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Issue date: January 05, 2001

Mobile home parks, once a refuge for elderly, feeling housing crunch Mobile home parks, once a refuge for elderly, feeling housing crunch (January 05, 2001)

Parks across Silicon Valley are raising rents

By Justin Scheck

For many years, mobile home parks were a sanctuary for those who wanted their own home, but could not--or did not want to--pay the exorbitant housing prices in Silicon Valley.

Traditionally, mobile home parks have provided a neighborhood atmosphere where people on fixed incomes can buy their own home and pay a relatively cheap monthly rent for the space on which the home sits. Most parks have a clubhouse and swimming pool, and many allow only residents above the age of 55.

But with housing at a premium in Mountain View, the city's six mobile home parks for permanent residents (one park, Bayshore, is a temporary- residency RV park) are beginning to reflect the high costs of housing and living in the Valley.

At least two of the parks in Mountain View that formerly allowed only elderly residents have opened their parks to families in an effort to capitalize on the lack of affordable housing outside the parks.

In some cases, the new residents that these parks are attracting will pay space-rent that is nearly twice what long-time residents pay. Other cities in the area, such as San Jose and Santa Cruz, have rent-control ordinances that limit either the amount of rent park owners can charge or the size of the rent increases they can impose on tenants.

But in Mountain View, park owners can charge whatever the market will bear. Some of Mountain View's mobile home parks have kept rents relatively low--Moorpark, at 501 Moorpark Way, charges $375 per month, but rarely has vacant spaces to accommodate new people.

"Our policy has always been to keep the rent reasonable for people on Social Security," said Sara Moore, owner of Moorpark. "We don't feel we have to gouge them just because there's so little space available" for housing in Mountain View.

But Moore also said that she does not make a great profit on the park, as she has increased the rent only to pay for park improvements. And while Moore has sacrificed profits to accommodate her long-time tenants, other landlords have tried to capitalize on the Valley's economic situation by imposing small rent increases on current tenants while charging incoming residents far more.

Two Mountain View parks owned by Sunnyvale businessman John Vidovich-- Santiago Villa, at 1075 Space Park Way, and Sahara Mobile Village, at 191 East El Camino Real--have taken this approach.

Long-time residents of these parks still pay relatively low rents, as Vidovich has "voluntarily restricted rent increases to 5 percent" annually. But, Vidovich explained, "new people are (charged) market rate, and we perceive market rate to be about $995 per month."

"The new people subsidize the lower rent for the older people," Vidovich said.

But some Sahara residents have taken issue with the rent situation in the park.

Jerry Minkin, a Sahara resident and a representative for the Golden State Manufactured-home Owners' League (GSMOL), an advocacy group for mobile home residents, claims that park management has tried to over-charge residents for utility costs.

Moreover, she said, "harassment has gone on in many ways ever since I've lived in the park... The goal of the harassment is to get the older mobile homes out and bring in new people to up the space rent."

Vidovich said that neither he nor George Whitteker, who is the general manager of both parks, have made an effort to force residents out in order to attract higher-paying tenants.

"No way, no how, absolutely not. Never. That's ridiculous," Vidovich said.

"Why would we want to force people out?" asked Whitteker. "They're long-time residents, and this is their place of tranquility."

In other Mountain View parks, space-rent for a mobile home ranges from a minimum of $450 per month at New Frontier Mobile Home Park at 325 Sylvan Ave. and TL Mobile Home Park at 440 Moffett Bl., to $637 per month at Sunset Estates at 433 Sylvan Ave.

And while Mountain View has not yet seen the type of political mobilization necessary to enact a rent-control ordinance, Minkin said that she and a number of other Sahara residents are considering taking action against what they see as unfair treatment of tenants in the park.

But areas in which there is rent control have seen problems with mobile home park management, as well.

Santa Cruz Attorney Will Constantine is currently handling a case in a State appeals court in which a number of mobile-home owners claim that Whitteker and Vidovich attempted to force them to sell their homes for prices well below their fair market values.

The case involves rule changes that took place at the Vidovich-owned Blue Pacific Mobile Home Park in Aptos, which is under Santa Cruz County's rent control ordinance.

According to Constantine, Whitteker attempted to impose a park rule that prohibited subletting in the park, and at the same time prohibited the sales of homes for more than "their appraised off-site values."

This means that the houses, which have gained value due to their location in a rent-controlled area, could not be sold for more than what they would be worth in a non-rent-controlled area.

Vidovich said these rules were enacted "to keep people from getting around the rent-control law... and to make sure that houses in the park are sold to needy people."

But, Constantine said, these rules would force homeowners to sell their homes for little more than $10,000 when, on the open market, they could get upwards of $80,000.

Moreover, Blue Pacific residents Betsy and Edmund Smith gave sworn statements in the case, testifying that Whitteker offered to purchase Edmund Smith's mobile home, which he had previously been subletting, for $40,000, well below the market value, but more than park rules would allow the house to sell for to an outside buyer.

"This infuriated me because, based on what Mr. Whitteker was now saying, I believed that he was trying to take away my right to rent my mobile home... so that he would put me in a bind which would force me to sell him my mobile home for half of what it was worth," Edmund Smith said in his sworn statement.

Constantine told the court that these rule changes were "part of a larger scheme to devalue the Plaintiffs' mobile homes and to, thereby, force Plaintiffs into selling their mobile home to defendant George Whitteker for a fraction of their fair market values."

Whitteker denied offering to buy the homes.

Vidovich and Constantine explained that the subletting part of the suit had been settled, while the issue over controlling sales of homes is still in appeals court.

And while there has been no recent legal action against park owners in Mountain View, Minkin said she will soon be meeting with an attorney to discuss residents' complaints in Sahara Mobile Village.


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