May Rindge’s home on Laudamus Hill in central Malibu, circa 1939 (Photo courtesy Malibu Historical Photograph Collection, Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives).
Waves break audibly on the sand without the noise of highway traffic. The sun shines onto ranch-style homes on sprawling rural properties complete with horses and surf sheds. The sand on the beaches is clean — so clean that it literally squeaks.
It’s a remote piece of paradise on the edge of the world: It’s 1940s Malibu.
It’s the locals’ Malibu. It is not today’s Malibu.
“Malibu used to be this laid-back country horse town,” said Shannon McKee, 30, a lifelong, third-generation Malibu resident. “My parents would ride all the way from Corral Canyon all the way to Point Dume on horseback. You can’t do that anymore. You wouldn’t even think about doing that anymore.”
The oceanside frontier is now a city of mansions, shopping centers, celebrities and paparazzi. The 2018 Woolsey Fire contributed to rising real estate prices, which are forcing locals out of Malibu.
“That’s not the Malibu I envisioned and that’s not the Malibu I support,” said Jefferson Wagner, former Malibu mayor and owner of Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop. “The Malibu I support is the people that live here.”
Locals fear Malibu as they know it will soon be gone forever.
The History of Malibu’s Growth
In the early 1900s, May Rindge, wife of successful real estate magnate Frederick Rindge, owned 22 miles of Malibu. She was strongly against any form of development and tried to have Malibu declared a forest preserve with herself as its conservator. Rindge started several lawsuits to stop the development of the Roosevelt Highway, now known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
Financial issues forced Rindge to sell sections of her land, and eventually she lost all of her property due to millions of dollars in unpaid property taxes.
In 1941, realtor and developer Louis T. Busch bought the Malibu land. Busch subdivided Malibu and began developing homes along the coast. He quickly knew he had struck gold, and predicted that Malibu would be the biggest real estate development in California history, according to a 1941 Los Angeles Times article.
Hillside homes of Rancho La Costa in Malibu, circa 1939 (Photo courtesy of Malibu Historical Photograph Collection, Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives).
In the following decades, an influx of farmers, ranchers and families moved to Malibu and created its identity as a country town.
A lack of fresh water supply kept Malibu rural until 1960, when the city announced plans to install water pipelines. Real estate boomed again.
Pepperdine opened its Malibu campus in 1972. Eric Pierson, 73, a longtime Malibu local, said the University’s move to Malibu was a big change.
In 1990, Malibu residents voted for Malibu to become an independent city, and Malibuites gained independence in having their own elected city council and a public high school.
Throughout the ‘90s, more and more celebrities were moving to Malibu. Pierson, who is a stone mason by trade, built many of these celebrity homes — including Barbra Streisand’s Point Dume estate. Pierson said celebrity attention further publicized Malibu.
“The wealthy people moved in here like Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn [and] Madonna. There are a lot of entertainers and musicians who have moved in here,” Pierson said. “Although they try to keep it kind of quiet, word gets out and paparazzi know where they live and then start publicizing that. So [Malibu] has become more in the eye of people in Los Angeles and around the world.”
The city has since been even further developed, with new major commercial developments such as the Whole Foods Project, the La Paz project and megamansions. Since the 2018 Woolsey Fire opened up lots, more billionaires and weekend vacationers have moved in, pricing out locals. Real estate prices have soared 40%, real estate agent John McNicholas said.
The Woolsey Fire Effect
In 2018, the Woolsey Fire burned across 97,000 acres and 1,500 homes across L.A. and Ventura County, according to the Los Angeles Times. About 400 single-family homes were lost in Malibu. A loose Southern California Edison electricity wire caused the fire, according to the McNicholas & McNicholas law firm.
Malibu residents had to decide whether to stay and rebuild, or leave their hometown behind. According to the City of Malibu, 150 rebuilt homes have been completed since the fire.
The remains of Shannon McKee’s generational family home in Corral Canyon after the Woolsey Fire, 2018. The family had sold the home before the fire (Photo courtesy Shannon McKee)
For many longtime locals, the Woolsey Fire and its devastating financial repercussions was the final straw that made them say goodbye to their Malibu life. Many could not afford to rebuild. Some did not want to deal with building permits. And some decided it was time to get out of Malibu after years of trying to preserve it.
