Some other shoes drop in Santa Monica and Malibu

As summer was winding down last week, reminders arrived that while the world wrestled with the Delta variant and Afghanistan two big local issues had been quietly percolating. The issues are whether Malibu will form its own school district, seceding from the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, and how the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) would react to the draft Housing Element that Santa Monica submitted to HCD July 1. In both cases shoes dropped in the form of reports from professional staffs outside of Santa Monica.

Let’s start with Malibu’s attempt to form its own school district. What happened last week was that the staff of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) released its report to the “L.A. County Committee on School District Organization” (the “County Committee”) containing the staff’s analysis of whether Malibu had satisfied the requirements of state law to form a separate district. The context is that after about five years of on-and-off negotiations, Malibu broke off negotiations last fall, even as the parties seemed to be finally reaching an agreement. Instead, Malibu renewed a 2017 petition to LACOE to separate. (I wrote about the negotiations and other maneuvers here in April; for an up-to-date and clear-eyed analysis of the Malibu secession drama, including its history, read this article that the L.A. Times ran over the weekend.)

The County Committee held a public hearing on the petition in April, then referred the matter to staff for review. There are nine factors that come into play in determining whether to approve the formation of a school district. The document released last week includes the staff’s analysis of those factors, as well as general conclusions. The document was prepared as groundwork for a continuation of the April hearing September 18. At that meeting the committee can either kill the application or refer it to a further level of review, what is called the “regular review process” (as opposed the current, “preliminary” review). (Whatever the LACOE ultimately decides, the final decision rests with the State Department of Education.)

In the report, the LACOE staff recommends that the matter be moved into the regular review process, during which the County Committee can gather more information and do more analysis. If the committee accepts staff’s analysis, that would keep Malibu’s proposal alive, but if I were a Malibu separatist, I would not be entirely optimistic after reading the report. Staff found that the proposal only satisfied one of the nine conditions, and there is at least one, that a district have at least 1,501 students, that seems difficult for Malibu to satisfy.

More generally, staff advised the committee that a simple desire to have one’s own district does not justify forming a new district: “Staff is informed and believes that resident students in the area proposed for a Malibu UFD [unified school district] have access to enrollment in Santa Monica-Malibu USD schools now, and always have. Whether or not they find the Santa Monica-Malibu USD insufficient for their particular needs does not merit the creation of a new USD, especially in light of the potential negative fiscal impacts such reorganization would have on the resulting Santa Monica USD.”

Nonetheless, perhaps recognizing that neither Malibu nor Santa Monica want to continue in one district spread out over 30 miles of coast and even more social and economic distance, the thrust of the staff’s recommendations is that the parties get back to the negotiating table. The report concludes as follows: “It is also clear that, though they have hit roadblocks numerous times, the City of Malibu and the Santa Monica-Malibu USD still have the opportunity to negotiate and to come to the County Committee with a joint solution. A negotiated solution that honors the needs and concerns of both parties remains the best recommendation.”

As for Santa Monica’s housing element, the shoe that dropped last week was not unexpected: it was a letter from HCD telling the City how its draft housing element was deficient under state law. I say not unexpected, because given all the restraints on building housing in Santa Monica, both regulatory and financial, and the substantial political opposition to growth, it was unlikely that Santa Monica would submit a first draft that would satisfy state housing law. State law requiring real efforts to allow for housing has been substantially strengthened since the last time the City produced a housing element.

It is clear from reading the 12-page HCD letter that Santa Monica has some hard work to do before it will be able to satisfy HCD. As I discussed in previous posts, compliance with housing law has two fundamental dimensions. One is providing enough zoned capacity for the number of units, the “RHNA allocation,” assigned to the city over the eight-year term of the housing element. This involves some tough political decisions in a town where zoning has been used for decades to keep new housing from being built in much of the city. Nonetheless, achieving enough capacity is fundamentally a matter of numbers: how many square feet of land can be built on, and how much can be built on that land. Along with getting rid of all the administrative and regulatory impediments and costs used to slow approvals and construction, determining how much capacity is available, and increasing it as needed, should be a reasonably objective enterprise.

The other dimension of compliance is more subjective: it is a requirement for what’s called “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH). This entails trying to remedy a century of unfair housing: legacies of single-family (R1) zoning, restrictive covenants, redlining, outright discrimination by realtors and sellers, etc., the purpose, and result, of which was to allow Anglos to live in their own enclaves and diminish the economic prospects available to households of color. In an earlier draft of the housing element prepared by staff there were provisions to allow more housing development in R1 zones, provisions that the City Council rejected. Those provisions are justifiable on their own as means to increase housing capacity and as such would have opened R1 areas up to more households, some of which no doubt would be of people of color. Because of economic reasons, however, it is not clear that these provisions themselves would have furthered fair housing to a significant extent. A century of discrimination has created fundamental economic obstacles to fair housing.

HCD, in the letter, dismisses the City’s AFFH analysis, saying that the draft “does not address the requirement to provide an Assessment of Fair Housing,” and later advising the City that it “should go well beyond exploring options and must commit to meaningful and sufficient actions to overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities.”

This is a challenge. More is going to have to be done.

The schedule now is that the City has a statutory due date of October 15 to adopt an approved housing element, but in fact penalties do not accrue until 120 days after that. This means that Santa Monica has about five months to get things right.

Thanks for reading.