For the hundreds of people living at the Santiago Villa mobile home park, the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back came in the form of a letter from the landlord. The letters sent last month warned many of the 358 households in tightly worded legal language that their homes needed immediate work.
One woman said she was told the Tibetan flags draping the outside of her house had to be removed. Another was instructed to sweep her porch, clean the steps and do something about all the animal fur on her property. But many homeowners said their demands were more onerous, like being instructed to reseal their driveways, power-wash the exterior of their homes and apply a new coat of paint.
The letters warned residents --many of them retired seniors on fixed incomes --that if they didn't comply within seven days they could face eviction proceedings, effectively losing their homes. The park could begin the 60-day process to terminate their tenancy or seek an injunction to bring a temporary restraining order against them, the letters said.
"This is a statutory notice on our part to give you the opportunity to handle the above without the embarrassment of an eviction," the letter said.
For longtime residents at the park -- some of whom still pay monthly rents of around $800 a month -- the letters appeared to confirm their suspicions that the park's ownership is looking for a way to kick them out. The residents of Santiago Villa say they are seeing troubling signs that they will be phased out in favor of younger tech workers willing to pay $4,000 a month to rent a mobile home.
The park's general manager has denied that the letters she sent out are part of a strategy to evict residents.
"This is going beyond the pale to longtime residents -- it's scaring the heck out of everyone," said Karen Alexander, a Santiago Villa resident since 2010. "This used to be a senior park, and now you have a lot of people who can't afford the new economy and are afraid they can't afford to move anywhere else."
Alexander is just one resident facing a dilemma over her future prospects at Santiago Villa, located in North Bayshore near Google's campus. A worker in the biotech industry, she's also the caretaker for her 80-year-old mother Betty, who, after a recent stroke and two heart attacks, is not in great health.
"I'm living on borrowed time, and I keep on borrowing," her mother summed up with a chuckle.
But along with the fear of losing her mother, Alexander is worried that she could also lose her home. With her mother's name on the lease, Alexander said she expects she will need to sign a new contract that will double her monthly space rent to $2,000 or more. She is already preparing to move away.
"I honestly don't know if I'd be allowed to stay here," she said. "If I qualified, I'd pay a higher rent for a time ... if not, then maybe I'd have to walk away and forfeit everything."
North Bayshore's only housing
Santiago Villa was built in the 1960s, and for much of its history it has served as a haven for seniors on a tight budget. Mobile homes, unlike houses or apartments, must be purchased, often with a traditional mortgage. However, mobile home owners also pay a monthly rent for the space, facilities and maintenance provided by the park management.
Santiago Villa is unique in that it is was established as the lone residential neighborhood in Mountain View's sought-after North Bayshore business district. Today, the park is just a short walk from the headquarters of tech companies like Google and LinkedIn -- companies that are competing to acquire as much real estate as possible, both for offices and to house their growing workforce.
For many residents at Santiago Villa, the neighborhood is in the eye of the hurricane with rapid tech development being planned all around the park. Local homeowners have watched warily in recent months as the Mountain View City Council moved forward with plans to allow development of 3.5 million square feet of new office space and create dense neighborhoods totaling more than 10,000 new homes near the mobile-home park. Given the pace of nearby development, many residents say they've felt it would be only a matter of time before Santiago Villa is transformed into part of some corporate campus.
Those fears came to a head this year as residents saw Santiago Villa's ominous maintenance letter and received what they call their highest rent increases in recent memory. Mobile-home residents have recently become a regular presence at City Council meetings, making emotional appeals for the city to save their homes.
"Does the city have a heart and soul for those out in the North Bayshore?" said Santiago Villa resident Christine Cray at the March 3 meeting. "Where will I go if I don't repair my home in seven days? I'll be pushing a cart like an old lady on the street."
To the bafflement of city officials, many residents alleged the city and park management are in cahoots trying to rezone the park. Mayor Pat Showalter assured everyone that wasn't the case, and city staff promised to look into the park's situation later this year.
Santiago Villa general manager Maria Ahmad hastily called a neighborhood meeting on March 16, the first in years, to dispel rumors that were spreading about the park's future. More than 100 residents assembled into park's clubhouse, a room that was sweltering from the afternoon sun and the tightly packed crowd.
Ahmad stood in the center of the crowd of irate residents, trying to keep control of the discussion even though it sometimes descended into a shouting match. Santiago Villa is one of 10 mobile home parks Ahmad manages, but she noted that it's special to her since it is also where she lives. She said she prides herself on the quality of life at the park, and she is known for curtly correcting anyone who refers to Santaigo Villa as a "trailer park."
Ahmad had set up a box for people to drop their written questions, but that idea was soon ditched as people began bellowing out their comments to her.
She backpedaled on a few issues regarding the maintenance letter after residents pointed out that power-washing their homes was illegal, given the city's drought restrictions. Residents could use a mop instead, she suggested. Some residents alleged the park was trying to offload driveway repairs on them when state government code specifies that mobile home parks are the responsible party.
Ahmad assured her tenants that no one was being threatened with eviction, and the maintenance letters were written in the same language as in past years. The issues had been exaggerated through a "game of telephone," and she said certain people in the community were blowing the situation out of proportion.
