The history of rent control in mobile home communities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and foothills:

November 1995: Tuolumne County approves a mobile home rent control ordinance.

1998: Equity LifeStyle, a Chicago-based company, buys three parks in Stanislaus County: Colony Park in Ceres, Coralwood Mobile Home Park in Modesto and Quail Meadows in Riverbank.

August 2005: A small group of mobile home residents forms Stanislaus Mobilehome OwnersAdvocates to do something about rising rents. They begin circulating petitions and then questionnaires in mobile home parks.

January 2006: Rents in Equity LifeStyle’s parks rise $85 to $100 a month. Sharon Burch, a longtime mobile home activist living in Colony Park, organizes protests. The city of Ceres begins to look at rent control.

March 2006: Hundreds of mobile home residents plead with the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors for a rent control ordinance. Some other parks are following Equity LifeStyle’s lead with stiff rent hikes, they say. June 2006: An ad hoc committee of county and city officials is formed to seek solutions.

December 2006: The ad hoc committee concludes that a mobile home rent control ordinance is the only solution. The concept is to pass an ordinance in the county and each of the cities, and share in the cost of any legal challenges. An ordinance based on one drawn up in Citrus Heights is drafted.

March 2007: Stanislaus supervisors vote unamously to stop work on the ordinance after a meeting with Equity LifeStyle’s representatives. Supervisors say they will try to work out an agreement with Equity LifeStyle on long-term leases, a slowdown in rent hikes and help for qualifying hardship cases.

March 2007: Turlock approves a mobile home rent-subsidy program for low-income residents.

April 30 2007: The Modesto City Council votes to proceed with a mobile home rent control ordinance.

(Modesto) Rent control moves ahead

“Shameful” rent hikes at one of Modesto’s mobile home parks persuaded the City Council on Monday to advance a rent control ordinance that would protect people on fixed incomes.

Council members left no doubt that they were targeting Equity LifeStyle Properties, the Chicago landlord that in eight years raised rents to about $800 a month from about $400 at a Modesto      mobile home park for senior citizens.

“Making large amounts of money on the backs of seniors just because they can is criminal,” Councilman Will O’Bryant said.

However, the council’s potential ordinance would affect dozens of mobile home parks in the city. Some park owners complained that rent control would punish them for Equity LifeStyle’s practices.

“I don’t think rent control is a good solution to a one park, one issue problem,” said Bill Schweinforth, a representative from Modesto’s Friendly Village mobile home park.

By a 6-0 vote, council members directed City     Attorney Susana Alcala Wood to write a rent control ordinance for mobile home parks that would be subject to council review.

She said she also would look at a possible rent “rollback” that could return the fees mobile home owners pay to previous levels. O’Bryant asked her to return to the council with an update in 30 days.

Councilwoman Kristin Olsen left the meeting early and did not vote on the proposal.

The council’s decision breaks from the course the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors took a month ago when it voted unanimously to abandon efforts to pass a rent control ordinance.

Equity LifeStyle provided the board assurances it would adopt a “hardship” program that would limit rent for certain residents to 33 percent of their   income.

“We felt that the problem was with this one company and I think we’ve gotten enough out of them where it’s acceptable to me,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said.

Peter Underhill, an Equity LifeStyle regional vice president, told the council, “Our company believes rent control is unconstitutional and a failed social pol-icy.”

He told the council that Equity LifeStyle raised rents in Coralwood, the company’s Modesto park, to bring them up to market rate. Previous letters the company sent to residents suggested that it determined the market rate by evaluating all residential properties in the county, not just mobile homes.

A year ago, the city of Ceres determined the average mobile home rent in Stanislaus County was about $425. It conducted the study because of swiftly rising rents in Colony Park, a Ceres property owned by Equity LifeStyle.

Equity LifeStyle has a wellestablished record of fighting rent control ordinances in court. Its      November 2005 letter to Col-ony Park residents said it was raising rents in part because it feared rent control measures in California.

A state database lists 39 mobile home parks in Modesto with 2,816 spaces. It isn’t clear which of the parks are outside the city limits but carry Modesto mailing addresses.

Mobile home owners rent the spaces on which their homes sit. Moving one out of a park costs as much as $10,000, a price that has some seniors walking away from their investments, rent control advocates say.

“The thing that’s different about this is, we’re talking about a captive market,” Councilman Brad Hawn said.

For more than a year, mobile home owners have lobbied local governments to take action against Equity LifeStyle and other parks. O’Bryant studied the company through a city-county committee charged with evaluating rent control.

“We’re grateful,” said Sally Stouder, 69, a resident in Morningside mobile home park.

Council members said they were not comfortable with the one-size-fits-all approach of rent control, but they didn’t see other solutions that would assist mobile home owners on fixed incomes.

Councilwoman Janice Keating suggested the council should review zoning laws that inhibit the development of new mobile home parks. She said the city does not have enough mobile home parks for the market to set a fair rent for longtime residents.

The council was skeptical about arrangements Equity LifeStyle was making to avoid rent control with long-term lease agreements and hardship programs.

“Folks at ELS, you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Councilman Bob Dunbar said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

By ADAM ASHTON

aashton@modbee.com Posted on 05/01/07