In August 2021, the Malibu City Council refused to let a family build an addition to their home for their 80 plus year old, disabled grandmother. Councilmembers claimed they understood the importance of her situation and wanted to help, but—gosh-darn-it—their hands were tied by the law, which simply wouldn’t allow them to grant the permit. But last July, the California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles held that not only was the Council wrong in denying the permit, they were applying the wrong legal standards to the project in the first place.
Given the Council’s public protestations that they would love to help, you might think the story ends there. But it doesn’t. Last August, the Council voted to appeal the court’s decision.
Jason and Elizabeth Riddick live together in Malibu with their three children and their pet dogs. With Renee’s advancing age and a host of medical disabilities, including severe deficiencies with her immune system, it was no longer tenable for her to live alone. Elizabeth quit her job to become Renee’s care provider, and the couple began seeking options that would allow Renee to move closer to them so that she could age in dignity with the loving care of her family.
The Riddicks were thrilled when they learned that the California legislature, in an effort to address the state’s severe housing crisis, adopted a series of reforms aimed at expediting and simplifying the process for building accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. ADUs are small homes located on the same lot as an existing home, such as a garage apartment, a basement unit, or a backyard cottage. The ADU law encourages local governments to adopt ordinances governing the creation of ADUs within certain parameters. Without a local ordinance, ADUs are governed only by certain statewide standards set by the legislature.
The ADU law has been on the books since 2016. But six years later, the City of Malibu still has not adopted an ordinance tailoring the rules to its local needs. As a result, the statewide standards govern in Malibu. That these standards would clearly permit the Riddicks’ modest 468 sq. ft. project is undisputed, even by the city.
The City Council believed—erroneously—that Malibu was exempt from the ADU law because of their local coastal policies. To be clear, the city was not really worried about its coastline when it denied the Riddicks’ ADU; it even conceded that the project would have no negative impact on coastal resources at all. It simply believed that, because of its status as a coastal city, it was free to ignore the state law on ADUs. But while coastal policies may in some instances trump the mandates of the ADU law, they didn’t apply to the project in question, as the Riddicks patiently explained to the City on innumerable occasions.
The Superior Court agreed. It held that the Council had erred in denying the project and ordered the city to review the application again—this time, under the correct standards as set forth in the state’s ADU law. But the City refused; instead, it has chosen to double-down on its anti-housing stance by appealing the order to a higher court.
Of course, it’s the City’s right to appeal if it pleases. But one wonders whether doing so is really in the best interest of the people of Malibu. The City has known for years that it must update its ADU policies or else be subject to the default, statewide standards. In all that time, they have failed to create an ordinance that complies with state law while addressing whatever legitimate concerns officials and residents may have. It shouldn’t be so difficult; dozens of cities from Anaheim to West Covina have adopted ADU ordinances pursuant to the state law. But instead of performing its function as a local legislative body, the Malibu City Council chose instead to commit more public resources to fighting against modest, necessary housing for an aging, disabled woman in court.
Last month, the residents of Malibu elected two new members to the City Council. Let us hope that they have better priorities.
This op-ed was originally published at the California Globe on January 9, 2023.