20 Selected Questions & Answers on Common Mobilehome Park Issues*
- Rent Increases
Q. We have just received another large rent increase and soon will not be able to afford to live in the park. Doesn’t State Law Regulate Rent Increases in Mobilehome Parks?
- Except as noted below, state law does not regulate the amount of a rent increase in a mobilehome park. The state Mobilehome Residency Law does require a park to give residents a 90-day written advance notice of a rent increase. If residents are on a long-term lease, the lease would govern the percentage and frequency of rent increases, although increases could not be made more than the minimum (every 90 days) as required by the state’s 90-day notice. At last count, 102 local jurisdictions (mostly cities) have rent control in some form for mobilehome parks. But if residents sign a long-term lease of more than 1 year in length, state law provides the lease is exempt from any local rent control ordinance now in existence or enacted in the future. Under Civil Code Sec. 798.17, homeowners living in the park have a right to review the proposed long-term lease and to reject it within 30 days and opt instead for a 12-month lease agreement or month-to-month rental agreement. If rejected, Sec. 798.17 (c) provides that the park cannot charge the homeowner any more rent for a year after the lease was rejected than the rent terms provided for in the rejected long-term lease. This provision was placed in the law to prevent parks from retaliating by raising the rent even higher if a homeowner will not sign the long-term rent control exempt lease. By law a homeowner living in the park is entitled to a 12-month agreement or month-to-month if they ask for it.
- Pass-Through Fees
- The park has notified us they will be surcharging us for repaving the park streets, above and beyond what we pay for rent. Can the park charge separate “Maintenance” or “Pass-through” fees on top of the rent?
- Yes, if the resident’s lease or rental agreement – that they have signed – provides for assessments or fees for maintenance or other things. But if not mentioned in the lease, a new fee would have to be for a service actually rendered, such as trash pick-up, and would require a 60-day advance written notice. If the rental agreement does not include fees for certain maintenance or repairs in the park, the park could not legally charge them without the 60-day notice, as it would be a breach of the existing rental agreement. However, if they sign a new lease or rental agreement that includes these fees, residents are agreeing to pay them and will be subject to them. State law does not require a notice requirement for an increase in an already existing fee, although legislation attempting such regulation was passed by the Legislature and vetoed by the Governor (AB 2374, Umberg). Those local jurisdictions with mobilehome park rent control may regulate fees or pass-through costs which parks charge their residents. Some ordinances, for example, distinguish capital improvements from maintenance, allowing pass-through of certain capital improvements amortized over a period of time, but not maintenance. State legislation by Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins a few years ago would have also written such a provision into state law but the bill died due to opposition from park owners and other property interests.
- Park Violations of the MRL
- When park management violates the Mobilehome Residency Law (MRL), the landlord-tenant law for mobilehome parks, there is no government enforcement but residents have to go to court to protect themselves. What good is the MRL if there is no government enforcement?
- The MRL is part of the Civil Code. Like conventional landlord-tenant law and other civil provisions, the enforcement mechanism is through the civil courts, not law enforcement or another government agency. Except with regard to public nuisance and health and safety issues in parks, legislative attempts to have district attorneys or city attorneys enforce all or part of the MRL have failed in the past. There is no mobilehome “police.” Courts are a governmental agency, one of the three branches of government saddled with, among other things, resolving or deciding civil disputes. When faced with a problem, residents need to network through mobilehome advocacy organizations or by forming homeowners associations to protect themselves as a group. Few attorneys are familiar with mobilehome law or are interested in practicing it, but as the number of lawsuits against park owners/managers grows, more attorneys are starting to deal with those issues. Some mobilehome organizations or the County Bar Association can provide references or lists of attorneys who take mobilehome cases. Ask neighbors and friends for such references. In some cases, simply hiring an attorney to write a letter on his/her firm’s letterhead to the management will do the trick. In other cases, Small Claims Court may have jurisdiction over cases involving damages of less than $7,500, and, with preparation and advice from mobilehome advocates or attorneys, one can appear in court on one’s own behalf. All park violations should be documented for evidence in court. MRL provisions allow a successful plaintiff to ask the court for attorney’s fees if he/she prevails and obtain up to a $2,000 penalty against the park, at the discretion of the judge, for each willful management violation of the MRL that is proved.
