Thursday, March 5, 2009
As the Marina City Council nears a long-awaited decision on whether to regulate mobile home rents, entrenched interests on both sides are gearing up for a fight. Park residents are circulating a petition to lower rents, while one corporate park owner says he will slap the city with a costly lawsuit if the council adopts a rent ordinance.
“We have a retainer ready to go for a million dollars… if necessary, if they adopt rent control,” says Ken Waterhouse, head of Roseville-based Waterhouse Management Corp., which owns more than 75 parks in the state, including Lazy Wheel Mobile Home Park.
When Waterhouse bought the Marina park in December 2007, he increased rents by as much as $150 per month and further fueled calls for rent control. Waterhouse says he boosted rents because he was hit with a large tax bill after the property turned over.
A city ordinance, he says, would set rents artificially low and not allow parks to charge market rate. “It increases the value of their homes to really an unfair advantage,” Waterhouse says.
Cindy Virtue, president of the Lazy Wheel Mobile Home Owners Association, says she is helping circulate a petition to reduce rents at the city’s five mobile home parks by about 17 percent because of the economic downturn. Virtue supports an ordinance because it would tie rent increases to inflation, and protect owners from having their rents jacked up every time a park changes hands. “We are not asking to put our hands in their pockets – we are asking them to get their hands out of our pockets with unfair space rent increases,” she says.
Two city-hired consultants are debating whether rents at the city’s nearly 400 mobile homes have actually increased unduly. Kenneth Baar’s report – favored by rent control advocates – says rents have substantially exceeded the Consumer Price Index of 16 percent between 2002 and 2008, with rents rising an average of $370 to $463 at El Camino (25.1 percent CPI) and $370 to $608 (64.3 percent CPI) at Lazy Wheel.
Though he doesn’t explicitly promote a rent-control ordinance in Marina, Baar says regulation is useful in protecting housing affordability, adding that none of the state’s 100 ordinances have been struck down in court as invalid.
Consultant Michael St. John comes to a conflicting conclusion. St. John writes that space rents in Marina are moderate (averaging $434 a month) compared to the rest of the county, adding that rents at all parks except for the Lazy Wheel have increased by less than the CPI over the past 20 years. St. John’s report – supported by park owners – says mobile home values have exceeded increases in rents and that all parties should renegotiate a new agreement to stabilize rents and restore balance to the mobile home market.
On Tuesday, March 3, the City Council scheduled a public hearing for the mobile home issue April 18.
While Mayor Bruce Delgado supports rent stabilization, he will be short one ally because Frank O’Connell has recused himself from voting on the mobile issue due to a conflict of interest. Councilman Ken Gray says he is still mulling over his position.
“There are definitely entrenched positions on both sides of this issue,” Gray says, “and it’s going to be a difficult decision no matter which way you look at it.”