community, is very healing.”

Branfman and other housing activists hope change will bring the measure eligible for the 2024 ballot. The initiative that goes before voters would expand local control by repealing a 28-year-old law that prohibits rent control on single-family homes, condos and rental units built after 1995. .

After the exhibition closes on Saturday, Branfman hopes to find a home for some of the installations in a library or university. Most of them will be broadcast virtually on her Instagram page.

“The rest will be on display in my apartment,” she laughs.

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