- Park Manager Intimidation
- The park manager says that if we won’t do what he says, we will be evicted. He yells and swears at some of the residents, including elderly widows who are afraid to come out of their homes. He makes up rules for his convenience as he goes along, follows our visitors and tells them they are not allowed in the park, and refuses to give us the name, and phone number of the park owner as required by the MRL. What can we do about such manager intimidation and harassment?
- This is one of the most difficult issues to resolve and there are no easy answers. Recent legislation to initiate a mandatory educational training program for park managers (AB 1469, Negrete-McLeod) was vetoed by the Governor. There are no qualifications to be a mobilehome park manager. Many are good managers, but some are unprofessional and arbitrary in dealing with residents. The Mobilehome Residency Law gives residents certain rights, but when difficult issues have to be resolved, residents need to form homeowners’ organizations or affiliate with mobilehome groups that advocate for mobilehome owners interests and work as a group in dealing with the park management. The best defense is a good offense, but don’t confront the manager in a belligerent or overly argumentative fashion to make matters worse. If the manager won’t let you use the clubhouse for your meetings, to get organized use one of the residents’ homes or meet at a nearby restaurant, community center or meeting place outside the park. Keep a diary or document as evidence all manager violations. Consult an attorney, victims’ rights groups, local fair housing organization or the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) about your rights as well and those of others in the park relating to possible violations of protected classes (discrimination), elder abuse laws, unfair business practices, or the Mobilehome Residency Law. If you prevail against the management in court, you can ask the court for attorney’s fees. If you can prove willful management violations of the MRL you can obtain up to a $2,000 penalty for each violation. Talk to the local newspaper or TV news about doing a story about conditions in the park. Have an attorney send a letter to the park owner about the manager’s behavior and request a meeting with the owner or another representative of the owner, other than the manager. At such a meeting appeal to the park owner’s practical side. Be firm but polite and stick together. Ask the owner to consider that the manager be replaced before he becomes a liability to the park owner.
- Long-term Leases Required
- Park management is telling residents they have to sign a new rental agreement for 10 years (which will exempt residents from any local rent control protection). Can the management force homeowners or residents in the park to sign the long-term lease?
- No, not if you are currently a homeowner residing in the park. If however, you are a buyer of a home in the park and not yet a resident, your right not to sign such a long lease is less clear. State law (MRL Sec. 798.17) provides that a rental agreement or lease with a term of more than 12 months (l year) is exempt from any rent control ordinance, and as a result some park owners try to encourage their residents to sign the longer term leases. However, you have the right to reject the 5-year lease after reviewing it and opt for your rights, under Section 798.18, to a 12-month rental agreement or agreement for a lesser term, such as month-to-month. If you elect to have a rental agreement for 12 months or less, the rent charges and conditions shall be the same as those offered in the longer-term lease during the first 12 months (Sec. 798.18). Not all long- term leases are bad for homeowners, and some may provide rent stability for five or 10 years that month-to-month or year-to-year tenancy does not, particularly in localities where rent control will probably never be enacted. Homeowners need to exercise their right to review the pros and cons of the lease, and obtain advice from friends or attorneys, before signing any lease. The code allows residents 30 days for such review, and retaliatory threats from park managers that rents will be raised even higher if the residents don’t sign the long-term lease should be documented.
- Parking Problems
- When it was a senior mobilehome park, we never had any problems, but today every family has about three cars and management has not made provisions for additional parking. Management also has an aggressive towing policy and has even towed residents’ cars out of their own driveways and carports.
- Residents or guests who park in fire lanes along the park’s streets, or in front of park entrances or fire plugs can be towed without notice. Park management cannot have residents’ cars towed from their own parking space or driveway unless the vehicle does not conform to the park rules, in which case a 7-day notice is required pursuant to MRL Section 798.28.5. But if the vehicle presents a significant danger to the health and safety of residents, or is parked in another resident’s space and requested to be removed by that resident, the vehicle could be towed without the 7-day notice, in which case the extensive provisions of Vehicle Code Section 22658 would apply to both the management’s and tow company’s procedures in removal of the vehicle.
