Mobile homes embroiled in rent control battle


The Sonoma City Council will vote on a measure that would give residents more input in the process. But similar laws have already led to lawsuits up and down the state.

Sonoma is usually a peaceful little town, a nice place to live, a nice place to retire.

But a plan to subdivide and sell one of the town's mobile home parks is pitting neighbor against neighbor.

"It's a tough place to be living right now. There's a lot of emotion," said mobile home resident Earl Ahern.

Rancho De Sonoma is a senior citizen park with about 100 mobile homes.

"It has been very important to us because it was the only thing we could afford," said mobile home resident Martha Drittenbas.

Here, just like at most mobile home parks, the residents own their homes, but rent the land underneath. Now the park owner wants a change.

"What I want to do with my park is make a resident owned community. So the residents of Rancho De Sonoma will have an opportunity to own the land, instead of just their homes," said Rancho de Sonoma owner Preston Cook.

It's happening all over the state, a process similar to condo conversion. Residents buy the land under their home and a share in the common areas of the park.

The owner hasn't put a price tag on the lots yet. But a few residents say they may be interested in buying.

"Yes, it's California dirt. Whether we can afford it or not, what the price comes to, I don't know," said Ahern.

But not everyone is enthusiastic. Some believe it is a way for the owner to get out from under Sonoma's rent control law.

"Low income housing will be totally gone, and there is no greater source of real low income housing in California than manufactured homes and the mobile home communities," said mobile home resident Mike Warner.

Under California law, if even one property in a mobile home park is sold, local rent control laws no longer apply. Instead, weaker "state" rent control that covers only the lowest income residents kicks in. When those residents leave, rent control is gone for good.

There are almost 5,000 mobile home parks in California. Dozens have already been converted to resident ownership, and many more park owners are working on it.

In some cases, residents want to buy the property their home sits on, but sometimes they don't.

"We have a total frontal assault on affordable housing, low income families and senior citizens," said housing advocate Sam DiGiacomo.

Jean Warnes says the lawyer representing her mobile home park near Santa Rosa told her each space would be sold for about $100,000.

"I'm certainly not going to be interested in doing that. It's not a possible thing for most of us at all," said Warnes.

Now, a growing number of Bay Area cities and counties are passing ordinances to give residents more say in what happens to their parks.

Sonoma County passed one of the toughest.

"We believe that if 50 percent of the park decided to convert, then that stood for us as a bona fide conversion. That meant that the majority of the folks were on board, it was something that was going to be good for everybody and we could actually tolerate that," said Sonoma County supervisor Valerie Brown.

The law covers unincorporated areas, which include the Sequoia Gardens Park. The owner says the county has gone too far.

"What they've tried to do in Sonoma is give the residents a veto power over the process and state law specifically provides that if an owner follows the procedures, the city must approve the subdivision," said park owner's attorney Richard Close.

Sequoia Gardens' owners sued and lost. Now, they're appealing. The outcome could set a precedent for the state. But the case probably won't be decided until fall.

In the meantime, the city of Sonoma is expected to pass a similar law in about two weeks, and may face a lawsuit too.

"They have a right to do that, and I have a right to challenge them," said Cook.

While the legal battle goes on, residents are in limbo. Many are scared they'll lose the equity in their homes.

At Rancho De Sonoma, the park owner is offering residents financial incentives to agree to the conversion. But people living here are divided about taking the deal.

"You're talking about a very fragmented community who's afraid," said mobile park resident Jude Cameron.

The voting in Sonoma County will take place in about two weeks.

Attorneys for the park owners told ABC7 repeatedly about three-percent loans the state provides for low income residents who want to buy the land under their mobile home. After checking into it, ABC7 found the loans are a great deal, but they're very limited. There's only $8 million for the whole state and there are a lot of restrictions.

To get more information on the loans:

To get more information on mobile home conversions and other mobile home issues, here's a link to the California Senate Select Committee on mobile homes:

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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