The Intra-NIMBY Politics of the Proposed Santa Monica-Malibu School Split
A petition has been re-submitted on behalf of Malibu to break away from Santa Monica’s school district. There are class and racial equity concerns that the proposed school split could lead to a bifurcation between a very White and better funded Malibu district, and a more diverse and potentially less funded Santa Monica district. Santa Monica-Malibu USD is currently 49.5 percent White” and if Malibu were to break away it “will be an entity that is vastly more White than the resulting Santa Monica USD or the current Santa Monica-Malibu USD,” reads the report, which projects that a Malibu USD would be 77.1 percent White and a Santa Monica USD would be 45.4 percent White,” according to the Santa Monica Mirror.
The proposed school split is vehemently opposed by Santa Monica’s political leadership with Santa Monica mayor Sue Himmelrich expressing her discontent, stating that "The Santa Monica City Council will continue to advocate for what is just and what serves the common good of Santa Monica and Malibu students and families alike. Slashing diversity and per pupil funding for Santa Monica students alone is inappropriate and will damage academic and social equity across all of the students and families served by SMMUSD." Santa Monica Democratic Club President Jon Katz alleged "petty ulterior motives and axes to grind" of many of the Malibu speakers who made many "classist, and frankly racist comments," including, "It's time for Santa Monicans to wash their own clothes. "Someone even said 'Malibu Lives Matter' - think about what that means and why those white speakers might have made those remarks in this context."
Santa Monica’s school district is much better performing than Los Angeles Unified School District but has similar dynamics as large urban school districts. Santa Monica is an ageing affluent city with a student populace that is more economically and ethnically diverse than its residents. The controversy over Santa Monica High alumni and former Trump advisor Stephen Miller touches upon Santa Monica’s class and demographic dynamics. Santa Monica has an old clause where any student who has a parent employed in the City is allowed to attend its schools. A hypothetical new Malibu district might restrict school attendance to residents of the district.
Santa Monica welcomes many students from outside the district but the City’s jurisdiction also includes the traditionally working class and Latino, Pico District. Santa Monica’s policy of welcoming students from outside the district is justified by the City being a major job center with a very high disparity of workers to residents. However, the policy has become a way for Santa Monica to virtue signal on equity issues, rather than accommodating a more economically diverse demographic to be able to live in the City. The same principle applies to Santa Monica’s rent control program, which helps a segment of the population, but amounts to virtue signaling when it constrains the housing supply and is used as an excuse by NIMBYs to block any market rate housing. It is hypocritical for Santa Monica to accuse Malibu of excluding lower income students when Santa Monica’s NIMBYism has made it nearly impossible for even the Upper Middle Class to start families in the City. There is an anti-natalist streak to Santa Monica NIMBYism such as the opposition to a daycare in a residential neighborhood.
The Westside of LA County, which includes Santa Monica, has a dichotomy of NIMBYism plus leftwing anti-choice education policies, such as school bussing. There has been an implicit arrangement where ageing White liberal NIMBYs are able to secure tranquility in regards to blocking new housing in exchange for screwing over their own progeny on both housing and education policy. NIMBYism restrains the housing supply for people across all sociodemographic backgrounds, but the fusion of anti-choice education policies, on top of limiting the supply of market rate housing has put a tremendous demographic strain on White families in particular.
Santa Monica has a history of both liberal politics and strict zoning that severely limits height and density. The woke virtue signaling has become an ineffective strategy for Santa Monica NIMBYs, as YIMBYs have called out Santa Monica for having exclusionary and segregationist zoning polices, and have pointed out that Santa Monica practically only allows affordable housing projects in redlined neighborhoods. Santa Monica recently had their Housing Element draft rejected by the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
Santa Monica’s NIMBYs include affluent homeowners as well as anti-gentrification concerns in the Pico District. However, these anti-gentrification concerns are often disingenuous as gentrification is caused by housing scarcity. Santa’s Monica’s mayor Sue Himmelrich, who is also a social justice attorney, epitomizes affluent NIMBYs who adopt the rhetoric of the equity left. As councilwoman she received the endorsement of the slow growth organization Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City for her “opposition to the proposed "massive development" on City owned land at 4th and Arizona and two 130-foot tall hotels on Ocean Avenue -- one a redevelopment of the Fairmont Miramar, the other a new hotel designed by Frank Gehry.” In a questionnaire Himmelrich stated that she is “ not in favor of condominiums on top of hotels on Ocean Avenue. I think that we are a very dense, saturated city already and we need to figure out some of our density problems before we forge ahead with a lot more density.”
YIMBYs have accused Himmelrich of trying to obstruct RHNA housing mandates and Himmelrich is unapologetic in her opposition to YIMBYs. Himmelrich stated that “YIMBYs “have an unsophisticated and unnuanced philosophy that we should build the maximum amount of housing regardless of displacement or price point.” Her arguments about displacement and affordability are disingenuous as she voted against allowing for affordable housing in her own affluent neighborhood. It was reported that “Himmelrich put up $160,000 of her own money for her successful first campaign for City Council in 2014. Additionally, her husband Michael Soloff donated $10,000 each to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) and the local Democratic Party, both of whom endorsed her”
Santa Monica’s NIMBYs are blatantly dishonest about the City’s supply of housing and the demand. For instance Santa Monica’s Audit Subcommittee Commissioner, Marc Verville, suggested that “Since supply is not actually shorter than demand, adding more supply will not change the problem of affordability” and that rather than increase the housing supply, we should merely "decrease the demand" for housing instead. The call to decrease demand, which is a dog whistle for depopulation, is more inline with Santa Monica native Stephen Miller than what one would expect from a woke liberal. Santa Monica NIMBYs are on the loosing side of history and have gotten so desperate that they have resorted to cancel culture tactics. NIMBYs on Santa Monica’s City Council have been trying to get Leonora Camner, the executive director of the pro-housing organization Abundant Housing LA, kicked off of the Housing Commission for advocating for more housing in Santa Monica.
