Since its founding 41 years ago, Community Corporation of Santa Monica has built 2,023 affordable apartments in West Los Angeles

Since its founding 41 years ago, Community Corporation of Santa Monica has built 2,023 affordable apartments in West Los Angeles. With their recent purchase of the First Baptist Church property in Oakwood and their status as part of a development partnership that is a finalist to develop the Metro Yard (the current site of the Venice Bridge Home), they are now creating a substantial footprint in Venice Beach.

CCSM’s Executive Director, Tara Barauskas explained that CCSM’s business model has stayed the same “for 40 years except for our geographic expansion beyond Santa Monica. We’re a nonprofit. So each building that we build is a self contained mini business entity. The way we figure out what buildings are going to be feasible for us is we try to make sure there’s at least a certain number of units, because the rents are really low and…otherwise we won’t be able to pay the bills.”

Rents start around $450 a month for a one bedroom unit and go up to $1500 for three bedrooms. Their most recent project — Las Flores, is a 73 unit building on 14th Street in Santa Monica serving residents with incomes between 30-80% of the area’s median income, $20,000 for a single resident, up to $90,000 for a family of four.

To finance construction, CCSM uses the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, created in 1986, wherein the Federal Government disburses funds to each state, which are then handed off to affordable housing developers in the form of tax credits. These tax credits are then sold to investors, which provides CCSM with about 60% of the cost of each project. The rest of the funding usually comes from cities, counties, and state programs. Developers using LIHTCs are bound by a land use covenant and required to hold and operate each property for 55 years. Barauskas said at one time that number was just 30 years, and CCSM has already renewed a couple of their older properties because “our mission is to provide affordable housing, so we’re not going to flip the market or kick everyone out or whatever.”

“HUD [The Department of Housing and Urban Development] dictate what the rents are, and it’s based on HUD’s fair market value. HUD does an assessment of each county and they publish the rents and those are the ones we use,” she said.

This is a different pricing model than Section 8, which utilizes vouchers to reimburse landlords, or projects funded by Proposition HHH, wherein the city provides money generated via property taxes directly to developers and mandates that a certain percentage of each building’s tenants fall into certain categories.

“The problem right now,” Barauskas said, “is that a lot of the affordable housing resources that we use require some permanent supportive housing, except for the tax credits. I personally have been advocating for five to 10 years that those funding sources should change because the people who we’re serving are the ones who, if it wasn’t for our housing, could be homeless. I don’t think the right strategy is to only build homeless units, but I haven’t been successful in that advocacy yet.”

Demand for CCSM’s units is enormous. For the 50 available units at Mar Vista’s Ballona Vista, which opened in 2021, CCSM received over 5,000 applications, which were selected “primarily on income” Barauskas told us. “30 to 80% of median area income, so you’re talking about people who might be making minimum wage working at a grocery store or preschool. It’s jobs that are important for the community, but they don’t get paid a lot. The idea is to try to get more affordable housing options nearby” in order to avoid long commutes.

Barauskas said when she came onboard at CCSM about seven years ago, her intention was always to expand to other areas of the Westside, noting that housing is expensive all over the region, and not just in Santa Monica, where CCSM had been exclusively focused up to that point. “I asked the board, ‘If you’re interested in expanding, then I’d like the job.’ And it’s worked out really well. So that was kind of my pitch.”

As for the Metro yard, it’s been five years since Camden Real Estate Ventures approached CCSM and asked if they would be interested in providing the affordable housing component of their project, for which they were submitting a proposal to the MTA. Safe Place for Youth, which currently co-manages the Venice Bridge Home at the site, was brought on to provide the permanent supportive housing component, and Barauskas says she “loves their work. They’re fantastic…We’re just kind of a minor partner in it, because it is a pretty big property that it would be mixed use and mixed income…There would actually be market rate units, some kind of commercial component, and then some affordable housing.

“We submitted this [proposal] five years ago, then the pandemic happened, and then nothing happened. And so we’re like, well, maybe it’s not moving forward. And then out of the blue, we get an email [from MTA]: ‘We want to interview you guys.’ I honestly have no idea if we’re still in the running or not, but when we see city owned land or public jurisdiction land, it’s always a great opportunity. Land is super expensive. So if we don’t have to pay for land, then that’s going to make the project more cost effective.”

As for the First Baptist Church property, Barauskas told us CCSM first became aware of it in October, 2022, after the Penske family put it on the market. “Over the years we have bought some historic properties, not necessarily that were designated historic, but old buildings, and then rehabilitated them. So that was sort of already in our wheelhouse. And so when the property was on the market, somebody came to us and said, ‘Hey, have you seen this property for sale?'”

