The Mountain View City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to enact rent control for mobile homes, ending a yearslong battle by tenants fighting for protections against rent hikes and other predatory practices by park owners.
The new law closely mirrors the city's existing rent control law covering apartments and would cap annual rent increases at the rate of inflation, with a floor of 2% and a ceiling of 5%. The law also enforces eviction protections for tenants who rent mobile homes.
Unlike apartment rent control, the new law also prevents park owners from jacking up the rent once a mobile home owner leaves and a new tenant moves in. So-called vacancy control -- prohibited under state law for most types of housing -- is allowed for mobile homes, and the City Council agreed to cap rent increases for new tenants at the consumer price index (CPI).
The vote, made through a convoluted motion shortly before midnight, was seen as a victory for mobile home residents in Mountain View who have pushed to extend renter protections for the last four years. Many voiced frustration that it's taken this long, and that mobile homes should have been included in the city's original rent control law passed by voters in 2016.
Over time, mobile home residents rallied together to amplify their political clout and joined forces across the city's six mobile home parks. While many of the complaints of rent hikes and allegations of unscrupulous actions center on two parks in particular -- Santiago Villa and Sahara Village, both owned by John Vidovich -- proponents lobbying for rent control Tuesday included residents from normally quiet mobile home parks as well.
Jeannie Son, a resident of New Frontier Mobile Home Park, told council members she struggles every day to keep her head above water and lives in fear that the park will be taken over, and that she's not alone. Many of her neighbors are seniors on fixed incomes, people with disabilities and working-class residents trying to make a living.
"These are honest, hard-working, good citizens in our society who are deserving of protection from sky-high rents or being evicted from their homes," Son said.
Elizabeth Weiss, a senior living in Sahara Village, said she worries that the lack of rent control for mobile homes lends itself to predatory practices by park owners. If she ever wanted to sell her home, Weiss said the landlord could crank up her space rent until it becomes impossible to find a willing buyer. Her only recourse would be to sell the home at a fire sale price or 'give' the home to the park owner.
Regional housing advocates have since come out in support of the effort. Cory Wolbach, a former Palo Alto council member representing SV@Home, encouraged Mountain View to adopt mobile home rent control as a means to preserve existing affordable homes. He pointed out that many other cities in the county, including San Jose, Los Gatos, Morgan Hill and Milpitas, all have rent stabilization ordinances in place to prevent rent hikes.
"Mobile homes are a source of naturally affordable housing, and as with any rental property, mobile home residents are vulnerable to rent spikes," Wolbach said. "Mobile home rent stabilization decreases displacement risk."
The city was initially reluctant to act on mobile home rent control -- citing ongoing litigation and possible conflicts with the Rental Housing Committee -- but the political winds finally shifted in 2019 when the City Council made it a goal to extend rent stabilization to mobile home residents. The move was followed by a vote last year to begin drafting some type of rent control ordinance.
An alternative to rent control
Though city officials billed the mobile home rent control ordinance as a balanced approach that takes into account the needs of both tenants and park owners, little progress had been made in winning over park owners who remained firmly against rent control.
Frank Kalcic, owner of Sunset Estates Mobile Home Park, described rent control as a blunt tool that is designed to be contentious, pitting park owners and mobile home residents against one another and inviting lawsuits. Instead, he argued that the city ought to follow in the footsteps of Sunnyvale, which drafted a long-term lease agreement that park owners would have to abide by in order to avoid being subject to rent control.
That memorandum of understanding (MOU) drafted by Sunnyvale includes the bulk of what is included in Mountain View's ordinance, including rent caps and vacancy control provisions. Kalcic said the MOU does a much better job winning support from both sides, and that something similar should be adopted in lieu of rent control.
"Rent control is a punitive process that only serves as a wedge, or a line in the sand that reinforces an 'us and them' viewpoint, which we've heard enough tonight," Kalcic said.
Anthony Rodriguez, an attorney representing Santiago Villa and Sahara Village, sent a strongly worded letter to the city warning that rent control would trigger a whole host of unintended consequences. He said there is a "significant chance" his client would sell rent-controlled homes or remove them from the market, and that he would use so-called Vega adjustments to catch up space rent to market rate -- which could ratchet up monthly rent by $300 to $900.
Rodriguez also criticized the city for saying in June that the ordinance would exclude those who rent their mobile home, only to include them in the rent control law before the council on Tuesday. He said the city acted in bad faith and blindsided park owners with the late change.
City Council members largely agreed to move forward with rent control for mobile homes, but were torn at the Sept. 14 meeting on whether to allow park owners to negotiate long-term lease agreements with their tenants in lieu of rent control. Councilwoman Sally Lieber warned that tenants are not on even footing when negotiating with park owners on an MOU, and that she was wary of supporting it as an alternative to rent control.
"There is a very great power differential here," Lieber said. "The power is entirely slanted towards the park owners and away from the residents of the park, some of whom have the largest investment in their lives in an asset that someone else controls."
Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said she believes the MOU is the superior alternative to rent control and could avoid a lot of the ill will and angst generated from rent control while accomplishing many of the same goals. She suggested that the city enact Sunnyvale's MOU as a secondary option for park owners and tenants who agree to the terms. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga took a similar stance, saying she would've liked to take Sunnyvale's approach from the get-go instead of heading full-steam into rent control.
"In a perfect world, I wish we could rewind time and go back to the beginning and do what Sunnyvale did in bringing everyone together to come up with an accord," Abe-Koga said. "Unfortunately this issue has been divisive, and I really want us to go in a different direction of collaboration."
What ultimately prevailed at the meeting was a little more complicated. The city's mobile home rent control ordinance will apply to all six parks, with the option open for park owners to submit a long-term lease agreement to the city that could be used in lieu of rent control if it meets certain criteria. It would need to be approved by the City Council, and would have to be ratified by 80% of the park tenants.
Though Tuesday marked a victory for mobile home residents, it wasn't without a series of last-minute changes that granted concessions for both sides, as council members tinkered with numerous provisions of the law before it heads back for final approval on Sept. 28.
The new law creates a "base date" for a rent rollback, which compels park owners to revert rental rates back to what they were on March 16, 2021. The provision plays an important role in preventing property owners from catching up rent to market rate in the months before the law goes into effect, but it's an open question what that date should be.
Councilman Lucas Ramirez said the base date really should be May 21, 2019, which marks the date when the council made it a goal to pursue some type of mobile home rent regulations. But the idea fell flat and was not included in the motion.
Lieber advocated for eviction protections that would protect mobile home renters prior to the rent control law taking effect, along with relocation assistance for those who are subject to no-fault evictions. She also sought protections for tenants who are ousted when units are removed from the market, and said the ordinance should give them a first right to return if they're brought back onto the market. All three added to the motion, which passed 6-1 with Matichak opposed.