West Sacramento mobile home ordinance largely ignored

dvsmith@sacbee.comFebruary 1, 2014 

A 2009 West Sacramento ordinance designed to stabilize mobile home park rents has largely been ignored by park owners and city officials.

City leaders wanted to monitor rent increases at mobile home parks and encourage park owners to enter long-term agreements with tenants after numerous complaints from low-income residents over excessive rent increases. West Sacramento’s ordinance even had teeth: the threat of misdemeanor charges against park owners who did not comply.

But five years on, confusion reigns over the ordinance’s intent, and hardly any park owners have informed the city of rent increases. Just two of the city’s 17 mobile home parks have reported rent increases to the city since the ordinance was approved, Assistant City Manager Carol Richardson said. Rent notification, she said, was “on the honor system.”

“It needs some tweaking,” Richardson said. “We definitely think we need to clear up the language and review the intent. ... It’s clear there’s some confusion and that we need to revisit the issue.”

Mobile park residents say the ordinance’s language is clear: The ordinance states that a park owner must notify the city whenever increasing rent. The notice must be filed with the city manager’s office no fewer than 90 days before the increase takes effect and must show the reason for the increase.

Seniors at Casa Mobile Estates, a 170-space park in the shadow of West Sacramento City Hall, say annual rent increases by San Jose-based Western Management have gone unchecked by the city and forced some of their neighbors to make hard choices.

“They’re raising rents and moving old people out of the park,” Teresa Cobb told council members in a tiny but insistent voice at a City Council meeting in mid-January, holding copies of the city’s 2009 ordinance.

She and daughter Sharon Tarkington, also a Casa Mobile Estates resident, have pushed the city in recent weeks to re-examine the ordinance and the rental rates they and other residents absorb each year. The pair want the issue clarified and want the city to enforce its ordinance.

“A lot of people are leaving the park and moving in with their kids. It’s primarily a senior park, but it’s getting so that elderly people can’t live here,” the 88-year-old Cobb said in a later interview. “(Western Management) has not reported one increase to the city of West Sacramento. That’s what they’re supposed to do. City Hall isn’t doing their job.”

The ordinance came after a 2006 survey on the state of the city’s mobile home parks and residents. The findings offered a glimpse of those dependent on the low-cost housing: seniors, those with disabilities and the working poor.

Nearly 1 in 5 were seniors 65 or older and more than 40 percent of households had someone with a disability. More than a third earned less than $13,000. Nearly all of the mobile home park residents surveyed – 93 percent – earned less than the $49,500 median income for a two-person household in Yolo County.

Residents worried over space-rental costs and overwhelmingly supported rent control. Many said they didn’t have the money to move to another park or home and complained about a lack of affordable housing in the city even if they had the cash to move.

The city has not conducted a new survey, Richardson said. But mobile home parks remain one of the few low-cost alternatives for working families and seniors on fixed incomes with few options to move.

Mobile home park tenants and cities up and down the state have been grappling with the issue of rent stabilization.

Mobile home park residents in Thousand Oaks sued their park’s owner last year after the city allowed rates to skyrocket in 2011. In Los Angeles County, El Monte approved a rent-stabilization ordinance last summer after mobile home park tenants claimed their landlord drastically and repeatedly increased rental rates.

At Casa Mobile Estates, tenants “have been going through a lot” since Western Management took over the park in 2009, Tarkington said.

She said tenants were pressured to sign one-year leases that allowed Western Management to increase rent each year by a minimum of 3.75 percent in what were termed cost-of-living adjustments. Western Management, she said, threatened to increase rents every 90 days if tenants chose to pay rent on a month-to-month basis. Since that time, the rent increases have outpaced inflation each year.

Cobb’s rent was $368 a month in 2009. Today, after yearly rent increases written into the lease agreement she and other tenants signed in 2010, Cobb pays $441. Tarkington’s rent has gone from $439 a month in 2009 to $508 now.

The contract language with built-in rent increases was developed in part by the city’s now-defunct Mobile Home Park Task Force.

“We’re on fixed incomes,” Cobb said. “We don’t get no raises. We can’t afford to have them raise the rent every year. It’s really unfair. Our golden years are supposed to be good years, but they’re not.”

Richardson said Western did not notify West Sacramento of rent increases at Casa Mobile Estates but that Western told the city it fulfilled all of the city’s obligations by providing long-term leases to tenants. John Bavone, Western Management’s general partner, believes the ordinance’s intent was clear.

“The intent is to protect the people living there,” Bavone said. “The intent of the lease is to keep rents fair for residents and we’ve abided by that.”

West Sacramento Councilman Bill Kristoff is not convinced. He has asked the city attorney to send a letter to Western Management warning the firm of possible violations and asked the counsel to talk with the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.

“There’s probably not a lot we can do retroactively, but we’re going to stay on top of this,” Kristoff said Thursday. “We need the property owner to follow the ordinance that has been put in place.”

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.

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