After a swift public outcry, the operators of an east Petaluma mobile home park have backed off of a proposal to raise rents by an average of 44.4 percent.
A letter outlining the increases was sent to Little Woods Mobile Villa residents Oct. 31 – the day fire officials announced they’d reached full containment on blazes that in Sonoma County devoured more than 110,000 acres and nearly 7,000 structures, most of them homes. Lawyers for the property owner described the increase, which would have taken effect in February, as a mechanism for a fair return for the operator’s $4.4 million investment.
The park off Lakeville Highway is governed by a city rent stabilization ordinance that automatically triggers an arbitration process if a proposed increase exceeds six percent, or more than 100 percent of the change in the consumer price index. As the proposal, which would have amounted to an average monthly increase of $178.03 per space, was headed to a Jan. 8 arbitration date, nonprofit legal aid and housing advocacy groups representing residents of the 77-home park were also quick to assert the increase amounted to price gouging, violating an executive order from Gov. Jerry Brown. The order, which came in response to the wildfires, prohibits rent increases above 10 percent until April 18 unless it fits into narrow exemptions.
The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office also deemed the increase as potential price gouging, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar. If the owners proceeded, the county could have launched a full investigation into the case before deciding whether to prosecute. A violation of the penal code could result in fines and jail time.
“That contemplated increase would, in our view, potentially violate the statue,” Jamar said.
Robert G. Williamson Jr., a partner at Santa Ana-based Hart King law firm representing the owners, disagreed with price gouging allegations, but still called off the increase. Williamson declined to comment further, referring to written correspondence to Sonoma County Legal Aid, where he also underscored his client’s right to seek increases at a later date.
“Your public statements accusing my client of ‘price gouging’ while omitting reference to existing rent control restrictions were, and are, reckless misrepresentations and placed, and places, my client in a false light,” Williamson wrote.
Officials at Legal Aid of Sonoma County, which is representing more than 20 of the park’s residents, referred to the increase as “outrageous.” Residents are subjected to routine annual increases based on the consumer price index that don’t trigger an arbitration process, Housing Outreach Attorney Evan Livingstone said.
“We’re so happy for the residents to have this relief at the moment ... the last thing this community needs is people increasing rents – the last thing we need is more people displaced,” Executive Director Ronit Rubinoff said.
Residents, many of them immigrants or seniors on a fixed income, and community activists are still concerned about the next time an increase might hit and urged the city council to offer more protections to residents of Little Woods and other mobile home parks.
“We ask you to put it on the agenda because it means that we are acknowledging this issue – it’s a problem that needs to be addressed in Petaluma,” said Zahyra Garcia, a member of activist group Together We Will Stand Indivisible Petaluma.
However, Mayor David Glass said the city has no intention of reexamining its mobile home rent control ordinance. The current laws, which have been on the books for about two decades, could be challenged if they’re altered, City Attorney Eric Danly said.
“We have good reason to believe it would be contested and so that’s the reason why the council does not put on the agenda the reopening of the mobile home rent ordinance,” Mayor David Glass said. “Do no harm – that’s the fundamental guideline here.”
For 22-year resident Katherine Bobrowski and others in the park, concerns over rent were set to the backdrop of a longstanding battle with park management over what they described as deteriorating conditions, favoritism shown to family members and friends of the on-site manager and alleged harassment.
Bobrowski, 64, keeps files to document incidents, and stocks her digital camera full of photos of what she described as filthy washing machines inside of a decrepit laundry room. She alleged park management vandalized her home, harassed her and tried to force her out of the park.
“We need a responsible on-site manager and 24-hour security in here,” she said.
Bobrowski has contacted police to report issues she said have been ongoing since Waterhouse Management took over in 1996, but has not been satisfied with the response. Petaluma police have received more than 6,000 calls for service to the park since 2003, as far back as records date, Records Supervisor Nicole Litzie said.
Lt. Tim Lyons said many calls relating to parking issues and neighborhood disturbances are unsubstantiated, but said police plan to continue to respond and attempt to provide resources.
Diocela Cruz, the park’s on-site manager, and her supervisor, Robert Cook, declined to comment. Livingstone, the attorney with Legal Aid, is also representing residents for maintenance issues. With the North Bay Organizing Project, he’s convened meetings with residents and plans to help them organize to advocate for neighborhood concerns.
“We’re looking at forming a resident’s association to build off the momentum created by this,” he said. “The residents felt threatened by this and will band together as a community.”