Petaluma sees its first major challenge to new mobile home laws
Residents at the Youngstown Mobile Home Park in Petaluma received a thick packet Wednesday afternoon announcing monthly rent increases of over $900 – a rise of more than 100% in many cases.
That evening, Jodi Johnson, who’s lived at Youngstown for four years, rushed to arrange an emergency meeting at the park’s community clubhouse. She was surprised to find it locked but got in through a side entrance and let in the others pooling outside the main doors.
“I’m getting raised by almost $1,000,” one woman vented as she walked in. “I can’t express how much anger is in me.”
“It happened so fast,” another person said.
The room quickly filled with urgent chatter as residents commiserated and compared paperwork.
The move is essentially a test of Petaluma’s new mobile home ordinance, which, among other protections for residents, tightened rent control on the land mobile homeowners lease beneath their residences.
Under mobile home laws, a rent hike in such excess of regulations triggers an arbitration, a process facilitated by the city where a park owner makes a case for why permitted rents aren’t enough to allow for their right to a fair return.
Strained by rising rents, inflation and a yearslong pandemic, Sonoma County’s mostly older and low-income mobile home residents have pleaded with cities to strengthen rent control in their parks.
As officials in Santa Rosa, Windsor, Petaluma and most recently Sebastopol have responded, park owners have pushed back, pointing to their own steep and rising costs and warning at public hearings of the potential for arbitration petitions.
Now those words have been put into action.
“Youngstown is a privately owned business, operating without any government subsidies, and is constitutionally guaranteed a reasonable return in order to stay in business,” said Larissa Branes. She’s an attorney for Youngstown MHP LLC, which includes Daniel Weisfield as a co-owner.
She said the city’s ordinance “cannot act as an unconstitutional taking of private property, because all property owners in the U.S. are constitutionally entitled to earn a fair and reasonable return on the capital they invested to buy their property.”
“I was hoping we wouldn't get (arbitration petitions) right out of the gate, but we knew that we might,” Petaluma City Attorney Eric Danly told me Thursday.
“We’re disappointed, but not stunned. I think it's really unfortunate, the impact it's having on the residents. They’re really upset, understandably, and concerned.”
It’s just the latest blow to Youngstown residents since the new law was approved. In the past month, management has announced a conversion of the park from seniors to all ages as well as the potential for shutting down the park completely.
“This is the third thing in four weeks. It’s beyond crazy,” said Johnson, who has led efforts at Youngstown to push for more protections. “I keep trying to research as they come. I don’t know what they’re trying to do.”
Another Petaluma park, Little Woods Mobile Villa, similarly announced a potential closure, and Santa Rosa’s Carriage Court, managed by the same company, Harmony Communities, moved to change its senior designation to all ages earlier this year.
“The consequences thus far that we’re seeing are wide ranging. In the example of Youngstown, they’re throwing everything against the wall,” said Margaret DeMatteo, housing policy attorney for Legal Aid of Sonoma County.
“It’s really a tragedy because these are vulnerable folks. And where are they going to go? ...They’re getting priced out, and this is pretty much the last place they can afford. This is where they intend to live out the rest of their days in a lot of cases.”
To Johnson and other residents, it feels retaliatory.
“We can't let them win,” she said to the group of about 30 in the Youngstown clubhouse Wednesday. “It's not a game. This is our lives. This is your place that you own.”
Mobile home park owners push back
In a conversation last month, Bill Feeney, the owner of another Petaluma mobile home park known as the Cottages told me the characterization of owners as “abusive and heartless people making money hand over fist” is untrue.
He said the proceedings to update the city’s mobile home ordinance were full of misconceptions that led to an over-the-top policy response.
Similar to neighboring jurisdictions, Petaluma’s new rules limit rent increases to 70% of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the measure of prices for goods and services, with a 4% cap instead of the previous 100% CPI with a 6% cap, which had been in place since 1993.