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Monday, December 11, 2023 | Back issues
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California residents, policymakers struggle with beach access as housing costs rise

California’s Coastal Commission is tasked with making sure all Californians have access to the state’s famous beaches. But as housing costs in the Golden State continue to climb, such access remains just a dream for many low-income residents.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Life can be loud, filled with the sounds of music and yelling, but living feet away from iconic Venice Beach and its famous boardwalk is worth it for Terry McGhee. 

McGhee grew up in South Los Angeles. As a kid, he rode his bicycle to Venice Beach whenever he could. The two places aren’t far from each other, but to McGhee they seemed like different worlds, the beach a reprieve from the violence and neglect that characterized his own neighborhood.

“Looking back on it, that was a very dangerous ride,” McGhee, now 60, recalled in an interview in September of this year. He remembers dodging cars on the highway as he biked the famous beach town, its boardwalk always filled with rollerbladers, bodybuilders and eccentrics.

After bouncing around for a bit — including spending time in Antelope Valley on the far and desert-y reaches of the Los Angeles area — McGhee in 2016 was able to find a subsidized apartment in Venice Beach through the nonprofit Venice Community Housing.

While nothing fancy, the apartment gave McGhee a foothold in the vibrant beach community he’d always loved. It also let him reconnect with his daughter, who until recently lived in the neighborhood.

“I get up in the morning and sometimes I can see dolphins,” McGhee said in an interview from his apartment overlooking the beach. “You can’t beat the scenery. You can’t beat the view.”

As housing prices perpetually increase in California and as gentrification and speculation continue to eat up affordable homes, McGhee is one of a shrinking number of low-income Californians that can afford to live near the state’s iconic beaches. 

Against that backdrop, the California Coastal Commission — the state agency tasked with protecting the coastline and ensuring every Californian has access to it — is beginning to rethink how they define access with the goal of making sure the coast isn’t just for rich people. But the commission faces an uphill battle on that front, as soaring housing prices and income inequality in the Golden State have put the California Dream out of reach of many residents.

For his part, McGhee says he gets along with everybody — from the rich to the homeless.

“I’m not better than he, you’re not worse than me,” he said. “I give what I can when I got it.”

Even still, his neighborhood is a testament to rampant gentrification in California’s increasingly pricey beach communities. From the roof of his apartment complex, McGhee points to an apartment complex down the street that he said is offering studio apartments for a whooping monthly rent of $4,500. And yet elsewhere on the same street, there's also a couple living in a van.

Los Angeles' famous Venice Boardwalk, photographed on September 20, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/CNS)

The high rents are a far cry from the Venice Beach that McGhee remembers from his youth. Though once bohemian, Venice has become a magnet for technology companies, house flippers and short-term rental units. Like in other previously relatively affordable coastal areas, gentrification here is causing housing prices to skyrocket. 

Scenes like this are catching the attention of policymakers, forcing them to grapple with how California’s ongoing housing crisis affects access to state beaches. Donna Brownsey, the chair of California’s Coastal Commission, says the problem has garnered concern from “everybody at every level of government.” 

Created by ballot measure in 1972 before being then made permanent by the state legislature in 1976, California’s Coastal Commission exists to protect the state’s coast and marine habitats while also ensuring all residents have access to the state’s shoreline. It does this by regulating land use in coastal zones, including construction of new roads, businesses and housing.


The commission originally also had a mandate to create affordable housing along the coast — but in the years since its founding, changes to the commission’s role have contributed to a NIMBY image. 

In 1981, an increasingly conservative state legislature removed the commission’s affordable-housing mandate following pressure from developers and local governments that didn’t want to be required to build low-income housing. The legislature even made it easier to tear down affordable homes along the coast.

Although the commission has been lauded for keeping the state’s beaches open to the public, critics say they’re too deferential to rich coastal areas and have slowed down construction of housing even as the state’s homelessness crisis deepens. 

It’s a criticism that Brownsey, the commission’s chair, denies.

“The Coastal Commission is being accused of trying to protect the coastal zone for rich people,” she said. In fact, she said the commission has been raising the alarm for years about “a significant decrease in the amount of low income and workforce housing, particularly when gentrification occurs.”

The Commission has never denied a permit for affordable housing in the coastal zone, Brownsey said. And while the commission may no longer have a mandate to ease housing pressures, she pointed to earlier success stories, like the creation of affordable housing in Cambria and Del Mar elsewhere on the coast.

Rather than blaming the California Coastal Commission, officials should once again empower the agency so that it can help address a housing shortage, Brownsey said.

“You can’t say we’re the problem when you took the tools to address it away from us,” she said. “There's a very simple solution: to give back that authority.”

As California’s housing crisis continues to deepen, there’s plenty of blame to go around. New affordable housing projects can run into a range of obstacles, from NIMBY local officials to short-term rental companies like Airbnb.

Venice Community Housing, which operates the apartment complex where McGhee lives, has been tussling with Los Angeles officials for years over the development of an almost three-acre lot of city-owned land. Becky Dennison, executive director of the group, accuses city officials of not “following their own policies” around issues like housing access.

The build has run into a range of challenges, including a six-month stay of the project issued by the city attorney. Dennison said the stay was only dropped after the Los Angeles Times ran editorials criticizing the city for the delay. 

Los Angeles is “supposed to be fast tracking housing,” Dennison said before adding a sarcastic caveat: “Only if we get called out in the media about it.” If California cities are serious about easing the housing burden, experts say they already have tools in their toolbox to do so, including by actually enforcing ordinances that curtail short-term rentals.

As state officials get their act together, at least one low-income resident has managed to stake out a life for himself near the state’s famous beaches.“I’m blessed, I’m grateful for it,” McGhee said of his life in Venice. 

While the area has gotten more expensive, McGhee has still managed to find community here of the kind he fondly remembers from his childhood. He's gotten more involved in the local bicycling community. He still rides his bike up and down the boardwalk, sometimes even taking it on day trips to visit other nearby coastal communities.

Recently, McGhee’s daughter had to move out of Venice to the California high desert. McGhee considered moving to stay near her but decided not to. Everybody’s trying to move closer to the beach, he said. If he were to move out of his subsidized apartment, there’s no telling whether he could ever again find a place in Venice — or anywhere else near the beach, for that matter.

Categories / Economy, Government, Regional

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