Not all Santa Rosa mobile home residents are benefiting from new rent control law
Dec. 6 was a big day for Santa Rosa mobile homeowners who’d spent months or even years advocating for tighter limits on rent increases in their parks.
After almost two decades, the City Council voted to update and restrict how much mobile home park owners can raise rent each year on the land under residents’ homes.
Previously, Santa Rosa’s mobile home rent control, which is governed by different laws than other housing, was tied to 100% of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the measure of prices for goods and services paid by consumers with a 6% cap. For 2023, that would have been 5.7%.
After negotiations between residents and owners facilitated by the city failed, city council members stepped in and ultimately went further than park owners’ proposal and even staff recommendation to limit rent hikes to 70% of the CPI with a 4% cap, the tightest limits in the county.
“It was a victory,” Tom LaPenna, president of Santa Rosa Manufactured-Homeowners Association and a resident at Sequoia Gardens Mobile Home Park, said at the time.
But, the victory was tinged with confusion and frustration. As the holidays approached, some residents, including a share of those who fought for the new law, realized it wouldn’t apply to them this year.
In a December letter, then-chief assistant city attorney Jeff Berk stated that mobile home park residents with rent increases scheduled for Jan. 1 would still be subject to the previous law. That’s because the new ordinance did not go into effect until Jan. 6, 30 days after the City Council’s vote.
“Only increases that begin on or after Jan. 6, 2023, are required to apply the new percentages,” he wrote.
That means that hundreds of residents at five of Santa Rosa’s 16 rent controlled mobile home parks -- Carriage Court, Coddingtown, Country, Roseland and Wayside Gardens --saw their rent rise by 5.7% instead of the 3.99% increase others will get this year.
Another park with a Jan. 1 rent hike issued a 4% increase.
It “doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Jo Ann Jones, a resident of The Country Mobile Home Park, said during public comment at the city council’s first meeting of 2023 on Tuesday. “We have gone too far for so many months, spending time, energy and resources, to leave the 2023 ordinance revision only half done.”
Jones, who was deeply involved in pushing for the new law, lives in one of the parks that isn’t now covered by it.
Mobile homes are considered one of the few affordable housing options available, a growing concern, particularly for older people who make up an increasing share of the county and state’s homeless population.
For many of the majority seniors who live in Santa Rosa’s mobile home parks, even a small change in rent can make a huge difference, especially for those on fixed income.
Though, as it stands, those who are currently left out of new protections will be covered by the revised law next year, future increases would compound on this year’s higher rent.
The news came as a shock and disappointment, especially because residents flagged the issue leading up to the City Council’s consideration of a new ordinance.
“This is what we wanted to avoid. We didn’t want anyone to be hurt by this. How do you explain that to the residents of the 5 parks,” LaPenna said. “I don’t know what happened here. It shouldn’t have been a problem. This is what we were afraid of and were telling them, and it happened.”
In fact, at the Nov. 29 meeting where the revised law was first proposed, council members spent 10 minutes discussing how to make sure any changes would apply to all parks.
“Part of the timing of this was precipitated by the anticipated increase in January,” then-Mayor Chris Rogers said.
Officials debated passing the law as an urgency ordinance so that the law would be immediately effective or putting a moratorium on rent increases until the law went into effect. City staff said it should be possible for all residents to be covered and Santa Rosa City Attorney Sue Gallagher said her office would research the various options.
In December, the town of Windsor put an urgency ordinance in place to limit rent increases while a full ordinance goes through the consideration process and waiting period.
In an interview last week, Gallagher said the ultimate call that the new law would only apply to parks with rent increases scheduled for after Jan. 6 was “based on legal analysis” though she did not elaborate. And, while an urgency ordinance or moratorium would have solved the problem, “there are threshold findings that you have to make,” she said, and “it’s a fairly high bar.”
One such consideration is the level of impact on public health and safety.
LaPenna and other residents, though, remained under the impression that the new ordinance would apply to everyone.
Rogers said he and other council members thought so as well.
“We thought that everybody was covered,” he said. “The question is, how do we fix it?
“We need to make sure everybody is playing by the same rules and that we're doing what we can to protect vulnerable seniors.”
Rogers said he was looking into options to bring to the table before or during the city’s upcoming goal setting discussion, where the council outlines policy priorities. Both he and council member Victoria Fleming said they were speaking with lawyers and mentioned the possibility of a one-time reduction in rent in the next year for those who aren’t now covered to even out increases across all parks.
“There are some remedies that could be applied,” Fleming said.
“When things aren’t fair, that’s really hard for people especially when they’re living paycheck to paycheck,” she said, acknowledging the confusion that had taken place but emphasizing a commitment to looking for solutions. “The City Council is not turning a blind eye or a cold shoulder to the seriousness of their challenges.”
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Gallagher said the city attorney’s office would look into “options going forward.”
LaPenna and others are planning to see to it officials don’t drop the issue.
“I’ll bring people to every council meeting if I have to,” he said. “I said it before that I believe they’d do the right thing. I still hope they will.”
“In Your Corner” is a new 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 email@example.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.
“In Your Corner” Columnist, The Press Democrat
Born and raised in Northern California, I'm dedicated to getting to know all its facets and helping track down the answers to tough questions. I want to use my experience as a journalist and an investigator to shine a light on local systems, policies and practices so residents have the information they need to advocate for the changes they want to see. I’m passionate about centering the many voices in the communities I cover, and I want readers to guide my work.