Santa Rosa Co. to Order Moratoriums on Conversions to Condo-Like Ownerships

By BLEYS W. ROSE  THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are moving quickly to impose emergency moratoriums on mobile home park conversions, setting the stage for a legal showdown with Southern California forces trying to sell park dwellers the lots they now rent. Conversions, which effectively remove rent controls over a period of time, have sparked controversy across the state, pitting the issues of affordable housing against the property rights of park owners.

The Santa Rosa City Council and county Board of Supervisors today are to vote on identical 45-day moratoriums that proponents on both panels predict will pass unanimously. “Condo-izing the mobile home parks is an attack on affordable housing in Sonoma County,” west county supervisor Mike Reilly said Monday. “Mobile home park owners cannot be allowed to take advantage of obscure state laws that make their parks unaffordable to a majority of residents.”

“It’s not a good deal for anybody in mobile home parks,” said Sondra Chaffee, president of the Santa Rosa Manufactured Home Association and resident of the Country Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa.

However, Santa Monica attorney Richard Close said he’ll file legal challenges on behalf of owners of three mobile home parks in Sonoma County that are moving toward conversion. “Moratoriums are very, very difficult to enact because they take away property rights,” Close said. “The city’s and county’s actions are illegal. There is no emergency and there is no urgency.”

About 12,400 people live in 82 mobile home parks in Sonoma County. Many of those residents are senior citizens or others on limited incomes attracted by rent controls that apply to the vast majority of lots. Many dwellers own their units, but they rent the lots, which can range from about $300 to $1,000 a month. Conversions, increasingly common across California, allow park owners to subdivide their property and then rent or sell the lots back to mobile home owners. Opponents of conversion contend that purchase prices of lots could range from $100,000 to $200,000.

A report prepared by the city Community Development Department said lot purchase “may be financially out of reach” for many residents and warned that rents may be triple what mobile homeowners now pay. “People our age are not going to take out a 30-year loan for $100,000 when we aren’t going to be alive in 10 years,” said Jean Warnes, homeowners association president at the Sequoia Gardens at Fulton Road and College Avenue in Santa Rosa.

Chaffee said park owners like hers simply are trying to unload millions of dollars in deferred maintenance to residents. Under most conversion scenarios, residents would be responsible for street, clubhouse and utilities improvements, Chaffee said. “Of course, he’s wanting to sell it,” Chaffee said of the owner. “It’s old. It’s maxed out. Not only that, once you own your own land, you have to pay property tax.”

Margaret Brunn, president of the Santa Rosa Mobile Home Owners Group, which represents about 4,000 mobile home park residents, said the local moratorium would halt what she said is a “thinly disguised effort to destroy affordable housing and to get rid of rent control.”

The Santa Rosa and Sonoma County resolutions declare there is an urgency “to avoid the loss of affordable housing stock.” Emergency measures need four-fifths approval among supervisors and five-sevenths approval by the City Council. “Every council member is very concerned about conversion, so we’ll have no problem getting agreement on a moratorium,” Councilman Bob Blanchard said. “It takes some of the angst off the park residents, so we’ll have time out while we figure out how to make it a fair process.”

Close, the attorney representing owners of Leisure Park, Sequoia Gardens and Country Mobile Home Park, accused local officials of playing politics just two weeks before an election.Close won a precedent-setting lawsuit against Palm Springs in 2002 that determined cities and counties were virtually powerless to stop conversions of mobile home parks to condo-like ownership.”It could be considered pandering to the electorate, but at what cost to the taxpayer?” Close said.

Proponents of the moratorium, which could be extended, would give officials and mobile home organizations time to lobby the Legislature for changes that prevent conversion unless approved by a majority of park residents. Opponents contend state law now protects many low-income residents.

David Grabill, a local attorney and affordable housing activist who represents residents of the three mobile home parks, said the moratorium gets park dwellers only part way to their goal of blocking conversions. “During the moratorium, we hope they’ll look for ways to mitigate the very harsh consequences of conversion,” Grabill said. “Losing thousands of these units in this process will hurt everybody.”