A roomful of Malibu citizens packed the City Council chambers Monday night. Many had come to protest what they see as a very heavy-handed and ominous city code enforcement policy. They were there because they felt a regulatory noose closing in around them, because they had some contact with the code enforcement people or they were just there to show support for their neighbors.
I must tell you I think the council still doesn’t get it. It seems to have an appalling ignorance of the relationship between cause and effect. Here’s what I mean.
The council put a zoning code into law that virtually guarantees most of Malibu doesn’t conform. The idea is to downzone and upgrade the community, which is a noble purpose. Then they tell us not to worry, “You’re grandfathered.” It’s also no great secret there are lots of second units out there that serve as the low end of the Malibu rental market, and have for years.
In theory the grandfathering system should work. It should be the escape valve to protect people with unpermitted structures that were built years ago. The problem is, it doesn’t happen automatically.
It takes money to make it work, lots of money. It also takes political clout. You need a lawyer because frankly you get no respect from any city bureaucracy unless you go armed with a lawyer. You need to hire your own experts. You need to be able to sit down with the code enforcement people and work out some compromises, and then you have to have the money to make some changes and put those compromises into place. Then, if you still can’t work it out with the code enforcement people, you have to be able to pick up the phone and be on a first-name basis with your council members. That’s the way it works here in Malibu, that’s the way it works in the county of L.A., the state of California, the nation and probably most of the world.
But what happens if you don’t have the money to fight the good fight? What happens is, the system grinds you up and spits you out, and that’s just what it’s doing and just what these people are protesting.
I’ll give you a specific example. At the meeting Monday, I talked to a young woman named Debby Campbell, who is a single mom with three young children ages 13, 11 and 5 , all in Malibu schools. She rents a second unit on the Point upon which apparently there is no record of a permit. They’re fearful of being forced out, which, considering how little low- and moderate-income housing there is in Malibu, means if they have to move, they’re out of Malibu, the kids are out of local schools, and we’ve lost another family because the ante up to continue to live in Malibu has been raised.
I know the council tells us it cares, but you just have to look at its actions to see how it really feels. It knows it has a low-and moderate-income housing problem. So what does it do? It raises the penalty for nonpermit violations, so now there are heavy fines and jail to wave over people’s heads.
It also listens to its staff who of course spouts off about “health and safety” of the community. Somehow the unpermitted structure, many of which have been around for years, have suddenly become a danger.
The staff also talks about its lack of discretion as if somehow its authority to act turns them all into automatons, just following orders. This, of course, is sheer nonsense. Staff has all sorts of discretion, and if it’s uncertain, all it has to do is ask the city manager or the council for instructions. All the council has to do is act. The council made these rules and the council can unmake them or modify them, or issue a written policy as to how they’re to be enforced and not leave it all up to the discretion of the cop on the beat.
Then staff tells us it’s not really its fault because it only responds to complaints, which is a way of shifting the blame to the person making the complaint. Since staff insists it has no discretion, it insists it must act on a complaint. That also is simply untrue because staff does in fact drive around looking for violations, using binoculars, trying to ferret out the unpermitted. It also uses a system of snitches. That snitch may be your neighbor with whom you might not get along but he has an edge because he got to the enforcement people first. The rule I’ve been told is, apparently, whoever gets to the code enforcement people first wins.
Who rents those second unit places? It’s the single moms, it’s the waiter, the kid who works at MacDonalds, it’s someone’s kid back home after a divorce, it’s the new writer looking for a break and many other blue-collar and working stiffs and crafts people who apparently are no longer welcome in Malibu unless the council does something about it.