LONG BEACH — For Fern Alward, every penny counts. Each month, the 76-year-old widow struggles to make ends meet with her $500 Social Security check.
There are doctor bills, insurance payments, groceries and the monthly rent she pays for a space in Villa Park, a North Long Beach mobile home community. Her life is strictly defined by the limits of her income.
Now, however, a series of rent increases at the park threatens to shatter the great-grandmother's budget.
"I'm very bitter and terribly upset," said Alward, whose $250 rent now amounts to exactly half of her income. "It's like I'm dangling at the end of a rope and don't know where I'm going to land. I have no place to go."
Alward is one of scores of residents at Villa Park who are up in arms over rent increases of more than 40% since last June. The residents say the increases are unfair, particularly for retirees who are on fixed incomes.
But the park's leaseholder says the increases are necessary and have been instituted to meet the rising costs of operating Villa Park.
Many members of the 57-acre mobile home community have united to oppose the increases, forming a group that ultimately hopes to institute some form of rent control at the park.
"We feel like these rent increases are only the beginning," said Beth Wilburn, business manager of the newly organized Mobilehome Owners Assn. of Villa Park Inc. "People are panicking. They don't know what to expect next."
So far, the group's tactics have included refusing to pay a $35 rent increase instituted Jan. 1 and deploying pickets--many of them placard-bearing senior citizens confined to wheelchairs or reliant upon walkers--along the park's Atlantic Avenue entrance.
The group has also raised $20,000 and hired an attorney. And on Feb. 25, the group plans to ask the Long Beach City Council to adopt a citywide rent control ordinance for mobile home parks.
Council Opposes Controls
In the past, the Long Beach City Council has steadfastly opposed any form of rent control, for mobile homes or any other type of housing.
While the council did agree in mid-1984 to establish an arbitration board to settle disputes in mobile home parks, the group has yet to meet because Mayor Ernie Kell said he had been unable to find a chairman respected by both tenants and park owners.
Kell announced on Thursday, however, that the Rev. Richard Andersen, pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Long Beach, has agreed to take the post.
When the seven-member arbitration board gears up in the coming weeks, it should prove useful in the Villa Park dispute, Kell said. Nonetheless, he stressed that the group was not designed to serve as "a rent arbitration board."
For longtime residents of Villa Park, the sudden rent increases and resulting revolt have seemed decidedly out of character for their community. The park, established in the late 1950s, has generally been a peaceful place, crisscrossed by narrow boulevards with names like Tiki Walk, Polynesian Drive and Hula Lane, and boasting numerous amenities--a swimming pool, two clubhouses, a community newsletter.
The residents, more than 90% of them retirees, normally get along fine, carefully tending to the white rock gardens or grassy plots outside their trailer coaches and enjoying bridge games or other activities.
But that solitude was disrupted, Wilburn and other residents say, soon after Villa Park was taken over by Louis Simpson, who purchased a 28-year lease in March, 1985.
In June, Simpson imposed a $50 rent increase. "We swallowed that, but no sooner had we got it down than he raised our rents $35 in January," Wilburn said. Residents, most of whom had been paying about $200 a month to live in Villa Park, suddenly saw their rent bills rise to about $285.
Simpson explained to residents in a Jan. 20 letter that the increases were necessary to help cover skyrocketing costs for liability insurance, taxes and other operating expenses.
In the letter, Simpson said that liability insurance jumped from $26,000 a year to $115,000 while taxes rose from $26,000 to more than $38,000. Simpson also noted that he repaved the maze of roadways in the park, a project that he says cost $165,000.
Simpson could not be reached for comment. Steve Kirby, a Hermosa Beach attorney who represents the park operator, said Simpson is not trying to gouge the park's residents but rather is attempting to avoid running in the red.
"I'm confident that if you balance the out-of-pocket expenses Louis has had to pay you'll find that the increase is not inappropriate," Kirby said, adding that the park's rents are equitable when compared to those at other parks in the area.
Although Wilburn's group claims to represent tenants in 300 of Villa Park's 432 spaces, Kirby questioned just how many of them are challenging the rent increases, maintaining that "more than 50%" of the community's estimated 700 residents have paid the increases.