A Santa Rosa mobile home park for seniors is being converted to all-ages to increase profit

New management says the move is necessary to stay afloat, but residents fear displacement by the company with a track record of litigation over evictions and rent increases.|

In mid-March, managers held a meeting at the Carriage Court mobile home park in Santa Rosa to review new park rules and regulations. Only about 26 people from the park’s roughly 75 homes attended the Thursday midmorning meeting.

The new policies shared at the March 16 meeting largely mirrored the old, but there was one glaring difference that immediately got residents’ attention. The contract no longer identified Carriage Court as a “senior adult community” limited to people 55 and older.

The potential change raised urgent questions in the group about a shift in culture and possible displacement for the mobile homeowners, many of whom rely on a fixed income.

“I’ve been here 17 years. This is supposed to be where we live out our years,” said Mike Pounds, who lives at Carriage Court with his wife in the mobile home that previously belonged to his mother-in-law.

Soon after the meeting, Pounds noticed a small sign at the park entrance that said “Carriage Court is a Senior Park Minimum Age 55 Years” was gone.

Harmony Communities, which started managing the park last year, confirmed “Carriage Court has been converted to all ages for all new applicants and for everyone six months from now.”

Not only do some residents worry what an all-ages conversion will mean for lifestyle in the park, but they also fear being pushed out, especially as turnover leads to higher rents that could erode the park’s affordability.

Indeed, the shift appears to be driven by a desire for higher returns.

In a statement, Nick Ubaldi, regional manager for Harmony Communities, said the switch is a reaction to Santa Rosa’s new mobile home rent control ordinance, which went into effect in January and tightened the amount that park owners can increase rent.

“This ordinance has prevented Carriage Court from reasonably earning a fair return,” Ubaldi said.

“The change was needed to avoid shutting down the park. Just like any other business, Carriage Court must make a fair profit in order to stay in business. If it cannot, then it shuts down and finds a better use for its land.”

A fight over affordability

While people own their mobile homes, they rent the land underneath. In Santa Rosa, mobile homeowners are generally low-income. Despite the name, these homes are hardly mobile and cost thousands of dollars to move, so residents often have limited options if costs go up.

Amid a nationwide housing crisis, cities and counties have increasingly looked to rent control as a means of preserving what’s considered one of the few affordable housing options left, especially as real estate and private equity firms looking for good investment opportunities have bought up parks and raised rents.

In Sonoma County, recent moves by Santa Rosa and Windsor to update their mobile home rent control laws was motivated by a desire to keep senior residents on the brink housed, especially as older adults have become California’s fastest growing homeless population, a trend reflected in the county.

Twelve of Santa Rosa’s 16 rent-controlled mobile home parks are designated 55 and older.

For Pounds, whose wife has mid-stage dementia, “moving is not an option,” he said.

If costs in the park were to increase significantly, “I would have to leave,” he told me.

“And, there’s no place to go,” his wife Rose added.

Park owners argue they need to be able to recoup for rising costs and inflation that have also pushed them to the brink. Moreover, they say that rent control artificially drives up the prices of mobile homes, conversely robbing the lowest-income and most-vulnerable communities of a shot at homeownership.

“Instead of further exacerbating the problem, the city should work with park owners to find a solution,” Ubaldi said. “Currently the city’s only strategy is to continue pushing park owners towards bankruptcy; a result that would eliminate over a thousand units from the city’s housing stock and leave hundreds of families without a place to live.”

Because of a bureaucratic oversight, Carriage Court, along with four other Santa Rosa mobile home parks, are not currently subject to the updated rent control law until next year. While the ordinance caps rent hikes, it also newly allows park owners to increase rent by 10% for in-place transfers, which occur when a mobile home is sold to a new buyer.

It can be hard to determine whether residents have a say in the elimination of a park’s age restrictions. According to the state law governing mobile homes, “senior residents who have leases that provide that the park is a ‘retirement’ or ‘senior’ park and provide for specific facilities may have a case against diminution of services agreed upon in the lease or rental agreement.”

But there are many factors at play.

For instance, a park can lose its “senior status” if fewer than 80% of units meet the age requirement. On the other hand, some local governments require official approval for parks developed as senior parks to change.

“Even as an attorney, this is really difficult to understand because there are so many layers,” said Maggie Barber, housing attorney for Legal Aid of Sonoma County. “You start with the mobile home residency law, which is statewide, but then county ordinances, city ordinances, and zoning rules come in, so, there is not a single answer. Can it be done or not? The answer is, it depends.”

In 2011, owners won a case against the City of American Canyon in Napa County to change a park’s age requirement, in part based on the argument that past management had failed to keep a census of residents’ ages as required to legally keep its senior designation.

One of that park’s owners, Ron Ubaldi, is also listed in state business filings as a manager for Carriage Court Mobile Home Park LLC as well as a number of others.

A track record of conflict with residents

It’s unclear how management will proceed at Carriage Court and what care will be taken to avoid displacement of residents, but Harmony Communities is involved in multiple lawsuits across the state over strict rule enforcement, rent increases and eviction attempts.