“And then I took a look at it, and thought we would love to have something in Venice, because that’s right next to Santa Monica. It kind of makes a lot of sense. And we did learn quite a bit about the church, and I kind of got emotionally attached and like, oh, it’d be so neat to work on this and save it…And so we put in a bid to the broker for the Penskes. And they selected us because they liked the idea of what we wanted to do there, I think, versus maybe what some other people were going to do.

“It was actually a very difficult closing, because it’s very unique for us. We don’t normally buy large, vacant church structures,” she laughed. “I had to work to convince my board that this was such a unique opportunity. And I felt like a group like us would do the right thing with the church.”

Both the church building and its adjoining parking lots were designated historic by the city’s Land Use and Planning Committees. During escrow, CCSM’s research included “reports and assessments done with historical consultants who said that there is a path forward to amend the historic designation, to remove it from the parking lots because that’s what I want to develop,” Barauskas said. “We know that the church has to be preserved and restored. So we’re not touching the church.”

The church building also includes about 20 classrooms, which Barauskas said were in very poor shape, although in the interest of creating enough affordable units to make the project cost effective, might be converted to housing, depending on what the community wants.

“We want to do some community work and see how people feel about the classrooms,” she said. “What I’ve heard so far is nobody really cares about the classrooms…But I haven’t heard enough input yet.”

Barauskas said she reached out to the CD11 Council office during the escrow period, first to Mike Bonin, who she says told her he was in favor of affordable housing at the site, and then to Traci Park once she was in office.

“I had to reach out to her office and said, ‘Are you supportive of this idea?’ And they said, ‘Yes’. If they had said no, I was not going to buy it because I knew they would just block every which way.”

Park’s office disputes this. Park told the Current that, according to her office’s records, Barauskas contacted her office after escrow closed and it was explained to her by Park’s planning staff that Park “would not take any position on any project until they knew what it was, and that any development of any kind should be done with the robust engagement of the Oakwood community, who have a vested interest in the project.”

Barauskas responded to the Council Office’s comment with the following statement: “The Councilmember hasn’t taken an official position on our project yet, because we don’t yet have an official project. We are still formulating the project based on the community input we’ll be doing over the next few months. So we could not say that the Councilmember supports the project at 682 Westminster, since no project is confirmed yet. From my interpretation Ms. Park seems generally supportive of affordable housing, and did not oppose the concept of us buying the property.”

Barauskas also said she had discussions during escrow with original members of Save Venice, the neighborhood group that has lobbied for years to get the church its historic designation.

“I got connected to Naomi Nightingale because I’m working with her niece, Robbie Jones, who’s putting a cafe in one of our buildings.” Barauskas said both saving the church’s sanctuary and providing affordable housing were among Save Venice’s top priorities. “I think what’s very appealing to them about this is that we’re serving people who make lower incomes. But I still don’t have any sense like, is it families? Is it going to be seniors? So we’re a little bit of a blank canvas as long as it’s serving people in those income levels, and we can work together to figure out what’s more needed.”

Naomi Nightingale, Laddie Williams (another original Save Venice member) and several CCSM staffers, Board members and residents are on a CCSM committee screening requests for qualifications from 20 prospective architects. Barauskas said that she and Nightingale are still in conversations about an acceptable height for the project — 30 feet, or three stories, would be the standard zoning restriction for the neighborhood, but Barauskas would prefer four stories. She said that if the height is restricted to three stories, smaller units would be required. “It’ll probably be senior housing. I can’t do three stories, and three bedroom units” and get the project to its break-even point, to between 50-55 units.

“It was really nice to have a go to group that already cared so much about this, and they were very honest with me about whether this idea will fly or not…and so I really listened to their perspective. They’re so knowledgeable about the history, and because they care so much about it, they also want to guide us to do the right thing. And so that’s been really helpful…Because sometimes as a mission-oriented developer, you can think you’re doing the right thing, but not actually be doing the right thing, what’s right for the community. My goal is, on this [project], to really listen. And I really need to hear different perspectives so that we can really trying to come up with something that will serve the community.”

CCSM held its first outreach meeting at the site of the First Baptist Church on May 7. Barauskas said that many more will follow, and hopes that the Venice Neighborhood Council will ultimately approve the project, once Oakwood is on board.

Angela McGregor

Special to the Daily Press