Surrounded by legal threats on all sides, Mountain View's Rental Housing Committee on Monday backed away from plans to bring the city's mobile home residents under the aegis of rent control.
The decision was a reversal of last month's meeting when rental committee members acquiesced to the advice of their attorneys to begin drafting new regulations for mobile homes.
The Monday, Jan 22, meeting was intended to lay out the policy framework and process for extending rent control to about 1,100 mobile homes in Mountain View under the voter-approved Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA).
But the committee declined to take that step. A motion to approve the policies drafted by city staff was defeated in a 2-3 vote, with Chairwoman Vanessa Honey and committee members Matthew Grunewald and Tom Means opposed.
The three members each said they were intimidated by the ramifications of the expansion, as well as its shaky legal basis.
"With the flip of a switch, the mobile home owners would potentially get hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity in their homes, and the (park) owners would lose millions of dollars," Grunewald said. "I don't feel comfortable making that decision."
It was a case in which city officials were trying to dodge one potential lawsuit, but in doing so they may have stumbled into another.
Just hours ahead of the meeting, the committee received a stern letter from lawyers representing John Vidovich, the owner of the Santiago Villa and Sahara mobile home parks, which together comprise 560 homes. The letter warned that it would be a severe overreach to include mobile homes in the city's rent-control program. But the real point of the letter was to signal that city officials would face a lawsuit if they persisted.
"Rather than initiating litigation to resolve the above issues, my clients are willing to explore alternative strategies for maintaining affordable housing in their parks," said Anthony Rodriguez, Vidovich's attorney.
That pledge sounded like empty words to Santiago Villa residents. For years, tenants have accused Vidovich of raising rents to price out older residents and buy them out of their homes for a fraction of the value. The park, located just a short walk from Google's headquarters, is now considered among the most expensive mobile home communities in the nation, with space rents for new tenants reportedly costing about $2,200 a month.
Santiago Villa resident Bee Hanson pointed out the park's management had spurred multiple protests in past years. This time, the anger among residents was more severe, enough to take legal action, she said.
“People are very upset about this,” she said. “If you worry about the landlords suing, you should actually be worrying about the residents suing you as well.”
While the Santiago Villa owner didn't elicit much sympathy, other mobile home parks landlords said they had treated their residents fairly. Rents at Mountain View's other, smaller mobile home communities have remained comparatively low, and owners complained that they would be unfairly punished if rent control were implemented.
The legal basis for bringing mobile homes under the CSFRA is tangled. The voter-approved law never once mentions mobile homes, and the language contains numerous conflicts with state laws specifically tailored for mobile homes.
Despite those shortcomings, a stronger case could be made that mobile homes should be included, according to city-hired attorneys from the firm Goldfarb & Lipman. Attorney Karen Tiedemann pointed out that none of the exemptions listed in the CSFRA applied to mobile homes.
"We think the CSFRA covers mobile home spaces," she said. "When we looked at the entirety of the measure, we couldn't find a way to say that mobile homes weren't covered."
The legal debate soon spiraled into a political one. Rental Housing Committee members Evan Ortiz and Emily Ramos both endorsed the idea of expanding the rent-control program. It was a choice between a long drawn-out lawsuit or giving clarity right now, Ortiz said.
"It's not responsible for this committee to punt on this, knowing there's suffering out there," he said. "This is an opportunity for us to protect the equity of Mountain View residents."
But the rest of the committee wanted an alternative. Honey and others suggested such a controversial decision should be deferred to the Mountain View City Council, a body that is explicitly barred from taking policy actions on rent control. They recommended that Santiago Villa tenants should campaign for a future voter measure that would specify in clear terms that mobile homes are covered under rent control.
In the end, they settled for rejecting the policies to bring mobile homes under the rent-control program, leaving the larger question unresolved. City staffers said that they would still accept petitions from mobile home residents to adjust rents, although it remains unclear how these cases would adjudicated.
For mobile homes residents, the obvious next step is to sue the city, said Trey Bornmann, president of Mountain View Mobile Home Alliance. It should be an "open and shut case," he said, since the city's own legal staff laid out the arguments for why mobile homes should be covered.
"This vote was another example of three RHC members trying to torpedo the law they have been empowered to uphold," he said in an email. "The sad thing is the city and landlords will be on the hook for defending the resulting litigation that is coming."