A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge this week rejected arguments by Mountain View mobile home tenants that they should also be covered under the city’s rent control program.
In his decision, Judge Mark Pierce upheld a February vote by the city’s Rental Housing Committee to not protect mobile homes under the city’s Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA).
“The Court agrees with (the Rental Housing Committee) that whether the CSFRA applies to mobile homes and mobile home lots is, based on the text of the act, at best ambiguous,” Pierce wrote. “It is therefore within the Rental Housing Committee’s discretion to determine whether or not the CSFRA so applied, and to establish rules or regulations where applicable.”
The decision comes as a setback for a coalition of mobile home tenants, centralized at Santiago Villa, who have been clamoring for limits on their rising space rents. Many mobile home residents pinned their hopes on the CSFRA after getting assurances from advocates that the rent control law was written so it could also encompass mobile homes. Voters passed the measure in 2016, but city officials implemented rent control only for apartments.
The case for including mobile homes wasn't so clear-cut. City attorneys pointed out that the CSFRA language never once mentions mobile homes, and it contains numerous conflicts with state laws specifically tailored for mobile homes.
Despite those shortcomings, city legal staff advised the rental committee that a stronger case could be made that mobile homes should be included. Because none of the explicit exemptions in the CSFRA applied to mobile homes, the committee’s legal team said it was reasonable to cover them under the law.
Despite that legal advice, a majority of the committee indicated they were uncomfortable with restricting rents on about 1,100 more homes in one fell swoop. Committee members Vanessa Honey, Tom Means and Matthew Grunewald voted 3-2 against covering mobile homes. Mobile home residents later filed a lawsuit with Fenwick & West attorneys, who provided pro-bono representation.
In rejecting the lawsuit this week, Pierce said it wasn’t enough for mobile home tenants to show that the CSFRA could be construed to include mobile homes. In order to overturn the decision, tenants would need to show that the rental committee’s decision was “fundamentally flawed,” he wrote. This suit did not pass that bar, he indicated.
The Mountain View Mobile Home Alliance, a tenants group that includes the plaintiffs in the case, said in an emailed statement that they were disappointed by the judge's ruling but they would continue pursuing the matter.
"We are considering the next steps we might take, both legal and legislative, to protect the residents of the last affordable housing in Mountain View," Mobile Home Alliance spokesman John Waters said.
Mobile home tenants could appeal the case, or they may seek a political solution by pushing for future rental committee members who are sympathetic to their issue. Earlier this week, committee member Tom Means announced his resignation, leaving a tie-breaking seat up in the air.
But even if the committee decided to cover mobile homes in the future, it would hardly settle the issue, said Anthony Rodriguez, an attorney who represented mobile home park owners in the lawsuit. His clients would have a strong case that the CSFRA was never intended to cover mobile homes, he said.
“If a rental board was to come along in the future and impose this on park owners, there’s no doubt that they would challenge it in court,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a big difference here. This is a rent control ordinance, not a mobile home ordinance.”