For three years, Mountain View's mobile home residents have waged a legal battle to extend the city's rent control law to its six mobile home parks. But after another setback in the court case last month, advocates are ditching that effort and once again banking on the city to finally limit rent increases on mobile homes.
California's 6th District Court of Appeal rejected a lawsuit by mobile home residents on Dec. 22, letting stand a lower court decision that Mountain View's Rental Housing Committee (RHC) can decide whether mobile homes are covered by the city's rent control law. The ruling leaves in place a decision by the RHC to exclude mobile homes.
The lawsuit is not expected to prevail before the California Supreme Court, and will likely be withdrawn later this month.
Ever since voters approved rent control in Mountain View in 2016, residents living in the city's more than 1,100 mobile homes have argued that the renter protections should apply to them. Though only a few California cities have rent control for apartments, more than 100 jurisdictions have some form of mobile home rent control. The RHC's decision makes Mountain View an anomaly.
The hotly contested decision by the RHC remains unresolved more than four years after the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act went into effect, outlasting every other legal dispute that entangled the rollout of rent control in Mountain View.
The protracted debate has been fueled by concerns and outright desperation from mobile home residents, who worry that rent hikes and other predatory practices are forcing low-income families and seniors out of the city. Since rent control passed -- and was later curtailed to exclude mobile homes -- residents across the city's mobile home parks have grown more politically active and wielded more influence through the Mountain View Mobile Home Alliance.
Mobile home residents sued the RHC in 2018, arguing that the committee ignored its own legal advice and buckled under the threat of lawsuits by mobile home park owners. What's more, mobile homes are not among the list of properties that are specifically exempt from the city's rent control law.
A Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge later ruled that coverage of mobile homes is "ambiguous at best" and within the RHC's discretion, and that there was not enough proof that its decision was fundamentally flawed or unreasonable.
Tim Larson, a mobile home resident and plaintiff in the case, said he was disappointed by the appellate court decision and felt that they had a strong chance of overturning the RHC's decision. But with the legal challenge now all but exhausted, Larson said it now falls to the RHC and the Mountain View City Council to decide the fate of mobile home rent control.
Over the last year, RHC members have avoided speaking publicly about covering mobile homes citing pending litigation as a reason to stay mum. At a meeting in June last year, committee member Matt Grunewald said he and his colleagues are working to find a "clear path" towards rent stabilization for mobile homes, but that the lawsuit meant even talking about it could put the plan at risk.
Larson said he believes the lawsuit was just a convenient excuse to avoid taking a stance on the issue, and that all eyes are now on RHC members who claimed to support mobile home residents.
"They have basically used the lawsuit as cover," Larson said. "They've used this sort of temporary event as an excuse, and now that it's gone it will force them to own up to the words they've been saying all along."
Competing paths to rent control
Rent control for Mountain View's mobile homes has gone from a legal fight to a political one, and there's more than one way for the mobile home residents to prevail.
The quickest and most obvious path forward is for the RHC to reject its earlier interpretation of the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA) and include mobile homes for its myriad provisions, including annual caps on rent increases based on inflation. Alternatively, the City Council could enact its own rent stabilization ordinance for mobile homes.
The RHC's formal position backs passing an ordinance. In a 2019 memo sent to the council, the committee wrote that mobile home residents "deserve" rent stabilization protections and encouraged the City Council to draft an ordinance "as soon as possible." Grunewald, then the committee chair, has long held that the CSFRA conflicts with state mobile home laws in too many ways, and that it would be preferable to draft an ordinance specifically with mobile homes in mind.
City Council members agreed, at least in concept, to a rent stabilization ordinance in January last year, but were given legal advice not to impose any regulations while the lawsuit was still pending. The assurance by the council did little to build confidence among mobile home residents at the time, who felt the council largely shirked its responsibility to protect vulnerable residents from escalating rents on their spaces at mobile home parks.
Since then, the topic has not come up at any council meetings.
Bee Hanson, a resident of the Santiago Villa mobile home park, said some of her neighbors have grown impatient and have even moved away, believing that the City Council and the RHC will continue to kick the can down the road. Many of the people living in mobile homes are seniors on fixed incomes or are disabled and rely on Social Security, Hanson said, and they are scared a rent hike could push them out of Mountain View.
"We've been defeated time and time again, but I'm still optimistic we can pull this off eventually," Hanson said.
The glimmer of hope is that newly elected council members Sally Lieber and Pat Showalter, along with new appointments for the Rental Housing Committee in the spring, could change the balance of power and make mobile home rent control a priority, Hanson said.
Though rental housing costs in Mountain Have have stagnated or even declined during the coronavirus pandemic, mobile home residents say that the high cost of housing remains a huge problem. Larson said the risk of displacement feels all the more precarious with an infectious disease running rampant throughout the state, and there has been little reprieve from high rental costs.
"Existing tenants of mobile homes have not seen their rents drop," he said. "Our rents are still going up, our taxes are still going up, and people are really worried about trying to be able to cover their rents during this crisis."
The RHC is expected to place mobile home rent control on a meeting agenda some time in February or March.