Census 2020: Why is Malibu’s Response Rate So Low?

A lot of residents were taken aback to find out that Malibu’s participation rate in the 2020 U.S. Census has only been 36 percent, so far—the worst response rate in the area, if not among the worst in the country.

Of course, some ask, “36 percent of what?” A call to the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed that it’s based on the percentage of housing units that have responded. When asked if the number of housing units is just an estimate, the answer was revealing: “No, it’s not an estimate; we know how many housing units are there based on satellite imagery, census takers and other data.”

Malibu Planning Commissioner Steve Uhring—a current candidate for city council—was concerned about the low response rate and asked several city officials about it, including Planning Director Bonnie Blue.

In an email to TMT, Uhring wrote, “Long story short, the city has not done any research to understand why the numbers are so low. The best guess they could come up with is that the fire burnouts (say 400), shortterm rental properties and second homes account for the bulk of the 3,300 homes that have not completed a census form. If that is true, it says that we are not a city of residents, but instead we are a city of visitors. How that plays into the long range plans for local schools or safe evacuations in an emergency (how do you make sure the visitors know what to do) or spending on resident services ( do I spend money on a resident senior center or on enforcement services to manage the visitors) remains to be seen.”

The Census Bureau confirmed that the homeless and group homes, like residential treatment centers, are not counted in the response rate.

When asked how the census deals with properties that are vacant, only used as second homes or short-term rentals, they said the property owner is asked to write on the form that “0” (zero) people live there. 

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Although the country goes through the exercise of taking the census, its own methods of estimating the populations of each city are highly sophisticated even without it. The U.S. Census quick facts page, published online July 1, 2019, estimated Malibu’s population at 11,820, which is a 6.4 percent drop from the 2010 census count of 12,634, as well as a drop from the 2018 population estimate; they must have noticed that Malibu had 473 fewer single family homes in 2019 than 2018, after the Woolsey Fire.

It’s fairly common knowledge that the population of school age children is declining. Malibu High School reports online that its student population of 951 has declined by 14 percent over the past five school years.

Another factor that may affect Malibu’s population count this year is the increase in the number of short-term rentals over the past 10 years—the conversion of long-term rentals to short-term means there is less available housing and fewer residents. The city monitors STR listings on more than 50 rental booking internet platforms and reported online that 446 properties in or near Malibu advertised for short-term rental as of July 2, 2020, out of nearly 5,800 total housing units.

The next two months are critical for the 2020 Census count, since President Donald Trump decreed that all census count efforts will be shortened by a month and must be finished by Sept. 30. Bureau workers started following up with unresponsive households on Aug. 11.

Cal Matters reported last weekend that Malibu isn’t the only upscale community responding at lower rates than normal. In the San Francisco area, tracts in the Marina, Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights and Presidio neighborhoods registered at about 53 percent. The census participation was surprising, they said, considering that the response rates in many of these areas exceeded 70 percent in 2010.

Likewise, in the LA area, low response rates were reported spanning from Malibu, through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and into Studio City. “The current 36 percent response rate in parts of Malibu and the 21-point gap from 2010 is unprecedented,” Cal Matters reported. “But it’s a similar scenario in the enclaves of Newport Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea.”

If you have not yet participated in the census, there are three ways to take part: online at my2020census.gov; or call 844.330.2020 (a list of in-language options is available here), or by mail if you received a paper form.

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