‘They’re going to have to answer to God’ By Matt O’Brien, STAFF WRITER Article Launched: 05/10/2007

The owner of the Eden Gardens Estates wants to subdivide the Hayward mobile home park so that residents own their own lots. Entering into what could be a difficult battle against a growing statewide real estate trend, the City Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to hold a moratorium on mobile home conversions. The move gives a 45-day reprieve to residents of Eden Gardens   Estates, a mobile home park where the owner has begun a process to “condolize” the 128-unit senior citizen community, thereby exempting the park from local rent control. City officials, worried that such conversions could create a severe shortage of hard-to-replace affordable housing, said the moratorium gives time to wade through the complexities of an issue that has been quietly debated at the statehouse this year.

“To do this kind of thing is unforgivable, really,” said City Councilwoman Doris Rodriquez, echoing Eden Gardens residents who have decried what they consider the forced conversion of their park.

Dozens of Eden Gardens residents crowded the council chambers Tuesday night and forcefully  applauded when the council voted in favor of the moratorium. Dennis Tucker — speaking for his mother, who is in her 90s and on a fixed, $620-a-month income — said she could never afford to buy the land she lives on. “I think this is a tragedy,” Tucker said. “They’re going to answer to God for this because they’re placing these people in poverty.”

Park owner Preston Cook did not attend the Tuesday hearing but spoke at the park clubhouse to a small group of Eden Gardens residents Wednesday afternoon, trying to explain what he and attorney Sue Loftin argue are the unjustified fears and rumors about their plans. “If someone wants to sit and do nothing, they’re not going to see much of a difference,” said Cook, who is also a former president of the San Francisco Housing Authority.

If converted, the mobile homes in the park would continue to be mobile homes. But they would become real, not just personal, property, so that whoever owns the home owns the lot below it, as well. Using a provision in state law that allows them to subdivide the park, owners would create a tiered system between those who buy into their property and those who continue to pay rent.

Low-income homeowners who cannot afford to buy would be able to continue to rent their spaces. Although Hayward’s longstanding rent control protections would cease to apply, state law has its own provisions that limit the amount that rent can increase every year. Cook said he also would   increase the income amount beyond the state minimum, so that more people can qualify for those rent protections.

Those who still don’t qualify as low-income and don’t want to buy their space would have their rents hiked up to the “market rate” over a period of four years. Residents of the close-knit park said news of the proposed conversion has created a sense of stress and uncertainty in a community they bought into because of its stability. Built in 1969, the seniors-only park sits on West Winton Avenue across from the Hayward Executive     Airport.

Cook bought the park in 2001 from its original owners, the Brenkwitz family, and said he decided to convert and sell it so he can retire from the business. He is also attempting to convert a park in Sonoma County and sell two other parks in Oregon.

He said the 45-day moratorium does not create a problem for the process, but he hopes that city leaders and residents will come out of it in support of the conversion. Either way, however, the city cannot stop it because it is allowed by state law, Cook argued.

Bob Billmire, a resident of the New England Village mobile home park and an activist with the Hayward Mobilehome Owners Association, said Cook’s move mirrors similar conversion attempts across the state and has serious implications for the more than 2,000 Hayward households who live in these parks.

Once a park’s oldest residents begin leaving, the old coaches that take a lot of maintenance are swept off the land and replaced by more expensive units. Future buyers will have to pay condo-level mortgages to buy into a park, potentially eroding the community’s status as a haven for those who have trouble affording to live anywhere else, he said.

“The idea, of course, is to eliminate all mobile home (protection) ordinances in California,” Billmire said.

City officials already have hinted that they might seek to extend the 45-day moratorium by up to 10 months, a move that park owners are likely to object to. In the day before the Tuesday night vote, activists from the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association, an advocacy group for park owners, began lobbying individual council members.

In East Palo Alto, a park owner recently sued for more than $14 million in business-related damages after council members there pursued a moratorium extension.

And state legislators now are debating whether to keep or throw out the current provisions that make these mobile home conversions possible.

Matt O’Brien can be reached at (510) 293-2473 or mattobrien@dailyreviewonline.com.