Mobile home seniors protest higher rents with lower checks, but could face eviction

By Michele Clock  UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER August 31, 2006

Writing paid under protest on their rent checks wasn’t getting them anywhere. So some seniors decided to take more drastic measures.  Sick of paying what they say are illegally high rents, 17 residents at Meadowbrook Mobile Estates, a park on the city’s western end, are deducting about $60 a month from rent checks. They argue that the owner, Equity Lifestyles Properties Inc., has overcharged about 330 of the park’s dwellers for almost three years in violation of the city’s mobile home rent control law.

The adjusters, as they call themselves, said their gripe stems from the Chicago-based company’s move in 2004 to raise rents about 10 percent and charge a one-time fee of more than $900. Meadowbrook’s homeowners association sued the company, at that time called Manufactured Homes Communities, to challenge the increase and one-time fee. The renters are hoping their scaled-back payments will force faster legal action.

We’re just kind of disgusted and I think we just feel like we want to get something rolling, said Evelyn Matzen, 84, who paid less in August. We just want to bring it to trial. State law says tenants may be evicted for failing to pay rent. The company has yet to evict anyone but also has returned all adjusted rent checks, warning the residents to pay full rent or move in 60 days, said Jim Montague, 75, who adjusted his rent in March, the first resident to do so.

Montague is hoping that if he is taken to court and wins, everyone in the park will be able to do this with absolutely no fear. Another 15 residents joined him late last month and paid less for August rents, and one more plans to follow suit with the September payment, due tomorrow. Their rents average about $750. They say they don’t need to look for another place to live, because they’re confident that they’ll prevail over the company.

A call to an ELS attorney in Chicago this week was not returned and a Santa Ana-based attorney listed as representing the company could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In Montague’s case, the 60-day mark passed two months ago, but he has yet to receive an eviction notice. Fifteen of his fellow adjusters could receive eviction notices starting in October. Montague said he wouldn’t let residents who are scraping by month-to-month or who are in fragile health participate in the protest. He’s told people not to take part if they had any doubts. Their grievance is the latest in a long-running struggle over how much the company should be allowed to charge park residents.

The city’s rent control ordinance, adopted in 1994 after years of debate, caps the amount of rent a mobile home park landlord can charge based on inflation. Santee has faced legal challenges over the constitutionality of the policy. ELS alone has filed three suits against the city over mobile home rent control. The company instituted the 10 percent rent hike and charged the $900 fee in January 2004, Montague said, after a San Diego Superior Court judge in 2003 threw out two versions of the rent-control ordinance.

But the city of Santee sued the company, challenging the increase and fees, and the case is pending, said City Attorney Shawn Hagerty. Meadowbrook’s homeowners association also sued the company to recover the $900 fees, and to stop the company from raising rents beyond what residents felt was legal. A trial date is set for February, Montague said.

More recent rulings have favored the city and Meadowbrook residents; the two other suits filed by ELS against the city are pending on appeal. The Matzens and others in the group are quiet when asked if they have a plan if evicted. Evelyn Matzen, who moved to the park in 1995, said she’s not worried, though she has jokingly told her children, Look out, Grandma’s moving in.

She said she and her husband could also move to their 35-foot RV parked in the Borrego desert. It’s funny because usually I’m the nervous one about stuff, but I just feel like it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what’s given me peace of mind, she said.