Patrick McNicholas, 62, a longtime Malibu resident, attorney and father to John McNicholas, represented residents affected by the Woolsey Fire in a 2018 mass action lawsuit against Southern California Edison. Patrick McNicholas said all of his clients were people trying to rebuild their primary residences in Malibu. The payout from SCE covered the gap between their homeowner’s insurance coverage and the real costs of rebuilding.
Still, some of his older clients, generally longtime locals in their 70s and older, determined it would be too challenging to wait for their homes to be rebuilt, Patrick McNicholas said. As they sold their lots, newcomers moved in, shifting the town’s cultural landscape.
“In my experience, the people that are leaving are people over 70 and that would definitionally be locals,” Patrick McNicholas said. “It changes the landscape literally and figuratively as much that new people will be moving in, there will be new structures.”
After the Woolsey Fire, developers saw the opportunity to buy momentarily less expensive land with easier rebuilding rules.
“People buying on Point Dume got relatively good deals because the values were negatively affected by the Woolsey Fire,” said John McNicholas, 24, who specializes in luxury coastal residential properties. “If I had to estimate, there was a 10% decrease in value.”
For Howard Spunt, 61, an architect, commercial real estate developer and real estate agent who has lived on Malibu’s Point Dume for 15 years, the fire enabled him to build the Malibu house he’d always dreamed of.
Spunt purchased a corner lot on Malibu Park’s Cuthbert Road for $1.1 million in 2020 from a French couple who kept the property as their second home.
In 2022, Spunt said the value of his burndown lot alone had doubled since he originally bought it. Later that year, he completed building a house on the lot and sold it to a professional athlete as a vacation home for $6.4 million.
Spunt said most of the locals he had spoken to were committed to keeping and rebuilding their Malibu land, but some surrendered their rebuilds after dealing with building permits.
“The majority of people who lived here and were part of the Malibu community, I’d say 97% of them tried to rebuild,” Spunt said. “Of that 97% I’d say about 10% of them just gave up.”
Burndown lots bypass Malibu’s complex building regulations. Construction permits on burndown lots are expedited, and homeowners capitalized on the city’s flexible permitting laws that allowed for a 10% square footage increase. This increase over the formerly more modest ranch homes is further driving up prices, making it difficult for the blue-collar workers who are doing the construction to afford to live in Malibu.
“The issue is that we’re building ourselves out of our own town,” said Samuele Bassett, 31, a Malibu native who owns and operates Stay Balanced Pool Service. “As a business owner that works in a construction-style industry as a service provider, a lot of my clients are these new billionaire clients with these new pop-up houses and McMansions that are being built. But at the same time, a lot of my friends are the ones building them.”
Samuele Bassett, 30, servicing a pool for his local business, Stay Balanced Pool Service (Photo by Nina Adams).
Bassett is the son of bestselling self-help author and mental health mogul Lucinda Bassett. He was raised as a true Malibu kid: nightly star gazing, playing in fields, riding dirt bikes and, of course, surfing.
Bassett said his rugged Malibu upbringing influenced him and some of his childhood friends to pursue blue-collar work, much like the original 1940s Malibu farmers. He said he has few childhood friends left in Malibu after the Woolsey Fire because they could not afford the rise in housing costs.
“They depended on those same locals to rebuild the town and then pushed them out afterward,” Bassett said. “We rebuilt a town that we couldn’t afford to live in.”
Locals Feel Stripped of Community
With increasing real estate prices, the biggest threat to Malibu locals is a lack of affordable and available housing, specifically rental units.
This is the case for McKee. McKee’s grandparents moved to Malibu, and her parents met at Malibu High School. McKee was raised in the Corral Canyon home her grandfather built. McKee’s family home withstood three fires but the family sold it before the Woolsey Fire.
Three generations of Malibu McKee women in their Corral Canyon family home, circa 1994 (Photo courtesy of Shannon McKee).