"These are your assets that we're trying to make sure you upkeep," she said. "Yes, there's been rent increases, but if we have increases, it's going back into the park."
Asked later about her statement, Ahmad clarified for the Voice that some, but not all of the money raised from higher rents was being invested in the park. She was running a business, after all, she said.
The business aspect is partly what worries Santiago Villa residents. Many have expressed concerns that the mobile-home park is being squeezed for revenues to help pay for other losses by the park's owner, John Vidovich. In 2014, Sandridge Partners, a farm consortium co-owned by Vidovich, ended up on the losing side of $238.6 million lawsuit centered on water rights in Kings County.
At the meeting, a tense crowd of residents peppered Ahmad with questions about the park's future. What would happen to long-term residents who couldn't afford $2,000 a month in rent from their Social Security payments? Ahmad assured them any rent increases would come on slowly and it would take "a long time" for current residents to be brought into line with newcomers. One resident pointed out her rent had only increased by about $500 over the 30 years she had lived at the park.
Rent affects sale prices
Some voiced complaints they were seeing another financial hit if they tried to sell their homes. Like some of his neighbors, Ryan Babineaux was planning to put his home on the market, but he said he was concerned he would have to severely lower his asking price due to the Santiago Villa's new rent increases. He and others point to a rule of thumb in the mobile-home industry that every extra $100 in space rent equates to $10,000 less in a home's sale value.
"This isn't a little increase -- everyone here has lost tens of thousands of dollars in their home equity," he said to Ahmad. "You can keep increasing it to the point where no one will be able to sell their homes."
Ahmad ultimately responded that she would have to take these issues up with the park's owner.
Other Santiago Villa residents say they have already encountered this problem. Last year, Jacqueline Cohen decided to put her three-bedroom mobile home on the market so she could move to Atlanta to join her family. The 64-year-old former Stanford employee listed her asking price at $230,000, an amount that her real estate agent called comparable to other nearby sales in 2015.
But after four months on the market, Cohen said no buyers ever approached with an offer, even though there was plenty of interest. A lot of prospective buyers backed off when they learned that Santiago Villa would be raising the rent to $2,000, or about twice what Cohen currently pays.
After missing out on what she thought would be a surefire sale, Cohen said her life now is in limbo. Her house is showroom-clean and sparsely decorated, since she has already packed up all her furniture and sent it across the country. On top of that, she had already put forward the down payment to start building her dream house, a four-bedroom home near Atlanta's downtown. She said she was able to cancel the construction, but the experience left a bad taste in her mouth. She is convinced that the park management is seeking to buy her home at a fire-sale price.
"Santiago Villa has one agenda and that's to make money," she said. "Until we can sell this place, all our other plans have to be put on hold."
Vidovich, Santiago Villa's owner, has weathered similar allegations before. About a decade ago residents at Sahara Village, another Mountain View mobile home park he owns, complained he was raising rents to scare away buyers. Sahara residents publicly accused Vidovich of trying to buy out residents so he could redevelop the parcel.
Ahmad and city officials flatly deny there are any plans to replace Mountain View's mobile-home parks, but many residents say they have noticed that Santiago Villa has been on what they describe as a buying spree in recent months.
Based on the allegations, Santiago Villa residents could have grounds for legal action if it could be proved that park managers were deliberately trying to meddle in a private real-estate sales, said Bruce Stanton, an attorney with the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League. But the devil is in the details, he said.
"There's nothing wrong with a (mobile-home park) buying a home, but what if that's combined with interference from raising rents to an exorbitant amount?" he said. "You could piece this together as an unfair business practice or show a fact pattern that there's an intent to frustrate sales."
In general, he said individual mobile-home residents have little power to protest issues once they sign a lease and invest their money in a home. Despite the name, mobile homes are pretty much immobile, he said, and homeowners can find themselves stuck with the terms of their leases.
"The park owner has the homeowner over the barrel -- it's a monopolistic industry," Stanton said.
The disadvantages inherent in owning a mobile home has led about 100 jurisdictions throughout California to established some form of rent control at the parks, Stanton said. In fact, about a decade ago in Mountain View a voter measure was proposed to do this, but it never received enough signatures to qualify for an election.
For her part, Ahmad is adamant that she never solicits to buy anyone's home. People come to her looking for a facilitated sale, she said. In many cases, she said she ends up spending $200,000 or more to rip out a dilapidated home and replace it with a newer model.
In total, the park owns 55 units, many of which are rented out for $2,000 to $4,000 a month, Ahmad said.
But even this hasn't convinced many residents, who say 55 is a suspiciously low number. More than one resident told the Voice that former residents had sold their homes to third-party buyers only to discover they were working on behalf of Santiago Villa. But no one could provide the Voice with a contact to verify this claim.
If there's one clear result from Santiago Villa's recent brouhaha, it's that the once-sleepy neighborhood is now abuzz with activity and engaged residents. The concerns swirling in the community have led locals to launch a string of new neighborhood groups on social media.
Bee Hanson, a tech writer who's lived at the park for 20 years, is spearheading an effort to create a new homeowner association, which Santiago Villa hasn't had for at least a decade. She said she hopes that if the residents could organize and speak with unity, they could better work with city officials and the park's management.
"We're fine with development, but we don't want to wind up under the wheels of it," Hanson said.
Email Mark Noack at [email protected]