FIGHT COSTS SANTEE

 Rosemary Weck and her neighbors gathered around well-worn shuffleboard courts one bright April morning, pushing disks and catching up about goings-on in their gated mobilehome park, Meadowbrook Estates.

Weck, 85, and her husband, Fred, 87, moved to this peaceful spot on the city’s western end five years ago to escape soaring homeowners’ fees on their Del Cerro condominium. Buying a mobile home fit their budget because of the city’s rent control law for such dwellings.

The law is a lifeline for many of the estimated 2,500 people renting mobile home spaces in the city, a vulnerable but politically influential population made up mostly of seniors on fixed incomes.  The law also helps the city preserve a stock of affordable housing  But at what cost?

Santee has spent about $1.2 million over the past 12 years defending the polity in courts, more than any other single legal matter in that time.  The city has succeeded in court, but property tax revenue is still paying for five lawsuits.  It’s difficult to say when—or if– the costs will ease up.

“If history is any guide, there will be a lull another case, and then another round of lawsuits,” said City Attorney Shawn Hagerty.  The legal bills are only part of the cost.  City staff time spent carrying out the policy has helped push the total to $2.6 million from 1993 through 2005.

The city is one of a handful in the county with mobile home rent control.  Statewide about 100 cities and counties have some form of the policy, which generally involves capping the amount a landlord can charge in rent.

Rent control supporters say some park owners try to drown cities with lawsuits until they can no longer afford to fight.  Opponents, meanwhile, argue that park owners aren’t getting a fair rate of return on capped rents, making it tought to maintain the parks the way they’d like to.

It’s not fair to place the burden of affordable housing on one segment of the housing industry, said Sheila Dey, executive director of the Western Manufactured Communities Association, a Sacramento trade association representing park owners across the state.

Santee Mayor Randy Voepel, who once lived in a mobilehome, said as long as he is at the helm, he will support paying whatever it takes to defend the law.  “There is no upper limt with me,” he said.  “If we have to go to the (U.S.) Supreme Court, I’m prepared, and that costs millions, but I’ll go in a New York minute.”

Councilman Jack Dale, a longtime opponent of rent control, said he would’ve rather used the money swalled by legal costs to help mobile home residents buy their parks.  But he and other council members vote month after month to continue defending the policy.

Mobile home residents in Santee have traditionally turned out to vote in high nunbers , and their local advocacy group, Santee Mobile Home Owners Action Committee (SMOAC), endorses City council candidates come election time.  Politics usually play a role when a city council approves rent control, Dey said.  Park owners are one vote, residents are 200, and it’s easier to give them what they want and place the burden on the park owner”, Dey said.  Santee’s ordinance applies to residents who own their mobile homes but rent the space underneath with leases of up to one year. The residents believe the rents— now set at around $250 to $850 a month—should be more comparable to home-owners’ fees than apartment rents.

They never intended the legal wrangling to drag on this long or to cost city taxpayers this much, said committee president Karen Bisignano.

“We knew it would be challenged, but this kind of ongoing, wear-you-down kind if continual stuff, no,” she said.

Santee adopted the controversial policy in 1994 after years of debate. Since then ,the city has faced challenges primarily over the law’s constitutionality.

To help cover the legal costs, Bisignano said her action committee pushed for a special city fee on mobile home park owners and renters. The fee generated $200,000 before it was ruled invalid by state judges in 2003 and 2005.

Bisignano said the committee is grateful the city has kept up the fight over the years.

Even though the city is in the midst of a housing boom, development has cost virtually nothing in legal expenses because developers are required to cover those bills. It’s the mobile home rent control litigation that has pushed up legal costs the most.

Santee spent $886,000 on legal bills in fiscal 2004, more than half of that on a flurry of rent control litigation. The city’s legal bills typically average between $400,000 and $500,000 a year.

Santee paid about $541,000 in fiscal 2005, with developers chipping in about 51,000/ By comparison, Lemon Grove paid less than a third of that, and Poway and La Mesa paid less than half.

Santee’s total was closer to El Cajon’s, a city nearly double its size. Chula Vista dwarfed all others, though, racking up at least $2 million in legal bills. Escondido, which also has a mobile home rent control law, has spent “hundreds of thousands” defending the policy. The city’s legal fight even reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992, when the nation’s highest court unanimously upheld the city’s ordinance.

San Diego law firm Best, Best & Kreiger has represented Santee since 1996. The firm charges a monthly fee of $13,000, tacking on additional hourly charges for litigation and projects. Three attorneys handle the city’s mobile home rent control litigation.

The city has succeeded in every case, and future legal costs will depend largely on whether opponents continue to challenge the law, Hagerty said.

“Where we sit, it’s the burden of the other parties to try to get those reversed”. Hagerty said. “My hope is that we continue to prevail and eventually have these cases resolved…. That’s a goal of our office.”

Currently, the city is involved in five separate lawsuits regarding its rent control ordinance. Those are:

  • A suit filed by the city against a Chicago-based Equity LifeStyle Properties, Inc (formerly Manufactured Home Communities), which owns Meadowbrook Estates, arguing that the company illegally raised rents in January 2004, and should have not charged a $920 one-time rent increase. The case is pending.
  • A suit filed by the Santee Park Owners Association against the city challenging a provision in the city’s ordinance that says when a tenant sells a mobile home, he or she can also pass along the rent to the new tenant. A judge ruled in favor of the city, and an appeal has been filed.
  • Three other suits filed by Equity LifeStyle Properties against the city challenging constitutionality. Judges ruled in favor of the city in all three, but the company is appealing two. A portion of the third case is still pending.

Back at Weck’s Meadowbrook Estates, the homeowners association has also sued Equity LifeStyle Properties to try to stop the company from charging what residents believe are legally inflated rents and to seek reimbursement for those rents from 2001 to today.

To try to speed up the legal process, resident Jim Montague, 75, is taking drastic measures. He withheld part of his April rent check, and now Equity Lifestyles is taking steps to evict him, he said.

“He’s going to be the guinea pig,” said neighbor Ron Shatto, 74.

“If I win mine, then the whole park will do it, Montague said.

An attorney with Equity LifeStyles could not be reached for comment.

Residents say what they really crave is stability. “A lot of the women in here….have ended up single and they can afford to stay here because rent control”. Weck said.

If the same happens to Weck, she said, “I’ll need a place I can afford as long as I’m on my two feet.”