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Mobile Home Park Residents Revisit Old Wound

mobileQuiet desperation roared at full volume at recent mobile home park rent control symposium

In the almost cartoonish paradise of De Anza Mobile Home Park, with its colorful array of manufactured homes mortared together with flower gardens and draping foliage, birds chirping in the globular trees, and panoramic ocean views one would expect nothing but senior citizens smiling as they take a stroll of the grounds. To the contrary, however, there is a deep despondence that lives within the community.

“I feel like I’ve been robbed,”  Christine Beck, a former resident of De Anza Mobile Home Park, said at a recent symposium. “And the worst part is that it seems like nobody cares.”

The residents of De Anza Mobile Home Park held The Santa Cruz City Former Mobile Home Park Rent Control Symposium this past Saturday, March 9, to address the city’s loss of rent control in 2003, the effect that it has had on the park’s residents, and what others can do to prevent similar scenarios from happening in the future.

In September of 2003, after four years of litigation, the City of Santa Cruz lost its federal case against what was then called Manufactured Home Communities (MHC), now Equity Lifestyle Properties (ELS), a corporation based out of Chicago, and run by infamous billionaire Sam Zell.

In the ruling, Federal Judge Jeremy Fogel deemed the city’s rent control ordinance unconstitutional and abolished the protective measure as a result. This allowed ELS to raise the rents on De Anza’s residents to “market prices,” which in many cases was five times the amount they had paid before.

“This one corporation had more money than the City of Santa Cruz,” said former city councilmember Mike Rotkin, who spoke on the symposium’s first panel. “We were as shocked as the residents were when we found out our rent control law was unconstitutional under the judge’s decision.”

The city’s rent control ordinance not only restricted the amount that the mobile home park’s landowner could increase rent each year, but also regulated the amount that residents could charge when selling their home.

Under the law, mobile homes are not considered “real property” so when a homeowner sold his or her unit, they did not have to report the amount they sold it for to the city. Some residents took advantage of this and sold their homes for illegally high amounts, which allowed ELS to litigate the city into submission.

There was a settlement in the case, and the court allowed residents of De Anza to sign into a 34-year lease that kept their rent at previous levels, but the control does not apply once they try to sell. As soon as ownership changes hands, the rent goes up and the value of the home goes down, which means that most people can’t sell without losing all the equity they invested in their homes.

“My home is gone, and the money’s gone,” Beck said to the audience. “That was my retirement.”

The event’s second panel discussed how other communities could prevent this from happening in the future, and apart from zoning changes, there weren’t many options. But Ishbel Dickens, executive director of the National Manufactured Home association, left the panel with some hope.

“How about you start working for rent control at the state level? There are one million individuals living in manufactured housing communities in California. That’s a loud voice to take to the legislature,” Dickens said. “Don’t agonize—organize.”

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