Mountain View's Rental Housing Committee voted Monday not to extend the city's rent control protections to mobile home residents, reaffirming its prior decision and citing legal concerns raised in closed session.
The decision marks the latest in a series of setbacks for residents of the roughly 1,100 mobile homes across six parks in Mountain View, who have long argued that the city's 2016 rent control law can and should apply to mobile home owners and renters.
Proponents say Mountain View could very well be the only city in California to have rent control that excludes mobile homes, and the city risks losing vulnerable residents who can't keep up with price-gouging rent increases.
"Think about all the at-risk mobile home residents and the fear and uncertainty we face, especially during this pandemic," said Anna Marie Morales, a resident of Sahara Mobile Village. "We are treated as renters in every other way, why are we not given the same protections?"
The city's rent control law, the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA), makes no mention of mobile homes, largely leaving it up to the committee to decide whether they are covered under rent control. The committee voted in 2018 to exclude mobile homes, citing conflicts between CSFRA and the state's Mobilehome Residency Law -- despite advice from its own legal counsel that rent control should apply to mobile homes.
The decision was also made under the threat of litigation, with mobile home park owners warning that they would sue to stop rent control from applying to mobile homes.
In revisiting the topic at its June 1 meeting, committee members were hesitant to retract the decision or even talk about it in public. After a lengthy two-hour closed session, committee member Matt Grunewald suggested that the committee uphold its prior ruling on mobile homes and limit discussion due to pending litigation. He said the committee should instead work with the city to craft an ordinance providing some protections to mobile home residents, which would be a better approach than the "ill-fitting constraints" of CSFRA.
"Since there is pending litigation regarding the issue, I would argue even holding this discussion today puts that plan at risk," Grunewald said.
Grunewald's comments were likely in reference to an ongoing court case brought forth by Santiago Villa mobile home park residents in 2018, which seeks to force Mountain View to cover mobile homes under CSFRA. A judge ruled that the Rental Housing Committee has broad discretion in deciding whether mobile homes are included.
Santiago Villa resident Tim Larson, who joined his wife as plaintiffs in the case, said it appears his lawsuit is being used as an excuse by the committee not to "correct" its action and include mobile homes, and that he fully intends to work with the committee to ensure that isn't the case.
"Neither my wife nor I want the lawsuit to be an impediment to the RHC doing the right thing," he said. "We will work with the RHC to ensure we are not standing in the way of the RHC voting to cover mobile homes to the fullest extent that CSFRA requires."
Other residents challenged the committee for basing its policy decisions entirely on the threat of litigation. Resident Meghan Fraley said the Rental Housing Committee, as a governing agency, shouldn't favor protecting itself from litigation over passing ethical policies to protect the people.
"This is not how government should create policy, period," she said. "This is a matter of social justice, economic justice and racial justice."
Committee member Nicole Haines-Livesay suggested that the committee let stand the decision to exclude mobile homes from rent control, but commit to a study session in September to reconsider the decision and review its options. Her motion passed 4-1, with Susyn Almond opposed.
Almond said she believes that would be too long of a wait, and that mobile home residents are facing too much uncertainty. The eviction moratorium put in place during the coronavirus pandemic will have expired by September, and renter protections will be sorely needed in order to prevent people from losing their homes.
"We are sort of dumping these people off the moratorium but there is no safety net and no recourse, and we're not giving any explanation for why we're tabling it," Almond said. "The community is really looking for courage from the RHC."
Committee chair Emily Ramos made an emotional appeal to mobile home residents shortly before the vote, tearing up while insisting that the Rental Housing Committee is doing its best to protect tenants in a way that is legally sound. She had put the item on the agenda, but nevertheless voted with the majority in tabling the discussion.
"Based on what we were told in closed session we are doing our best to remain cautious but I'm still trying to keep the options open for the mobile home park residents," she said. "We know you are suffering, and we are doing what we can to try to ease that."
Since the committee's 2018 decision, residents from across Mountain View's six mobile home parks have become increasingly politically active, launching individual neighborhood associations and uniting under the banner of the Mountain View Mobile Home Alliance.
The local activism is in response to what residents are calling predatory practices by some mobile home park owners, who have raised the rent significantly in recent years and threatened to displace low and middle-income tenants. The vast majority of mobile home residents in the city are reportedly either seniors, disabled or veterans.
Mobile home residents contend that the City Council and the Rental Housing Committee have repeatedly kicked the can down the road on whether to grant rent control to those who rent mobile homes and those who own mobile home but rent space at a mobile home park. Trey Bornmann, president of the mobile home alliance, said the committee was stacked with pro-landlord members and erred in excluding mobile homes in 2018, and that CSFRA was approved by voters under the belief that it would include mobile homes.
"It's fair to assume the voters intended for mobile homes to be included as well because that's the way it works everywhere else, and not doing that would be doing something drastically different," Bornmann said.
Moorpark mobile home resident Jesse Cardenas said he was shocked by the decision rejecting rent control for mobile homes, and that there was a feeling among mobile home residents that they were betrayed by members of the Rental Housing Committee. If there are concerns about lawsuits, he said, the least the committee can do is face litigation on the right side of morality.
Cardenas said he believes the long-term solution is to vote for Mountain View City Council members in November who will appoint members to the Rental Housing Committee who won't stand in the way of rent control.
"The only true way to ensure renters in Mountain View have any sort of power or say in anything is to have a city council that can appoint effective and fair members to the RHC," he said.