Tuesday, April 24, 2012
There’s not much sound other than distant traffic and birdsong in the Mission View Mobile Home Park in Oceanside. But the apparent tranquility hides a growing sense of anxiety among homeowners, facing an initiative that would phase out nearly 30 years of rent control.
It’s important to make clear up front that mobile homes are not really mobile, so the homeowners’ security is inextricably tied to the owner of the land it sits on – the owner of the park.
Linda Walshaw bought a brand new manufactured home here four years ago, after she suffered a series of strokes and had to stop working.
Proposition E on the June ballot would phase out rent control for the residents of Oceanside’s 17 mobile home parks. Oceanside is one of a shrinking number of cities where rent controlled parks are a source of affordable housing for seniors and veterans.
“We’ve been priced out of stick built homes,” she said. “We've been priced out of apartments, and the only option that was really available to us was manufactured homes.”
Walshaw paid a premium for the new home - $120,000 at the peak of the market a few years ago. Because it was in a rent controlled park, she knew she would never be priced out. She has decorated the interior tastefully with art work and kept it in immaculate condition.
But last year the Oceanside city council passed an ordinance to phase out rent control in the parks. Walshaw said her home has lost value like every other house in San Diego but, without rent control, the value has plummeted.
“Because if they can raise the rent without limit, then no other buyer is going to want this house,” she said. “I’ve invested my life savings in this house. I’ve already lost a great deal of money since I’ve moved in and this will take the rest. If I lose this home, I lose everything.”
Who would gain from phasing out rent control? The mobile home park owners, whose profits have been gradually eroded over the years by rent control, imposed back in 1984 by the city of Oceanside.
City Councilman Jerry Kern, who is running for mayor this year, thinks it is time to overturn rent control. Speaking from his office, with a large map of Oceanside on the wall behind him, he said noone will be forced from their homes.
“The existing residents do not lose rent control," he said, "they get to keep rent control as long as they live in their coach - only after they move does it go to market rate."
Kern says the ordinance the council majority passed last year and the initiative on the ballot to put it to a pubic vote are actually “vacancy decontrol.” In other words, rent control ends after a home is sold and becomes vacant .
Oceanside passed rent control in 1984 to provide affordable housing for its seniors and veterans. But Kern said there’s no way of knowing if low income people are the ones living in the parks, because there’s no means testing for people who buy mobile homes. He said some people use mobile homes as their second home.
Kern argues the city has spent nearly $8 million on administering the program over the past twelve years. He bases that on a report produced by consultant Scott Barnett. But a city staff reports suggest that number is closer to $4 million and is covered by fees paid to the city by the mobile home owners and the park owners.
Kern argues the city should not be supporting a program that interferes with the market and private property rights.
“We cannot have the city paying for a program that in essence is taking away property rights from the land owner,” he said, “and transferring to somebody else.”
It’s a tricky situation - balancing the rights of the landowners with the rights of the homeowner.
Frank Merriefield, 84, has lived in the San Luis Rey Park for more than 20 years. Merrifield said he has property rights too. He invested in a manufactured home on a corner lot for $30,000 back in 1990.
"Since that time,’ he said, “I’ve invested over $30,000 in what we have here today.”
What he has is a spacious home with a remodeled living room, two bedrooms and a den, big enough to host his grandchildren. On the back of his car is a big sign that reads NO on E. He shows me a picture of an empty lot and another picture of a manufactured home surrounded by a carefully tended garden and asks, “Which kind of private property is more valuable?”
Mobile home owners rallied and collected more than 15,000 signatures, enough to get the vacancy decontrol ordinance on the ballot. Miramar Park resident Bob Ryan, a retired veteran, is fighting to defeat the initiative and overturn the ordinance.
“There are people in here that live on social security, that’s all they live on,” he said, gesturing up the rows of modest mobile homes in his park. “They get $900 a month that pays their rent, and food to live on, pays their utilities. It’s sad that these people are going to impacted by this. If I they aren’t impacted immediately they will be within a year or two. “
Ryan points to for sale signs in the windows of several mobile homes. He said some people have tried to sell their homes, perhaps to finance their transition to assisted living, but couldn’t find a buyer willing to risk hefty rent increases. He said they ended up selling to the park owner for pennies on the dollar. Ryan believes the park owners could raise rents as a way to force people out, and then turn the land over to more profitable developments.
At a recent forum on Oceanside’s cable channel, KOCT, Amy Epsten said that’s not going to happen. Epsten is part of a family-owned mobile home park business.
“We’re not in the development or apartment or any other business like that, “ she said. “We’re in the mobile home park business.”
Epsten’s grandfather built the Mission View Mobile Home Park decades ago. She said when rent control passed in the 1980s, it led to a gradual erosion of the parks.
“When vacancy decontrol passes,” Epsten said, “the owners will have pride of ownership again. They’ll want to create more amenities in the park and they’ll want to redo the streets, upgrade the electric and fix the pools. That stuff costs money, and right now there’s not money to do that, but with vacancy decontrol that money would be there.”
Epsten said several of Oceanside’s 17 parks are family operations. But most are run by large corporations, many from out of town. Park owners have poured almost $300,000 into the campaign to pass Proposition E
Tim Sheahan is with the Golden State Manufactured Homeowners League. He lives in a mobile home in neighboring San Marcos, one of ten percent of cities that still supports rent control in mobile home parks. He said the effort to phase out rent control is indicative of a political shift on the Oceanside city council.
“Traditionally the council had been very supportive,” Sheahan said, “and that’s why it’s so disappointing with this current council majority that they seem to look for any excuse to support these out of town park owners, rather than every reason they should be supporting their own residents and constituents. “
The Oceanside city councilwoman who originally brought in rent control in the parks back in 1984 is Melba Bishop. She said this is about more than politics.
“Remember,” she said, “that this is about your mom and your dad who can live in a place where they can take care of themselves or they can come and live with you! ”
The vote in June pits one kind of private property owner against another. The outcome could be a bell weather of the tide of Oceanside’s politics .