The Mountain View City Council took early steps Tuesday to begin drafting a law that would extend the city's rent control law to mobile homes, following a campaign by mobile home residents who say renter protections are necessary in order to have any hope of staying in Mountain View.
A majority of the council signaled at the Jan. 28 study session support for limiting annual rent increases on mobile home park residents in line with Mountain View's existing rent control law, the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA). The law regulates about 15,000 rental units in Mountain View, and caps annual rent increases at the rate of regional inflation, unless it tops 5%.
Whether mobile homes should have been covered under CSFRA in the first place has been the source of legal disputes for years, but the current interpretation is that the city's roughly 1,100 mobile homes aren't covered. For mobile home residents, rationalizing that mobile home owners aren't renters amounts to mental jiujitsu.
"We're renters, we have rental agreements, we have lease terms, I pay rent every month, there's an eviction process and procedure," said Sahara Mobile Village resident Sarah Georg. "To tell me that I pass all three of those tests and say I'm not a renter defies logic."
Residents across Mountain View's six mobile home parks have been a growing presence at City Council meetings, galvanized by what they describe as price-gouging rent increases and fears that the dwindling number of affordable housing options in Mountain View will drive them out. An estimated 85% of mobile home residents in the city are either seniors, disabled or veterans, according to the Mountain View Mobile Home Alliance, and many of them can't afford the rent hikes.
"This is our home, Mountain View is our home," said Anna Marie Morales, a Sahara mobile home resident. "My mom is elderly, she is disabled, she doesn't want to leave Mountain View. But with these ever-increasing rents it's almost impossible to make a living and try to stay there."
Though rent control does not extend to mobile homes, the stakes are arguably higher. Mobile home owners own the house itself but have to pay monthly rent for the space it occupies at the mobile home park. The mobile home's value is closely tied to the price of its space in the mobile home park. In other words, prospective buyers are going to be less interested in buying the mobile home if they have to pay $2,000 a month in rent, on top of a mortgage.
The general rule of thumb is that every $10 in space rent drops the home's equity by $1,000, according to city staff.
Santiago Villa resident Chris Chiang described many of his neighbors as the type of middle and working-class residents that the council is seeking to protect: They include a carpenter, a preschool teacher, an electrician and a ride-share driver. He said his community may appear mad at the council in demanding renter protections, but it's really just fear reaching a tipping point. Residents are working hard to put equity into their homes, only to see the values tank when faced with steep rent increases. If they can't afford to pay the rent, residents feel pressured to sell their home to the park's ownership at a loss.
"When you hear people angry, we're not really angry at you," Chiang said. "What you're hearing is fear."
It's because of these higher stakes that roughly 100 jurisdictions throughout California have adopted some kind of rent stabilization measure for mobile homes, including San Jose, Milpitas, Morgan Hill and Los Gatos. All four of those cities also have a provision known as "vacancy control" that prevents mobile home park owners from jacking up the rent when the mobile home ownership changes hands.
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said she was surprised to see how commonly mobile home rent control laws have been adopted, particularly when compared to the number of cities that have imposed rent control more broadly. She said Mountain View joins only about a dozen other California jurisdictions in having rent control, and very likely is the only city in the state that protects apartments but not mobile homes.
"If that's the case, then I would like to not be the exception anymore," Hicks said. Her comment was followed by rowdy applause from the crowd.
While the majority of the council lent support to extending renter protections to mobile home residents, there was no clear consensus Tuesday evening on the critical details of the policy. It's unclear whether the annual cap on rent increases will be tied to inflation -- 3.5% as of last year -- or a flat 4%, and when precisely to set the "base year" that would determine permissible rent increases going forward.
Trey Bornmann, president of the Mountain View Mobile Home Alliance, told the Voice that he and others have been fighting to make the start date Oct. 19, 2015, consistent with the date that CSFRA rolled back apartment rents. He said the rollback makes sense because he believes mobile homes were always supposed to be included in the law, but the body charged with implementing the rent control law -- the Rental Housing Committee (RHC) -- went against the advice of its legal consultant and determined mobile homes were not included in the law.
Bornmann alleges that the owner of Santiago Villa and Sahara has been jacking up the rents as part of a long-term strategy to pressure residents to sell their homes back to the park at fire sale prices, which the park can turn around and rent out for as much as $4,000 a month. Residents say as many as 90 homes in Santiago Villa may be owned by the park now.
The frustration among mobile home residents is that council members appear sympathetic to mobile home residents who are simultaneously being priced out and losing a huge chunk of equity in their home, but have yet to show a sense of urgency. It's been more than three years since Mountain View voters passed rent control in 2016, and more than a year since a judge reaffirmed that the Rental Housing Committee could exclude mobile homes from CSFRA.
If and when the council actually passes an ordinance, Bornmann said he worries it won't actually mirror the rent control law, and may end up weaker than they had hoped.
"I am afraid everybody is going to get screwed," he said. "They kicked the can and they didn't take any action and when they do take action, I'm worried they will water it down to appease the California Apartment Association and the landlords. They're more worried about getting campaign contributions."
The fault for the delays lies not with the City Council, but with the RHC, argued Councilman Chris Clark. He said CSFRA empowers the committee to oversee rent control writ large in the city, and its membership flexed its authority by excluding mobile homes from renter protections. This left the council in a "quagmire" in which the committee's power supersedes the council, and changing membership on the committee could alter that critical decision on mobile homes in the future.
The City Council is seeking to add language to the rent control law in Measure D on the March ballot to explicitly say mobile homes are not covered. Clark said this would allow the council to move forward with its own rent stabilization ordinance separate from the decisions of the rental committee.
"One of the things behind Measure D ... was to very specifically say, 'Okay well that's what you did RHC, we're taking that power away from you and we're going to cover this ourselves,'" Clark said.
Many of the complaints and worries aired at the Jan. 28 meeting were from members of the Sahara and Santiago Villa mobile home parks, with fewer from members of the remaining four mobile home parks in the city. Frank Kalcic, a managing partner of the Sunset Estates Mobile Home Park, said his family may have had some missteps but overall believes the park is one of the "best examples of quality mobile home living." He worries that a rent control ordinance would paint a broad brush for all six of the parks, and would take away his ability to make important financial decisions about his tenants.
"Rent control places the budgetary decision-making in the hands of a bureaucracy that isn't able to respond to the specific needs of a community and its infrastructure," he said.
Calcic also contends that the rule of thumb about rent increases and how they relate to loss in home equity is a gross oversimplification of how home sale prices are determined. Overall, he said, mobile homes in Mountain View are getting sold for more than the purchase price in spite of rent increases.
Only one speaker at the meeting identified herself as a Sunset Estates resident, and said she and her neighbors don't really need rent control. But she maintains that the rest of the other parks do, and insisted that CSFRA was written with the assumption it would extend to mobile homes.
The city is expected to hold stakeholder meetings prior to drafting an ordinance, with plans to return the issue to the council sometime in the spring.