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Residents at Petaluma senior mobile home park face major rent increase

Dozens of homeowners and renters at a Petaluma senior mobile home park are fighting back against unprecedented rent increases that they say could be devastating for residents living on fixed incomes.

Residents of the Youngstown Senior Mobile Home Park abutting the east side of Highway 101 at Corona Road were notified of the proposed $286 per month increase Nov. 10, when the park’s new ownership group taped notices to their front doors.

“We felt sick,” said resident Mary Ruppenthal, who has lived at the park since 1987. “I’ve been losing sleep over the whole thing.”

If approved in an upcoming arbitration hearing, which would be the first of its kind for the county in half a decade, the 40% increase could represent a record rate hike, county housing officials said.

In the notice to residents, Three Pillar Communities attorney Mark Alpert said the rate increase was necessary due to expenses related to the new ownership group’s recent purchase of the community.

But residents in the 102-unit neighborhood, built in 1978, quickly organized to protest the move, and are now bracing for a Dec. 6 arbitration hearing that could determine whether they’ll face a near-$300 per month rental hike amid the holiday season.

The increase would be effective March 1 if approved following the arbitration required by the city and county housing ordinance.

Since Los Altos-based Three Pillar Communities bought the mobile home park in 2020, adding to its portfolio of 40 communities in seven states, residents here have been anxious.

After the purchase, Ruppenthal said she had expected some changes to take place, but the proposed rent increase thrown their way would be going “above and beyond” what was feasible.

Ruppenthal said that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she and other residents still have yet to even meet any of the new park owners, including Three Pillar Communities co-founder Daniel Weisfield, who did not immediately return requests for comment.

After receiving the notice, Ruppenthal said she and another resident immediately got to work, going door to door collecting signatures from other residents of the mobile home community to contest the rent increase. Sixty residents signed the petition, which was submitted to city officials Nov. 18.

“The stories we've been hearing when we knock on these people’s doors are just heartrending,” Ruppenthal said. “We heard from several (residents) saying ‘I can barely pay all of my bills now. And for it to go up nearly $300, I will be homeless.’”

But residents have some recourse, as mobile home park managers cannot increase rents above certain thresholds without arbitration, according to local laws.

The Petaluma City Council in 1993 adopted a Mobile Home Park Space Stabilization program, intended to stabilize rents for Petaluma mobile home owners, especially those who were considered low-income.

Under the ordinance, rent increases are restricted to once per year and are capped at 6% of base rent or the inflation rate -- whichever is lower.

Ruppenthal, who said she helped fight to get the ordinance in place through the late 1980s, said that her last increase took effect in July 2020, a 1.6% increase that boosted her payments by $11.09 per month for the calendar year.

“And most of the people in here are on fixed incomes, and were not probably super high earners during their careers,” Ruppenthal said. “So some of them are getting maybe $800, $1,000, $1,100 a month in social security. Well when they’re trying to raise just your rent alone over $900 a month, you’ve got nowhere to go.”

Dylan Brady with the Petaluma City Attorney’s office, said city officials have sent a letter to tenants to let them know of their legal rights in the process. And while the Petaluma People Services Center and Legal Aid are providing tenants with information and assistance, Brady said the city is generally staying neutral in the matter because of due process concerns.

Brady said in the hearing the arbitrator can decide if rent increase is justified, taking factors into account like capital improvements or “other operational costs that benefit the mobile home.”

Ray Tovar, Sonoma County’s affordable housing asset coordinator, said this kind of arbitration hasn’t happened in Sonoma County for at least five years. Even then, Tovar said he’s never seen such an aggressive rent increase. The highest approved hike Tovar can was 12%.

“In those cases, (the arbitrator) allowed for an increase not as high as they anticipated or as hoped,” Tovar said. “But it was a level higher than the ordinance, because they allowed for fair compensation for the park owner.”

In some cases, both the park owner and residents do not agree to the arbitration results, which can lead to court battles.

“The ordinance was created to protect tenants,” Tovar said. “And I’m hoping that they can prevail, because this is a senior complex and many of them are on fixed income, and it would be unfair for them to just arbitrarily raise the rent that much.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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