By Hudson Sangree –
Published 12:00 am PST Monday, February 4, 2008

Brian Johnson is just as proud of his three-bedroom, two-bath abode in Davis as any homeowner could be.

But the 72-year-old has to contend with worries that don’t concern most homeowners in this affluent college town.

The land beneath his residence could be sold away, or the rent he pays for the plot could be increased so that he could no longer afford it on his fixed budget.

Johnson, a retired cabinetmaker at UC Davis, lives at the Rancho Yolo Mobile Home Park, a senior community with 330 residents, many of them low-income.

Neat homes line its curving streets. Most of the single-wides and double-wides had their wheels taken off long ago and are more mobile in name than reality.

As president of the homeowners’ association, Johnson is a leader in the current effort to put together millions of dollars to buy the park and turn it into a resident-owned cooperative.

The goal is to ensure that the 55-and-older residents can live there for as long as they want, and not be forced out at a landlord’s whim.

The homes that they own would cost exorbitant amounts to move or be rendered nearly worthless if the park was closed, Johnson said.

“Right now we’re living in a business,” he said. “We have no self-determination.”

Compare that with Leisureville, a 150-unit mobile-home park in Woodland, where residents purchased the property from its previous owner in 1995 and act as their own landlords.

The rent, about $300 a month for each plot – including water, sewer and taxes – is nearly the same as it was a dozen years ago.

Leisureville has newly paved streets, a handsome white gazebo and fresh landscaping around the clubhouse.

The park operates in the black, and thousands of dollars in improvements have been paid for with cash, said Gail Madsen, Leisureville’s property manager.

Things weren’t always so good.

In 1995 the landlord wanted to sell Leisureville, and the residents were facing steep rent increases to make the property look more profitable to would-be buyers.

The way things were then, said longtime resident Wayne Gardner, “You lived here and you liked it, or you moved away.”

With the help of the city and consultants, residents were able to put together about $5.4 million to buy the park, ensuring their own future.

The money came mostly as grants and loans from government entities and private foundations.

In addition, each household kicked in $5,000. That was a hefty amount for many residents, some of whom opposed the move.

A loan program helped low-income residents afford their allotment.

“Everybody who wanted to have a share was able to get one,” said David Thompson, a Davis resident and expert in the formation of housing cooperatives.

Thompson worked with Leisureville residents. He’s assisting the Rancho Yolo homeowners, along with his partner Luke Watkins.

The Davis City Council has already pledged $50,000 to kick-start the process, and a recent fundraiser with the Trailer Park Troubadours band, attended by a host of local dignitaries, raised thousands more.

But acquiring the mobile-home park is by no means a given, Thompson said.

The landlords, who live in the Bay Area, have not been contacted. Even if they were willing to sell, the idea’s supporters would still need to cobble together millions of dollars to fund the purchase. They’d also need the cooperation of the residents themselves. Not all are sold on the idea.

Rents at Rancho Yolo have increased at a reasonable pace over the years, and the park appears well-maintained. Some residents wonder why they should shell out thousands of dollars and take on new debt to buy their park.

Thompson, who gets paid for his services, argues that while things are good now, they might not always be that way, and it’s better to act before a crisis occurs.

The future of the large, relatively affordable senior and low-income community – surrounded by pricey Davis real estate – is too valuable to leave to chance, he said.

Leisureville residents said they hope their success will help convince holdouts at Rancho Yolo.

Gardner, 88, said he understands why some would balk. But he said most Leisureville homeowners are now delighted with their choice.

“It will be worth it down the road,” he said, “if their experience is anything like ours.”

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