- Trees and Driveways
- When I moved into the park three years ago, there was a 40-foot eucalyptus tree on my space, which is now “uprooting” our driveway. Neighbors have complained about branches falling on their roofs, and the park manager notified me three weeks ago that I would have to remove the tree and repair the driveway at my expense. Two weeks ago the park hired a tree service to remove the tree, and sent me a bill for $742 for tree removal and no separate notice. Do I have to pay it?
- It depends on the facts of the case. The “tree and driveway” issue has been subject to major debate for years. A 1992 Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) legal opinion characterized trees in mobilehome parks as fixtures belonging to the park owner, who is responsible for their maintenance. However, HCD legal counsel also opined that this responsibility could be delegated to the homeowner through the rental agreement. If your rental agreement requires the homeowner to be responsible for maintenance of the trees, then the issue is similar to # 2 above (pass-through fees), but a 60-day notice probably does not have to be given, since it’s already in the rental agreement. If your rental agreement does not make the homeowner responsible for maintenance of the trees, then you should look at the provisions of MRL Sec. 798.37.5. This law basically says that with regard to driveways, the park owner is responsible for maintenance unless the homeowner has damaged the driveway or the driveway was installed by the homeowner. With regard to trees, Sec. 798.37.5 provides that the park owner is responsible for maintenance or removal of a tree on your space only if it is a hazard or constitutes a health and safety violation, as determined by the enforcement/inspection agency (usually HCD). Homeowners may have to pay a fee for an inspection, where there is a dispute between the park and the homeowner over the tree and the homeowner requests an inspection by HCD or the local enforcement agency. Inspectors have wide discretion in this regard, and if the inspector does not find a violation, the homeowner may end up having to pay to remove the tree anyway. The issue could also be litigated by paying the charges under protest to avoid a termination of tenancy and then filing a claim against the park for the amount in Small Claims Court, where a judge would decide.
- Can’t Resell Home in Place in the Park
- We want to sell our mobilehome and move out of the park, but the management says that, because it is too old, we will have to remove the home and cannot sell it in place. Can they do this?
- If your home is NOT a mobilehome (less than 8 feet wide x 40 feet long) and is therefore classified as a recreational vehicle (trailer), you have no right to sell it in place and will have to move it. With regard to mobilehomes, the old law required you to move upon sale if it was 17 years of age or older. That has not been the law since 1984. Current law (MRL Sec. 798.73) establishes two standards. Basically, the home cannot be required to be removed upon a resale if it: 1) is more than 17 to 20 years old or older but meets health, safety and construction standards of state law; and 2) is not in substantially rundown condition or disrepair as determined in the reasonable discretion of management. Generally, if the home meets the first test it is hard to fail the second. If the management is rigid on this issue, you may have to hire a private home inspector to look at your home and repair any code violations or defects the inspector finds in his report. You should keep a copy of the inspector’s final report as proof that your home meets state code standards. State HCD inspectors no longer perform this function, although some local governments that do mobilehome park inspections for the state may be willing to inspect your home. Be prepared to pay an hourly fee in any case, whether it’s a public or private inspector. Several attempted legislative reforms, including SB 339 (Dunn, 2001) requiring HCD to perform home resale inspections have failed to pass the Legislature.
- Home Buyers Disqualified for Insufficient Income
- We want to sell our home in the park and have had several buyers, but the management has disqualified every one for insufficient income. The park has a 3.5:1 income to rent standard, so the buyer’s monthly income has to be 3 1/2 times the sum total of the monthly rent, utility charges, fees and any mortgage on the home. Most existing residents who live in this park don’t make $65,000 a year, even though they can manage to pay the rent. By imposing unreasonable income requirements on buyers, can the park keep me from selling my home?
