Times-Herald – Vallejo, CA September 5, 2006
By MATTHIAS GAFNI, Times-Herald staff writer Vallejo Times Herald

Residents of a Vallejo mobile home park are fuming in the wake of an announcement this week that the owner plans to convert the ownership structure, potentially raising rent and adding dues for tenants. The move could have ripple effects on other local mobile home parks, officials said.

The Vallejo Mobile Estates owner’s attorney said the conversion from a rental mobile home park to one of resident ownership could benefit all sides. Despite getting grilled at a standing room-only meeting Wednesday night at the park clubhouse, the owner’s attorney Richard Close said as long as certain steps are followed, there’s nothing the city or residents can do to stop it. He may be right.

“It does appear by law that the city is very limited in what we can do,” said Laura Simpson, Vallejo’s housing and community development manager, who attended the meeting. “The city attorney is looking into the case,” Simpson said, referring to an appellate court ruling on a Palm Springs case restricting a city’s influence in a conversion. “They’re researching the outcome of that case and what implications that will have on the city because it hasn’t happened here before.”

Lou Delgado, the park’s tenant representative, said Biggs is taking advantage of a “loophole” in state law. “He’s using a law basically written out for the residents to buy the park. It was never written out for what the park owner is doing here,” Delgado said. “All it is is a ploy to circumvent rent control.”

Close said state law is written to encourage residents to become owners, and owner Ed Biggs already has received positive feedback from residents. “The owner had received calls in the past from residents who wanted to buy spaces,” Close said. “No. 2, the owner wanted to increase the value of the land in the lot.”

Currently, most Vallejo Mobile Estates residents own their mobile homes and rent the land underneath from the park owner for roughly $300 to $500 a month, Delgado said. Under state law, Biggs must follow protocol before converting the park. “State law says that as long as the owner does A, B, C and D, the city must approve it,” Close told the audience at Wednesday night’s 90-minute meeting. Once the city approves the application, it only takes one resident to buy his or her plot to trigger the new rules.

Residents can refuse to buy the land and continue to rent. Low-income residents ($38,000 annual income or $44,000 for two people) would still have similar rents, but renters with higher incomes would have their monthly fees adjusted to state market levels, which are generally higher.

“It’ll put seniors and single moms and single dads on the street,” said Michelle Miller, a two-year resident at Vallejo Mobile Estates. Biggs made the same move earlier this month at his mobile home park in Pacific Palisades, where monthly rent reportedly was headed from $500 to $1,300 after the conversion there.

Former city council-member Joanne Schivley attended Wednesday’s meeting and voiced concerns. “The concern for the city is where will the people who may be displaced go. We may be increasing the homeless population, placing a greater demand on our city resources,” Schivley said.

In addition to potentially increased rent, Schivley said residents would be stuck with a homeowner’s association fee under the new deal. And until 51 percent of the park is owned by residents, the owner would control the association and its decisions, according to state law.

Attorney Close countered, saying that at 51 percent ownership, the buyers would get a break on property taxes. “It’s a complicated area. That’s why we had the meeting, which was voluntary,” Close said. “I knew I’d be abused. But it was an opportunity for 80 percent of those in the room that wanted information, and 20 percent didn’t want to hear any of it.

“People buy because they want an appreciation in the value and it’s a way to protect your investment in your home,” said Close, adding that buyers could get city and state assistance to help with the purchase.

Five-year resident Matt Lawson said the park already has new trailers not selling in the park, and doubts older trailers will ever sell tied to the land.  “The only thing he is doing is shuffling his money to his benefit,” Lawson said. “The thing is, who’s going to buy my trailer at $80,000?”

Biggs’ attorney said the opposite is true. “What I’ve found in the past, once the public knows the park has been converted to park ownership, demand increases,” Close said.

The complicated issue could find itself burgeoning at other local parks. “It’s possible others will wait and look at it and see how the outcome turns out,” housing official Simpson said. It’s not the first time Biggs has raised the ire of Vallejo Mobile Estates residents. In 2004, Biggs tried to raise rents by about $2 a month in order to buy a new $61,000 trailer to replace the park manager’s older unit, which the park owner said was infested with mold. The council denied his request after residents complained they shouldn’t be burdened with that cost. Biggs took the city to court and, earlier this year, the city decided to settle with Biggs and pay him $25,000 rather than risk spending more legal fees.

Last month, residents say the park manager received the new trailer, adjacent to the clubhouse. Residents have grown accustomed to such maneuvers, Miller said. “In this park there’s not a lot of trust. Residents don’t trust management, they don’t trust the owner,” said Miller, citing continual deferred maintenance issues.

Warren Acrey, who’s lived in the park for more than a decade, said he realizes state law makes this an uphill fight. “Biggs is going to get it one way or another. It’s a done deal,” Acrey said. “The only way to fight him is to take him to court with a couple million dollars.”