Shannon McKee’s grandfather building their family home in Corral Canyon, circa 1977 (Photo courtesy of Shannon McKee).
“As much as these generational families want to stay in Malibu, the younger generation is getting pushed out because there’s no homes to buy and even the cheaper homes are expensive,” said McKee, who works as a pool service technician and a ranch hand.
Many blue-collar workers in Malibu are highly skilled and make good money, Spunt said. The average household income in Malibu is roughly $150,000, according to 2019 Census data.
“We have a lot of people who grew up here that are electricians, plumbers and framers who are making $100,000 a year and they should be able to stay here,” Spunt said. “But that’s not low-income housing, and that’s not market-rate housing. So there has to be a bridge in between.”
Wagner calls Malibu a “land bank,” because homeowners can make more money off of increasing property values than they can through interest on a savings account.
Potential homeowners and renters are coming to Malibu for the commercial amenities more than the beaches and community, John McNicholas said.
“They’re not looking to go surfing,” John McNicholas said. “They’re looking to have an image, a lifestyle and to be close to the shopping and fine dining — to Nobu, Soho House and all the fancy amenities.”
McKee said she thinks that Malibu has lost its sense of community with the increase in tourists.
“You used to walk in the grocery store and everyone would say ‘hi’ to each other. It would end up being one big conversation,” McKee said. “You don’t get that anymore. It’s not really a community anymore.”
Malibu property owners charge anywhere from $175 to $5,597 per night for rentals, according to Airbnb. Locals view these tourists as polluting Malibu’s peaceful lifestyle.
“With the Airbnb you get people that come and just use the town like it’s a complete party town when it’s not,” McKee said. “People throw house parties and crowd the streets and these are neighborhood streets where kids play. We don’t want that around.”
AirBnB homeowners are making a profitable return on their investment at a cost to their neighbors, Wagner said.
“They have their properties, they’re welcome to invest in any way they can and make what they can on it,” Wagner said. “But don’t impact the neighborhoods.”
Second homeowners that rent their Malibu homes for short-term leases or vacations also exacerbate the rental market and price out workers.
Property owners’ return on investment is higher when renting to a short-term tenant, but that reduces the options available to residents, Wagner said.
“We cannot afford the lifestyle that they’re bringing into town,” Wagner said.
Commercial Developments and Tourism
The growing development of the Malibu Country Mart and its adjacent projects invite vacationers to experience luxury retail and fine dining.
In Wagner’s time as a city councilman, he fought countless commercial developments in Malibu, including the 2019 Whole Foods development in the Malibu Lumber Yard. Wagner also fought against the now nearly completed La Paz project on the corner of Civic Center and Pacific Coast Highway.
Wagner said these recent commercial developments do not serve the local Malibu community, adding that he is not against outsiders visiting Malibu — it’s just not his idea of Malibu.
“I don’t deny them — that’s their right. Some of them come in here and buy T-shirts and keep me open,” Wagner said. “But that’s not the Malibu that I grew up in, that’s not the Malibu that elected me to office and that’s not the Malibu that’s supported these large mall projects.”
The Future of Malibu
Locals are divided on their vision of Malibu’s future. Some are optimistic and hope the influx of newcomers learn to embrace their culture. Others are resistant to change and know that the outsiders are bringing it to Malibu.
Pierson has long practiced spiritually alongside members of the Chumash tribe and is a believer in energy. He said Malibu sits on the intersection of the planet’s two major energy vortexes.
“It goes right through Point Dume and Malibu,” Pierson said. “So there’s this light energy that emanates here in Malibu, which attracts people of positive virtue. I just hope it can continue along those lines.”
For some, the Malibu they once knew is already long gone. Wagner misses the squeaky clean sand on Malibu’s once pristine beaches.
“When I was in my early 20s, we would walk down the sand here and it would squeak under your feet because it was so clean,” Wagner said.
“It had no emollients, it had no brake dust, it had no tire dust. That squeaky beach moment is something I’ll always remember at Surfrider. If you just took your foot and ran it across the sand as you stepped forward, it would squeak.”
Email Nina Adams at email@example.com.