BY WILLIAM ROHRS, INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER, May 1, 2015

There weren’t enough chairs to go around.

Sonoma mobile home-park residents crowded the conference room in the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building this week to weigh in during an April 29 City Council “study session” to discuss possible changes to the city’s mobile home park rent-control policy.

While council members held off on taking any firm stands on rent-policy changes – they’ll revisit the matter at a later date – many mobile home owners spoke up to say they live off retirement benefits and social security, and cannot afford any rent increases at all.

“I’ve taught sixth grade in California for over 20 years,” said mobile home owner Diane Burnham. “I’ve given my life to this state and its children, and now I’m in danger of being forced out of my home. For a lot of us with Medicare, we sometimes have to choose between medicine and food. A rent increase is not something I can afford.”

Since 1992, the city has had a Mobile Rent Control Ordinance in place, which strictly limits the way park landlords can raise space-rental rates. Under the current ordinance, park owners have been limited to annual rent increases of no more than 80 percent of the rate of inflation. In addition to the automatic inflationary increase, park owners are also permitted to apply for rent hikes to pay for capital improvements to their mobile home parks, as well as apply for rent increases in order to maintain the net operating income enjoyed by the park as of 1992.

That 1992 income, according to a city staff report, would reflect the year before the rent control was established and presume “a fair and reasonable rate of return” on park operations. Any rent-increase petitions from park owners are currently decided by a Rental Review Board appointed by the City Council.

But park owners say the two-decade-old ordinance is outdated and limits rents at too-far-below their market value.

Both park residents and park owners were invited to present their sides at the meeting in the hopes of finding common ground.

William Constantine, an attorney representing the tenants, proposed disbanding the city’s rental review board as the deciding party on rent increase applications and instead turn the responsibility to the city manager, who would hire third-party experts to help with those decisions. “The residents proposed a $5 annual fee in order to retain experts, to be collected but not paid by the park owners,” he said. “This way, the residents feel they can eliminate any possible bias from the board.”

The homeowners other proposed changes include the ability to make a counter-offer to a proposed rent increase – and also be allowed to petition for rent reductions in situations where a park has reduced services or amenities.

Representing the park owners, Brad Yusim, of Chicago-based Jenner & Block Law, argued that most mobile home communities in California do not offer rent control. He argued that by keeping rent determinately low, mobile home owners can sell their lots at a premium, causing new owners to pay more early in order to reap a cheaper-than-market rent over time – a suggestion that elicited guffaws from mobile home owners at the meeting.

Yusim added that park owners wanted to change the amortization period for sewage and water distribution systems from 50 years to 15; eliminate the mobile home owners’ right to protest a rent increase for necessary capital improvements; increase the automatic rent increase from 80 to 100 percent of the rate of inflation (and eliminate the 5 percent cap on that); and eliminate vacancy control, a process that protects new tenants from paying more than 110 percent of the last tenant’s rent.

When public comment opened, so many tenants queued up to voice their opinions Mayor David Cook had to limit them to one minute so the council could have time to deliberate.

“We are all senior citizens,” said park tenant Arlene Branson. “The owners knew that when they bought these parks. We’ve worked hard all our lives to earn these homes. We’d like to keep them.”

Rev. Tim Arensmeier from the Sonoma Valley Community Church urged the park owners to consider the human element when deciding rent increases. “Fifty percent of this town is retired. If we start raising rents, people will have to leave this community,” he said.

City Manager Carol Giovanatto expects the matter to come back before the council sometime in the summer