ARTESIA — Faced with a lawsuit, the probability of high legal fees and protesting citizens, the City Council last week decided against rent control at the city's only mobile home park.
The council had voted 3-2 last month to have a rent control ordinance drawn up for consideration. But after being informed by the city's attorneys that legal fees to defend the city in court could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the council in a 5-0 vote rejected the ordinance.
Artesia Mobile Home Estates has 95 rental spaces. All but 11 residents signed leases when owner Donald Dougher of Newport Beach purchased the property more than two years ago. By state law, only the 11 would have been affected by rent control.
"I really feel for those people in the park but I must backtrack," Mayor Dennis R. Fellows said before the vote.
Referring to the fact that there are only a few people asking for rent control at the mobile home park, Fellows said, "I represent 15,000 people. I can't believe I'm taking a chance to spend $100,000 of the city's money."
"I had not realized the expense," said Councilman Robert J. Jamison, who also had voted with the majority to draft the ordinance. "I'm involved with (those wanting rent control) but you have to weigh everything. I'm kind of backing off."
Gretchen A. Whitney, the third council member who had voted for drafting the ordinance, also voted against rent control in the end. Councilman James A. Van Horn and Vice Mayor Ronald H. Oliver had voted against drafting the ordinance, and they led the move to kill the proposed ordinance last Monday.
The ordinance would have established maximum rents that could be charged for mobile home space and provided for an annual increase of 75% of the Consumer Price Index with a maximum of 7%. An additional 10% increase would have been allowed if a tenant sold his or her mobile home to a tenant already in the park who continued to live in the park. If the tenant moved, the owner could set the rent at any amount.
Earlier this month, a lawsuit seeking to prevent the city from instituting rent control was filed in Norwalk Superior Court. The suit had the financial backing of Dougher.
Legal fees "could easily exceed $100,000. They could go as high as $300,000," said Carol W. Lynch, an assistant city attorney who prepared the proposed ordinance. If the city lost, it could also be required to pay the legal fees of the plaintiff's attorneys, City Atty. Steven L. Dorsey said.
City Manager B. Eugene Romig also informed the council that the cost to administer and enforce the ordinance could be around $20,000 a year.
"I'm really disappointed," Virginia Borders, a longtime resident of the park, told the council after its vote. Borders represented the residents who would not sign leases. The residents have complained that rents are too high and rates of increase were too high, Borders said.
"The money scared the council," said Borders, 66, a member of the Golden State Mobile Home Owners League, a statewide organization which lobbies for mobile home owners.
Rents Up $139
Borders said she lives on Social Security and federal Veterans Administration disability payments for her late husband that amount to about $700 a month. Borders, who has been at the park for 19 years, said her rent is $325, a $139 increase since the Dougher organization purchased the park. She said she also pays water and trash fees, and without the help of a son who lives with her she would be unable to meet her bills.
Glen Greener, a spokesman for Donald Dougher, whose family also owns mobile home parks in Orange County, said rents at the Artesia Mobile Home Park are not out of line with comparable parks.
Late last year, the council commissioned a $5,000 study by Ruth A. Ross, an associate professor at California State University, Long Beach. The study had looked at 45 mobile home parks within a seven-mile radius of Artesia and found that the rents at the Artesia park were comparable to those in the survey.
Greener said the owners had offered financial assistance to any residents of the park who needed it.
The lawsuit against the city will be dropped after the council's rejection of rent control, Greener said. It was filed Feb. 5 and seeks an injunction against the city's using public money to establish rent control. The suit charged that the council had held secret meetings to establish rent control and asked that any attorney fees arising from the suit be paid by the city.
Suit Backed By Dougher
The suit was filed by Tony Martins, whom Greener described as an Artesia resident against rent control. Greener said the Dougher organization had "contributed financially to support (the anti-rent control) effort." (Martins, who was visiting in-laws in New Mexico, could not be reached for comment.)
Additionally, the council was given petitions Monday opposing rent control.
"These 650 signatures (state) that people don't want rent control on the mobile home. It is not good for our city," said Eliseu Jacinto, who helped gather the signatures.
"Today mobile homes, then next apartments," said Jacinto, an apartment unit owner and a member of the city Planning Commission. He identified Martins as his son, and said he also owns apartment houses in the city.
Jacinto, who has served on the Planning Commission for five years, said his position did not deter him from gathering signatures.
"I had to defend my rights," Jacinto said.