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Mobile home residents are feeling stuck

At Palisades Bowl near Santa Monica, two grandmothers fight a conversion that could more than double the rent on spaces.

March 01, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Beatrice Prentice and Florence Cotton didn't intend to become affordable-housing activists in their late 70s.

But when the battle came to them, the Los Angeles grandmothers say, they decided to fight back.

Seven months ago, the landlord of Palisades Bowl, a 170-space mobile home park overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Santa Monica, told the two women and their neighbors that he planned to subdivide the park and sell each space.

No one would be evicted, lawyers for landlord Eddie Biggs told the tenants. Those who chose not to buy the land under their coaches could continue to rent.

But after a single lot was sold, anyone not qualified as low-income would lose the protection of rent control. The law allows landlords to raise rents to market rates over four years.

At Palisades Bowl, that means spaces that cost about $600 a month now could more than double in a few years, said Cotton, 78.

Tenants were so anxious and shaken after the August meeting explaining the conversion that they decided to try to stop it, Prentice and Cotton said.

They formed their first homeowners association, hired a lawyer and set up committees to divide up the work. Prentice is in charge of publicity and Cotton is rounding up political support.

Even though many tenants would be transferred to a state rent-control program, the residents remained suspicious. The state program would be available in Los Angeles County to any single person with an annual income of less than $38,000 (less than $44,000 for two people), for example.

Senior residents in particular are fearful about what switching to private ownership would mean. They worry about making mortgage payments and the added cost of property taxes and homeowners association dues, Prentice said.

"When you get older, you want peace of mind, and that's what affordable housing means," said Prentice, 76, a retired preschool teacher.

Similar confrontations are underway across California. An estimated 30 mobile home parks are converting to tenant ownership or have done so. They include parks in Carson, Ojai, Santa Paula, Palm Springs, Vallejo and Buellton as well as in San Luis Obispo and Sonoma counties.

Though it's a small number compared to the 5,000 mobile home parks scattered across the state, critics say it is the start of a wave of conversions that, if left unchecked, could wipe out a significant stock of affordable housing.

With the shift would go rent-control laws governing mobile home parks in about 100 cities and counties, they say. Seniors on fixed incomes -- who make up 70% of mobile home tenants -- would be the most affected, along with families of modest means who see the parks as a low-cost housing alternative.

"This is a group of ultra-aggressive park owners who are out to break rent control," said Glenn Bell, who leads Sylmar-based Neighborhood Friends, a mobile home rights group. "And they are targeting the oldest and weakest among us."

But park owners dispute their portrayal as ogres.

Conversion gives tenants a chance to buy their spaces and owners the chance to cash out on land that has become more valuable in recent years, said Richard Close, a Santa Monica attorney who is handling many of the conversions.

Close noted that it was tenants, not park owners, who initially pushed for the 1995 law that eased the red tape involved in converting a park to resident ownership. Residents have wanted to buy spaces for decades, and now they have a way to do it, he said.

"The American dream is ownership, not to be a renter forever," Close said.

The conflict is getting attention as mobile home residents begin to organize and petition lawmakers for change.

Two state legislators, Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) and Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), last week introduced separate bills to address tenants' concerns.

Both bills would require subdivision applications to undergo a public review by local government boards, which would have the power to veto a conversion if they found that it would deplete needed stocks of affordable housing.

Current law strips the right of local governments to stop a conversion, said Maurice Priest, spokesman for the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League. His organization lobbied for the law that it now seeks to repeal, he said.

Earlier, the lobbying group thought residents would drive conversion applications, Priest said. Instead, park owners have taken the lead, using the law's provisions to circumvent local rent-control laws, he said.

Because the law encourages conversions, it is difficult for local governments to impose restrictions, Priest said. In 2002, when Palm Springs enacted conditions on the subdivision of El Dorado Mobile Home Park, the owner sued.

The city lost its fight in appellate court. The court's decision confirmed the Legislature's intent, said Close, who argued the case on behalf of El Dorado's landlord.

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