Cindy Virtue sorts through a pile of bills and loan statements inside her spacious, white-carpeted house in Lazy Wheel Mobile Home Park and fishes out a petition. It’s a call for a citywide rent stabilization ordinance, and she wants all Marina mobile home owners to sign it. The proposal would set space rents and allow the City to regulate Marina’s five mobile home parks.
Virtue moved into the park with her two children three years ago after she got divorced. She says she bought her home for $150,000 and initially paid $400 a month to rent the space. Now, in addition to her mortgage payment, Virtue says she pays $450 in rent, plus utilities and a mandatory $50 for cable. She says she’s thinking about getting a second job to pay her bills. She worries that rent will only go up, cutting into her paycheck and depreciating the value of her home.
“We are just getting jerked around by the owner,” Virtue says. “We don’t have a cap on how high she can raise the rent and that affects the value of our home.”
Virtue also worries about park residents often hit hardest by rent increases: seniors, living on a fixed income.
And now, after 24 years under the ownership of Edis Robinson, Lazy Wheel is about to change hands. The property is in escrow and Robinson won’t identify the park’s potential buyers. Its pending sale has reignited demands for rent control in Marina. Residents fear the new owner will jack up rents or even convert the park to condominiums.
On Aug. 7, nearly 20 mobile home residents filled the City Council Chamber, asking Marina officials to consider an ordinance.
Virtue points to Monte Del Lago in Castroville as a foreboding example. Vacancies are up at the park because the corporate owners charge exorbitant rents. “We don’t want what happened to Monte Del Lago to happen in our city,” she says.
In terms of rent, however, the mobile home parks don’t have much in common. Monthly rents reach $1,200 at Monte Del Lago while Marina’s space rents typically range between $300 and $600. When the City Council considered rent stabilization four years ago, Marina rents were below the county median. Space rents in Salinas, which has rent control, are usually more than $700.
Mobile home park owners say they’ll fight rent stabilization efforts in Marina. Marshall Reeves, whose family owns El Rancho Mobile Homes Park, says his family has always kept rents low. His wife Joan Reeves adds that nobody in the park pays more than $400 for space rent. She says they increase rents once a year to cover ever-increasing expenses like taxes and park maintenance. But the couple insists that the rent increases don’t warrant a law.
“There legally has to be sufficient evidence that people are being gouged for the city to determine a rental ordinance,” Marshall says. “We don’t need government spending taxpayers’ money to administer a program that is not necessary.”
Rent stabilization proponents say that if drafted correctly, a local ordinance would set annual rent increases based on the Bay Area’s Consumer Price Index. It would also guarantee mobile park homeowners a fair return on their investment, and allow them to make exemptions for capital improvements.
But first, the City Council would have to buy into the proposal. Mayor Ila Mettee-McCutchon says the City will agendize the matter – probably next month. But because the council already vetoed rent control in ‘03, Mettee-McCutchon says, council members would have to vote to reopen the discussion.
In August 2003 the City Council voted 3-2 against pursuing rent stabilization, with Bruce Delgado and Ken Gray dissenting. Delgado no longer sits on the council, but Gray says the City should consider rent control. It doesn’t look like the rest of the council agrees.
Councilman Dave McCall and Mettee-McCutchon voted against the proposal last time and Councilman Gary Wilmot doesn’t like the idea. “I don’t think it’s wise for a city to inject themselves into something that is a private business,” Wilmot says.
Wilmot and other city leaders don’t want to get tangled in litigation to defend the ordinance. In 2003 the city of Santa Cruz repealed their ordinance after spending $750,000 fighting Manufactured Home Communities in court. The corporation, now called Equity Lifestyle Properties, also owns Monte Del Lago. Monterey County officials took rent stabilization off the table in 2004 after lawsuit threats from the company.
But Virtue and other mobile home residents point to the dozens of cities in the state that have successful ordinances, like Watsonville, Salinas and all the municipalities in Santa Cruz County. She complains that Robinson routinely raises the rents for incoming tenants, making it harder for residents to sell their homes and reducing their equity.
Robinson says homes still sell quickly at the Lazy Wheel and residents have the choice to move elsewhere if they can’t afford the rents. “I don’t have a gun at anybody’s head to move in or move out,” she says. “I do tell them very clearly that the rents will only go up.”