While Malibu is also very NIMBY, it reflects a different strain of NIMBYism that is more honest and direct about being exclusive. Malibu still has its share of limousine liberal NIMBY hypocrisy, such as Open Borders advocate Rob Reiner opposing a Whole Foods development on a vacant lot in Malibu. Rob Reiner went as far as to proclaim "I would say there is NIMBY-ism for the entire city of Malibu. They care about their community. Not in my backyard! … You bet. It's 100-percent NIMBY-ism. Everybody who lives here is concerned about their way of life."
The fundamental difference between the two communities is that Malibu generally embraces that it is an exclusive enclave for the privileged, while Santa Monica has an identity crisis, which goes way back. Is Santa Monica a quaint seaside hamlet or is it part of LA’s urban core, with the potential to be the Miami Beach of the West? Is Santa Monica the funky People’s Republic of Santa Monica or is it Beverly Hills by the Sea?
Looking at census maps for population growth and new housing units, Santa Monica does marginally better for new construction than Malibu. However, most of the growth is concentrated around downtown. Malibu’s population declined by −6.5% from 2010 to 2019 while Santa Monica’s population grew by an abysmal 0.7% during that same period. In 2010 Malibu had 18.7% of the population that was under the age of 18, while Santa Monica had 14.0% of the population under the age of 18. Both communities are ageing, due to slow growth polices, but Malibu is somewhat more family oriented. Santa Monica is a mix of older homeowners and young professional renters but has an abysmally low number of families.
Malibu has an average home value of $3,896,935 and an average household income of $271,666, while Santa Monica has an average home value of $1,843,228 and an average household income of $149,429. Both cities are wealthy but Malibu is much mores so. Malibu has always been very wealthy and is uniformly wealthy, while Santa Monica has traditionally been more economically diverse and still has lower income residents, including a large homeless population.
Prop 16 Votes
Blue: White voters for Affirmative Action
Red: White voters against Affirmative Action
Santa Monica is insanely woke politically, with the City proposing reparations for the descendants of evicted Black residents from when the 10 freeway was constructed. Santa Monica’s City Council endorsed the failed prop 16, which would have reinstated affirmative action in California, and most of the City voted for the measure. In the 2020 Democratic Primary, much of Santa Monica voted for Bernie Sanders and Santa Monica stands out as having very wealthy areas that favored Bernie Sanders over establishment candidates.
While Malibu has a reputation for being home to woke Hollywood elites, it is actually much more moderate. Malibu overwhelmingly favored Joe Biden in the Democratic Primary, leaned Democrat, rather than solid Democrat as Santa Monica did, in the general Trump vs. Biden election, and voted against prop 16 to reinstate affirmative action, with a significant swath of very staunch opposition. It seems, at least on the Westside, that upper middle class strivers are the most woke while the ultra-wealthy are more cynical and vote their interests. Being more moderate politically plus being more family oriented fits with the divide on the school split. Even among wealthy Democrats, having children generally makes one more conservative in values. It is easy to be comfortably progressive when one is an affluent DINK, duel income no kids, or ageing liberal empty nesters trying to relive the 60s.
The geographic dynamics between Santa Monica and Malibu also can’t be more stark. Malibu is geographically isolated as a far out suburb, while Santa Monica is interconnected to LA’s urban core, with access to Downtown LA via the Metro Expo line. This is the reality, even if Santa Monica pretends to be secluded.
Santa Monica’s urbanism is incoherent. For instance the core of Downtown, around the 3rd Street Promenade, feels very urban but outside of Downtown, most of Santa Monica feels very non-descript. The tallest existing highrise was built in 1971, due to the draconian height limit preventing any new highrises from being built. While Santa Monica may be a desirable place to live, it is neither a dynamic urban environment, nor the charming seaside hamlet that NIMBYs claim to be preserving. Santa Monica feels in limbo, incomplete, and lacking any coherent plan or vision for the future.
As far as how both Santa Monica and Malibu adapt to housing mandates and pressure to build, Malibu actually has practical reasons to justify its NIMBYism. The reasons being are Malibu’s mountainous topography, sensitive ecological habitats, high risks for wildfires and mudslides, the limited capacity on Highway 1, and other infrastructure issues. Malibu has practical and environmental factors that limit growth and could likely be immune from SB9 and other mandates. However, Santa Monica does not have those excuses and will be forced to change, due to being linked to LA’s urban core and being a major job center.
These dynamics show that there is a lot of nuance, even among California’s “liberal elites.” Santa Monica and Malibu NIMBYs have motives that are different but that overlap on a Ven diagram. I will grant Malibu the upper hand on the school split issue and the NIMBY issue because of Malibu being more direct about their interests over virtue singling, the biopolitics of looking out for one’s lineage, and the reality that Santa Monica can feasibly accommodate a lot more new residents. When it comes to playing the game of woke politics, YIMBYs who link zoning reform with racial equity, will win out over woke NIMBYs and their convoluted arguments.
Also I support the decentralization of education, including breaking up large school districts and vouchers for private schools and homeschooling, especially for California. There needs to be more specialization in education and education polices that support families and communities over mass society and out of touch centralized institutions. Education reform combined with YIMBY housing policies could also have demographic benefits of easing White flight and declining White fertility. This combo of policies is especially needed on the Westside.