As I travel throughout California meeting with mobilehome residents, the issue of “enforcement of the laws” is almost always discussed. Homeowners want to know how they can ensure that a park owner follows the law. They want to know what can be done if the Mobilehome Residency Law (MRL) is violated, or if they are suffering from unfair treatment not found in any specific law. Usually, they will ask me something like: “Who is going to protect me?” or “Who will enforce the laws for me?” Expecting an easy answer that gets them off the hook, they may not always like my response. But it is important that I communicate reality to them. And so my answer usually ends with the sentence: “It’s up to YOU!”
For the last 30 years, many laws have been passed at the state and local level which protect mobilehome residents. Mobilehome resident organizations annually wage battles in Sacramento to pass new laws that are needed and to fight against laws that would damage the interests of residents. Passing protective laws is certainly an important part of providing protection to residents. In many cases it is an important first step towards righting an injustice.
But once the law is passed, who enforces it? If a park owner violates a law, who typically is responsible for seeing to it that justice is done? And who needs to be watching carefully to see that laws are not violated? The answer to each of these questions is the same: It’s YOU! The plain truth is that laws do not enforce themselves. The most detailed and perfect statute can be drafted, carried and passed through the houses of legislature. But until someone stands up to demand its enforcement, it is only a deterrent. Sometimes just having a deterrent in place is enough to discourage violation of the law. But often times it is the person who the law is designed to protect who must stand up, “blow the whistle” and simply say: “Enough is Enough!” Only when a resident decides to take a stand and do something about it will justice truly be accomplished in most cases.
There are some laws which can be enforced by government authorities. Most local rent ordinances, for example, state that a park owner who violates the law could be guilty of a misdemeanor. If a resident believes that a violation is occurring, he or she should contact the local City Manager or City Attorney to determine if the local government can or will enforce the law. This is always preferable, since the public officials whose salary we are paying can do the work, and the resident can be spared the cost of hiring his or her own attorney. But most laws do not work this way. Few violations of the MRL, other than certain nuisance actions, will be enforced by local or state governments. MRL violations are civil disputes which need to be handled by the civil courts. Many times this requires the representation of an attorney, or intervention by a mediation service. In these cases, the burden of enforcement is clearly on the residents.
So what does enforcement look like? What does the resident have to do? The following are some simple steps to remember as you contemplate how to enforce your legal rights.
- KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. There is no substitute for this. Every mobilehome resident should have a copy of the MRL, which is distributed by most park owners annually. You can go on line to download a copy of the complete MRL for free at: www.sen.ca.gov/mobilehome. You can write to the Senate Publications Office in Sacramento to purchase a copy for $5.25. Or any resident should be able to go to the park office and request a copy. The MRL requires a park owner to distribute a copy to all residents each year where a “significant change” of the MRL provisions is made by the legislature. Also find out whether your local city of County has ordinances relating to rent control, park conversion or condominium conversion. Read these laws and try to understand them. Ask questions of your neighbors or the organizations of which you are a part if you do not. You can’t know if your rights are being violated until you first know what your rights are!
- BE VIGILANT. Once you know the laws, you need to be watch carefully to ensure that no violations are occurring. This requires one to pay attention. Read the notices that you receive. Review your rent notices carefully. If something seems like it isn’t right, the chances are it may not be. It may be necessary to watch out for your friends and neighbors living in the park who don’t know how to be vigilant, or cannot understand their rights due to age, infirmity or language barriers.
- ORGANIZE AND UNITE. A common reaction from residents faced with a violation of their rights is to shrink from the task because they are afraid of how the park owner might retaliate against them. Left alone to fend for themselves, they often feel inadequate, intimidated and afraid of the consequences. And they might be unable to afford an attorney or the costs of enforcing their rights on their own. But if they unite with others, the possibilities might be endless. If 20 residents unite, each one has the power and finances of 20. If 100 residents unite, they combine awesome financial power and influence. This can occur in various ways. Join a state-wide organization to become educated and help support state-wide causes, such as the defeat of Proposition 98 in June. Join your local park association. And band together when necessary to fight unfair rules, unauthorized rent increases or pass throughs, or to oppose park conversions. In each case, residents send a powerful message to park owners that they speak with one voice, and cannot be individually intimidated into silence.
- DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED. Fear of retaliation has prevented many residents from standing up for their rights. I can never guarantee that a resident will not be on the receiving end of harassment or intimidation. Notices to pull weeds or paint the mailbox might come more regularly. The park might be watching for each and every violation of the rules, no matter how small. This kind of conduct comes with the territory in many cases, and residents should be on their guard. But it should be remembered that the park can NEVER evict anyone without just cause. No one should abandon their rights due to threats or intimidation which has no basis. Such conduct by management could result in violations of the MRL that would entitle the resident to recover civil penalties for “willful violations”. If the park owner thinks that a resident can be easily intimidated, they are more inclined to try and do so. But if a resident makes it clear that he or she will not back down from the enforcement of their rights, no matter what it takes, the harassment may stops. And a resolution to the problem becomes far more likely.
- GET QUALIFIED HELP. If the resident determines that the City Attorney or local government will not be involved, and the resident or group of residents cannot handle the matter on their own, professional help should immediately be sought. Look for an attorney in your area who has expertise in mobilehome law. Get proper advice about the available options. If litigation is required, hiring an attorney is a must.
- STAY COMMITTED. Often the enforcement of rights takes time. This requires the residents to stay engaged for the long haul. The park owner’s strategy might be to wear down the will and incentive of the residents. Don’t let that occur! Once you start the process, keep at it. Invest your time, your talents and, where necessary, your money. After all, you are protecting your home, and your way of life. Otherwise, all that you have previously put into the process could be lost.
- SUPPORT THE PASSAGE OF STATE AND LOCAL LAWS. It is critical that each mobilehome resident join the effort to pass good laws and defeat bad ones. Stay tuned to what is happening both in Sacramento and your own town. Join as many organizations as you can, so that you will be well informed about how to help pass needed legislation. And once those laws pass, read them so that you will know your rights (this takes us back to Step 1).
Any resident can do all of these things if they are willing. If each does his or her part, mobilehome owners can be a mighty force to be reckoned with. Remember, it all starts with YOU. YOU have the power. YOU just need to be willing to use it!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: MR. STANTON HAS BEEN A PRATICING ATORNEY SINCE 1982, AND HAS BEEN REPRESENTING MOBILEHOME RESIDENTS AND HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATIONS AS A SPECIALTY FOR OVER 20 YEARS. HIS PRACTICE IS LOCATED IN SAN JOSE, AND HE IS CURRENTLY THE CORPORATE COUNSEL FOR THE CALIFORNIA MOBILEHOME RESOURCE & ACTION ASSOCIATION (CMRAA)
Editors Note: CoMO-CAL employees Mr. Stanton to write articles and answer legal questions for us. This article was written exclusively for CoMO-CAL and for no other advocacy group. We thank Mr. Stanton for his assistance.