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An under-construction garage (center) with an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in the background 

Every eight years, Malibu’s leaders are tasked with updating the city’s housing element—a “general plan guide to land use and development ... which establishes city policies and programs for maintaining and improving existing housing, as well as accommodating development of new housing to meet the city’s assigned share of housing needs under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment.”

In other words, as the state of California continues to face a housing crisis, Malibu needs to prove its general plan does not make it impossible to build new residential development—especially low- and moderate-income housing. 

This year, the city is developing its 2022-29 housing element. As part of the housing element, Malibu was given a target to construct 79 new housing units over the next eight years.

When council last discussed the item in August, members were concerned the city was being required to construct dozens of low-income housing units—not the case, consultant John Douglas explained.

“The city is not legally required to achieve this production; it’s a planning target,” he said at the time. “The city is required to demonstrate that its plans and zoning regulations could accommodate this amount of development. But the city is not punished or penalized if the development does not happen, because the city does not have total control, of course, over the development process.”

On Monday, Nov. 15, the Malibu Planning Commission voted unanimously, 5-0, to approve the latest draft, set for a final hearing and approval by city council later this year. It will then be sent to the state to be ratified.

Of course, low income housing is not exactly easy to come by in the 90265 zip code, where the median home price was $4.9 million in 2020, but this cycle’s housing element focuses on guest houses—also called ADUs or accessory dwelling units—as a potential solution.

“Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) represent an important source of affordable housing in Malibu,” the draft report states. “Due to extraordinarily high land cost and environmental constraints, development of new affordable housing is very difficult. Since ADUs can be accommodated on developed sites at no additional land cost, they represent an excellent option for addressing the needs of seniors, university students, household employees, local service workers and extended family members.”

Policymakers are increasingly turning to ADUs as home prices continue to soar. According to the LA Times, the median house price in LA County reached $795,000 this fall, although the median income in the county, according to the U.S. Census, is just $68,044. 

In 2015, the city’s use of ADUs as part of the 2008-16 housing element was challenged in court, with plaintiffs—developers hoping to build low-income housing in the city—winning a judgment that the city could not count granny flats toward its low-income housing quota. However, by the time that decision came, the city was already preparing its 2016-22 housing element.

Now, the State of California is pushing ADUs, including through the recent passage of SB 9, a new law meant to streamline construction of guest houses and allow homeowners to subdivide their properties to build multiple units on one parcel.

“There are extensive state laws that are continuously being updated ... So, we have a bit of a moving target, you might say, with the housing element,” Douglas told planning commissioners on Monday.

Malibu staff believe SB 9 does not apply to Malibu because of the city’s location within the coastal zone, which is presided over by the California Coastal Commission.

“On ADUs, we’re covered by the coastal commission,” Commissioner John Mazza said. He asked if it was necessary to include language about ADUs in the housing element since Malibu is not governed by the same rules as communities elsewhere in the state.

“What the housing element does is it includes a commitment to adopt regulations consistent with state law,” Douglas replied. Later in the meeting, Douglas said he did “not expect SB 9 will have any effect on this housing element.”

The draft housing element will go before city council once again before the end of the year. Once approved, it will be sent to the California Department of Housing and Community Development for approval.

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