- Yes. The sale of a mobilehome located in a mobilehome park is a three-party, not two-party transaction. The buyer and seller must not only agree to terms on the sale of the home, the buyer must be approved for residency in the park by the park owner/management. By denying a buyer residency, the park management can effectively veto sale of the home in the park. There have been a number of legislative battles on this issue over the years, and the unfettered discretion of park management has been somewhat restricted, but management can still withhold approval on the basis of: 1) the buyer’s inability to pay the rent and charges of the park and 2) the buyer’s inability to comply with park rules and regulations as indicated by prior tenancies (see MRL Sec. 798.74). Although guidelines used by other landlords or public agencies for rental housing may be more lenient, many park owners impose higher income requirements to assure buyers will be able to afford future rent increases without causing the park problems, such as evictions. Legislative attempts to impose financial qualification standards for parks have not been successful to date.
- Eviction for Rule Violations
- Last month my neighbor received an eviction notice which indicated that she was in violation of park rules, without any other explanation, and that she has 60 days to move herself and her home out of the park. The management refuses to discuss the eviction with her and returned her rent check for this month. What does she do?
- The first step is to seek advice from an attorney, or a mobilehome advocacy group that can refer her to counsel familiar with these kinds of cases. MRL Sections 798.55 and 798.56 govern termination of tenancy in a mobilehome park. In a mobilehome park, your tenancy can only be terminated for just cause, meaning they can only terminate you for seven specified reasons in the code, including violation of a park rule or regulation. The management must also give you a 60-day notice, but if you refuse to move after the 60-day period, the park management has to take you to court in what’s known as an unlawful detainer action, similar to other residential tenancies. There you have the opportunity to tell the judge your side of the story. If you are evicted, depending upon the court, you may be required to pay the management’s attorney fees, in addition to having to leave the park. In this case of termination for a rule violation, the homeowner may have a good defense because the code requires management to specify the rule broken and particular circumstances of where and when, and they first have to give you seven days to correct the rule violation. If you can show the court they didn’t follow these requirements or give you that opportunity to conform within seven days, the park cannot proceed with termination. However, if you violate the rule more than twice in a 12-month period, on the third violation, the management may proceed with termin- ation despite the fact you have cured the violation (Sec. 798.56d), a sort of “3 strikes and you’re out” provision. If the management refuses to accept the resident’s check for rent, the resident should put the rent money in a trust or escrow account at a bank so the resident can later show good faith to the court in trying to pay the rent. Termination of tenancy (eviction) in a mobilehome park is a vitally important matter because a resident can lose their home, so they should not waste time seeking legal help.
- Management not Available in Emergencies
- Recently a water pipe broke in our park, but there was nobody there who knew how to turn the water off, and extensive flooding occurred. We called the park manager’s number, but received only an answering machine message. This is not the first time we have had a sewer or water pipe break or other emergency and the manager wasn’t available to respond. Doesn’t the law require a manager to be on the premises at all times to handle such emergencies?
- Not exactly. Health and Safety Code Section 18603 requires a manager or his/her designee to reside in parks with 50 or more spaces, but does not require them to be on the premises 24 hours a day. The code does require a person to be available by telephonic means, including telephone, cellular phone, pager, answering machine or answering service, to reasonably respond in a timely manner to emergencies concerning the operation and maintenance of the park. The agency responsible for enforcement of park health and safety requirements (either local government or HCD) should be contacted about citing the park for this possible violation, although some enforcement agencies are reluctant to cite for this violation because it is difficult to prove. Additionally, residents may have a legal cause of action against the park for damage from flooding due to the park’s negligence in not being available to shut off the water in a timely manner.
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* Information compiled by the Senate Select Committee on Mobile and Manufactured Homes based on actual inquiries and questions by mobilehome owners in the last five years.
CARE: California Alternate Rates for Energy Program
CPUC: California Public Utilities Commission
DFEH: California Department of Fair Employment and Housing
HCD: California Department of Housing & Community Development
MRL: California Mobilehome Residency Law
W&M: Weights & Measures (County Sealer’s Office)