“Their reputation is terrible,” said Linda Nye, president of the Golden State Manufactured-home Owners League, an advocacy group for mobile homeowners. “I get probably more calls about that company than any other.”

Earlier this year, in San Rafael, Harmony Communities said it would evict residents and shutter the park after losing its legal bid to raise rents above the local ordinance limits. The company also has been involved in controversial rent hikes elsewhere, including in Colorado and in Fresno County, which doesn’t have a mobile home rent control law.

The Stockton-based company owns and operates at least 33 mobile home parks that house more than 5,000 residents in the West.

According to Mariah Thompson, a staff attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, the corporation has rapidly expanded, causing problems for tenants along the way.

“Their business model is to buy parks that are usually older, usually have aging infrastructure, older homes,” she said. “They acquire as many of those as possible and then use a variety of tactics to increase rent and increase or add utility fees in order to turn those parks into higher-income-generating parks.”

Thompson represents a number of residents in attempted evictions cases in one Fresno mobile home park and in a lawsuit over Harmony Community’s business practices in another.

“They have kind of standard rules that we've seen them implement with small variations in each park,” she told me. “They are extremely strict, usually unlike anything anyone in the park has ever seen before.”

Typically in her experience, Thompson said, Harmony Communities will conduct inspections, issuing citations for rule violations with little leeway that can stack up and lead to tenancy being terminated. Demanded fixes can be prohibitively expensive or extremely trivial, like requiring drapes in every window or not having garden hoses coiled.

“They’ll often just see what they can get away with,” she said.

In his statement, Ubaldi said, “As is standard industry procedure, rules are updated regularly to stay current with state law and address the current economic landscape. We vigorously and equally enforce our fair rules. It is our obligation to do so for the well-being of the community and in order to remove bad actors who bring strife to their neighbors.”

Ubaldi said that Harmony Communities manages but doesn’t own Carriage Court. According to state business records, though, the principal address for the owner, Carriage Court Mobile Home Park LLC, was changed to Harmony Communities’ posted address in December, and Nick Ubaldi is listed as the LLC’s agent.

While Ubaldi ultimately provided answers to my questions, I was at first directed and spoke via email to Harmony Communities’ director of communications and marketing, Heywood Jablóm, an apparent pseudonym used as a crude joke. (Pronounce the name out loud.)

Conflict at Carriage Court

At Carriage Court, resident Yvonne Rawhouser said she’s already experienced aggressive tactics from management.

“I can’t come home and feel comfortable and be safe,” she told me.

Rawhouser survived the 2017 Tubbs Fire after it tore through the Journey’s End mobile home park where she previously lived. In 2019, she was able to resettle in Carriage Court.

Rawhouser, a former hairdresser and four-time cancer survivor who continues to struggle with health problems and relies on disability for income, is part of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. That means the City of Santa Rosa Housing Authority pays a portion of the space rent for her mobile home.

In February, the Housing Authority delayed a payment over an inspection that turned up a violation the park needed to fix before the agency would release funds.

While the issue was corrected, since the payment was delayed, park management told Rawhouser she was responsible for the missing funds, despite the fact she’d paid her portion of rent on time.

On Feb. 15, Rawhouser received a notice that she had three days to pay or leave. If she did not, it read, her tenancy could be terminated and, if so, she’d have 60 days to move her mobile home or sell it.

Rawhouser was panicked that she might lose her home again through no fault of her own.

“I already lost one home in the Tubbs Fire, and so this has totally traumatized me,” she told me.

“This affects my health and well-being. They (were) threatening me over something I have no control over… I don’t need to have my health radically decline over this stress and pressure.”

The Housing Authority said it released the funds on Feb. 17, but Rawhouser said management continued to tell her she was in arrears.

City spokesperson Kristi Buffo said on March 27 that the Housing Authority does not mediate disputes between landlords and tenants but that attempts to contact management had gone unanswered.

Rawhouser contacted Legal Aid of Sonoma County, which wrote a March 15 letter to Carriage Court on her behalf, clarifying that tenants are not responsible for missing Housing Authority payments.

“It is unclear where the miscommunication occurred in the posting of the payments – but it is clear that Ms. Rawhouser was improperly provided the 3-day notice for nonpayment of rent. She is not behind on rent,” the letter stated.

The problem has since resolved. However, Rawhouser was left shaken and feeling that she could have easily been pressured into paying money she did not owe had she not pushed back.

“The bullying and threats were not appropriate in this situation,” she said, adding she’s worried the experience is an indication of how management will operate going forward.

Harmony Communities did not respond to specific questions about the circumstances or any confusion.

“She was expected to pay her rent because she signed a rental agreement and agreed to make those payments. It really is that simple,” Ubaldi said. “With that said, the payments have been made and the account is at zero balance.”

Pounds said he hasn’t had any problems with the managers to date, but the abrupt change to age limits, without community input, has him feeling unsettled.

“I feel a little in a corner,” he told me.

“I’m just worried what they’re going to do in the long run.”

“In Your Corner” is a column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

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