Mountain View's rent control protections must be expanded to include mobile homes, according to attorneys working for the city. The finding, announced at the city's Rental Housing Committee on Monday, Dec. 4, sets the city on track to prepare new price controls and a rent rollback by January that would impact as many as 1,100 mobile homes.
The move comes after months of complaints by mobile home residents that they were being abused by "predatory" rent increases that effectively depleted their home equity. A grass-roots campaign launched mainly by Santiago Villa residents pressed Mountain View officials to determine if mobile homes should be protected under the city's Measure V rent control law, also known as the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA).
To date, the voter-approved rent control program has applied only to apartments; however, advocates have long suggested that nothing in the measure's language would exclude mobile homes from being eligible.
The ramifications for Mountain View's six mobile home parks could be huge. Like many apartment renters, most mobile home residents in Mountain View can now expect to see a rollback of their rents to whatever they were paying in October 2015. The city could also force owners of mobile home parks to refund tenants for any higher rents they were paying before the rollback going back to December 2016, when the CSFRA took effect. Mobile home park owners will likely also be required to pay a per-unit fee to help fund the city's Rental Housing program.
The news that mobile homes must be covered under the rent control law came as a surprise for nearly everyone in the room on Monday night. A majority of rental committee members initially came out against the idea. Committee members Matthew Grunewald, Tom Means and Chairwoman Vanessa Honey each indicated they weren't comfortable bringing mobile homes under the program.
"The CSFRA isn't clear-cut on whether mobile homes should be part and parcel of this program," Honey said. "Elected officials or a ballot should make that decision."
Rent control advocates were expecting that response. They came to the meeting anticipating it would be the first step of a prolonged political battle, perhaps requiring another voter initiative.
So everyone in the room was equally startled when the committee's legal team dropped a bombshell: The Rental Housing Committee didn't have any real discretion over whether mobile homes should be included. There was no clear exemption for mobile homes in the CSFRA text, therefore the committee had to immediately include them under the regulations, said attorney Karen Tiedemann.
"The issue is: What does the CSFRA say, and what does it cover? There isn't any exemption for mobile home spaces," she said. "We would advise you to begin drafting regulations to begin implementing this for (mobile home) spaces."
The attorneys admitted it was a baffling legal situation. The CSFRA language doesn't expressly say that mobile homes should be regulated, Tiedemann explained; however, none of the measure's exemptions stipulated that mobile homes shouldn't be included. Her legal team concluded that mobile homes should be eligible for CSFRA protections if the tenant owns the structure and leases a space from a park owner. The authors of the rent control measure clearly intended this, Tiedemann said, pointing out they said as much in their ballot arguments for the November 2016 election.
Legally, it was less clear-cut whether the rent regulations should be applied to a smaller subset of mobile homes that are leased out, usually by park management, Tiedemann said. She suggested it was up to the Rental Housing Committee to decide whether to study extending rent control protection for these leased mobile homes. The committee rejected that idea.
Adding to the confusion, any future city regulation of mobile homes would also need to be compliant with the state mobile home residency law. The CSFRA and the state law have several significant conflicts over rules such as tenant relocation assistance, fee pass-throughs, notice periods for rent increases and cause for evictions. In all these conflicts, state law would take precedence.
Two mobile home park owners present at the meeting blasted the "mental gymnastics" the attorneys were taking to rationalize extending rent control to their properties. Craig Oku, owner of the Moffett Mobile Home Park, described the regulations as unfair, saying he had kept his space rents affordable, around $800 a month.
"We're treading water," Oku said. "If we had to roll back rents a couple years, then under California law we could close the park, and we really don't want to do that."
In fact, the tenants' complaints of abusive practices were all being leveled at the same mobile home park -- Santiago Villa. Residents at that North Bayshore park say the park's owner has been using aggressive tactics to push out older residents and raise space rents to around $2,200 a month. No one representing the Santiago Villa owner spoke at the meeting.
Response from the Rental Housing Committee was deeply divided. Committee member Evan Ortiz framed the expansion as appropriate for CSFRA's overarching goal to protect renters.
"A renter is a renter is a renter, and Measure V was designed to protect renters," he said. "Either we do our jobs and develop rules and regulations to respond to this, or we abdicate our role."
Yet some of his colleagues were clearly frustrated at being forced to extend rent control to a new swath of housing. Hanging over their discussion was the possible threat that a mobile home park owner would challenge the regulations in court.
"The CSFRA was not built for this," Grunewald said. "We're now going outside the bounds to take a risk that the original authors wouldn't take."
The Rental Housing Committee signaled to staff that if rent control had to be extended to mobile homes, it should be implemented with a "soft landing" to cushion the shift. The committee will hear options for how to implement the program expansion at its next meeting on Jan. 22.