On July 14, a group of local mobile home residents bearing white balloons descended on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting. The balloons, bobbing above the heads of the crowd, bore a stark message written in red pen: Save Our Seniors. The residents, primarily local seniors and low-income renters, flooded the public comment period in a carefully orchestrated sequence, each asking the board to put fee stabilization for mobile home parks on its agenda. The county's General Plan includes provisions to preserve mobile home parks "as an important source of affordable housing."
Hilary Mosher, who opened the comments, has been helping organize local residents affected by the recent purchase of two mobile home parks: Lazy J Ranch in Arcata and Ocean West in McKinleyville. A corporation called Inspire Communities, which own 45 parks nationwide, bought out the parks, which were originally owned by a local family. When the company originally bid on Ocean West, Mosher says she “went into overtime immediately.”
While mobile home parks have been recognized as important in terms of affordable housing, there's been a national trend of investors buying mobile home parks and raising the rents beyond affordability for residents.
Mosher, who went on to found the Humboldt Mobilehome Owner’s Coalition, worked with a local nonprofit to match the purchase price of Ocean West and create a resident co-op, but the original owners decided to sell to Inspire anyway. So her group filed a series of complaints with the county for use violations.
“I was determined to derail the sale,” she said. The sale was halted as the owners addressed each of the complaints, but ultimately it went through. As one of the conditions, 90 days before Inspire took ownership, rent went up by $28 a month. Residents at the Lazy J Ranch have already seen their rent raised twice since Inspire Communities bought the park in 2013.
Twenty-eight dollars may seem like a small sum, but mobile home owners are in a unique position. Many mobile homes are not actually mobile. Some are too decrepit to survive the trip to a cheaper plot of land, and the cost to move can exceed $10,000. Residents are responsible for the mortgages, upkeep and utilities for their homes in addition to the lot fees levied by management companies. When Mosher moved in, her lot fee was $425 a month. The original owners told her that it would increase annually according to the Consumer Price Index, at about 1 to 3 percent. Many residents in these parks are seniors living on fixed incomes. With an average social security payment of around $1,200, escalating lot rent prices can drain the income of a senior. Mosher reports that one of her neighbors stopped her cable subscription, then sold her car and finally gave away her dog because she could no longer afford to feed it.
Tim Strack, Director of Property Management for Inspire Communities, says that the rent increases in the Lazy J community were tied to property taxes, which rose by $73,000 in the last three years. The rent increase would only cover 77 percent of those costs, according to Strack. Capital improvements such as street and utility infrastructure also require investment. The new owners of the Lazy J spent a quarter of a million dollars on street repair and other improvements.
“It’s not feasible without some kind of rent increase,” said Strack. “It’s like the city when they have to expand their infrastructure. Utilities go up or taxes go up. If we didn’t do increases, then there would be infrastructure issues we couldn’t pay for.”
Infrastructure improvement helps residents by improving the resale value of their home. Strack says there have been 22 such sales at the Lazy J since 2013.
The Arcata City Council has expressed interest in a fee stabilization measure which may help Lazy J residents. But Ocean West tenants are struggling to gain traction. Residents had previously brought their concerns to the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Community, which recommended conflict resolution but ultimately took no action. Both the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission and the Area 1 Agency on Aging have put forward letters endorsing action by the Board of Supervisors. In emails, Supervisor Ryan Sundberg has told the residents that he will not move forward with putting rent stabilization on the agenda. Calls to Sundberg and Supervisor Mark Lovelace were not immediately returned. Save Our Seniors will host another meeting to discuss the issue this Friday, Aug. 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Ocean West Clubhouse. One potential tactic, according to Mosher: collaborating with California Cannabis Voice Humboldt to distribute petitions.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this blog was written before speaking with a representative from Inspire Communities. Information from that interview is now included in the text.