Residents of burned Santa Rosa mobile home park sue owner over lagging rebuild efforts

The frustration at The Orchard mobile home park surfaced Wednesday when residents announced they had filed a class action lawsuit against the park owner over the fire recovery.|

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For Alison Gould and other residents at The Orchard, the rebuild clock is ticking.

Gould last week took a visitor to where her home once stood along the western edge of the Orchard, a mobile home park off Pinercrest Drive known for grass front yards and for clientele aged 55 and older. Her lot, with a distant view of Mount St. Helena, now sits cleared and vacant, one of nearly 70  homesites there that burned after a deadly wildfire roared through northwest Santa Rosa in October and jumped the SMART train tracks from Coffey Park.

“We had less than 10 minutes to get out,” Gould recalled of the night last fall when she and her husband, Dennis Silva, escaped the flames.

The couple hope to take advantage of an offer from the park’s owner to buy a new manufactured home at a discounted price. But seven months after the fire, Gould and a number of other residents say the rebuilding process is taking too long.

The frustration boiled into public view Wednesday when seven Orchard residents and their attorneys announced they had filed a class-action lawsuit against the park owner, Chicago-based Hometown America, a company that owns mobile home parks in 13 states.

Among those appearing at a press conference was 94-year-old Eleanor Miller, who had moved to The Orchard in 1981.

“I miss my home,” Miller told a small group of reporters. “I want it back.”

A Hometown America executive responded in a telephone interview Wednesday that he empathized with the residents’ frustrations. But he said the company has made considerable efforts to help residents acquire new manufactured houses as quickly as possible and for “the most reasonable costs.”

“Seeing the devastation, the right thing to do was to get these people back into houses,” said Stephen Braun, the company’s co-president and chief operating officer. He said Hometown America’s discounted prices would save residents more than $100,000 per house, with third-party models retailing from an estimated $272,000 to $311,000, according to the company. Anyone can choose to make a deal with a separate home manufacturer, Braun said.

The mostly senior residents of the 223-unit Orchard have been caught up in the most destructive wildfires in state history. The North Bay fires claimed 40 lives and burned nearly 6,200 homes in a four-county region. Insurance claims have totaled nearly $10 billion.

In Santa Rosa, the fire’s destruction included not only 1,200 homes in the flatland subdivisions of Coffey Park and ?1,400 homes in the hillside neighborhoods of Fountaingrove, but also damaged portions of three mobile home parks, a type of lower-income housing in relatively short supply in Sonoma County.

Gould and her husband aren’t parties to the lawsuit against Hometown America. But in April, they used up the last of the available rental assistance money from their insurance company. Gould said the couple are seventh on a waiting list to get a new home, but they have encountered numerous delays in their efforts to sign a contract.

“It just is no way to be doing business,” she said.

At the news conference and in interviews last week, residents complained they had received few written communications from Hometown America. They said that has made it difficult to understand the rebuilding process and to be able to provide key details in writing to their insurance companies.

The residents said the park owner currently isn’t charging them the monthly space rent, which averages about $750. But they pointed to an April 26 letter from a private attorney for Hometown America that said the residents would need to start repaying that amount on Sept. 1.

“When September comes, I’ll be paying two rents,” resident Cam Folks said at the news conference. She questioned the fairness of such a charge when her lot isn’t yet ready to accept a house or even a small trailer.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Sonoma County Superior Court seeks to accelerate the rebuilding process, prohibit any charges by Hometown America relating to cleanup of individual sites, which residents do not own, and to postpone payment of the deferred rent until residents are back in their units. It also seeks unstated monetary damages for loss of property and expenses incurred from displacement, attorneys’ fees and other awards. The plaintiffs are represented by Newport Beach-based attorney Mark Robinson and San Francisco-based attorney Mary Alexander.

When asked why the fire survivors don’t just turn to an outside dealer for a new house, resident Dave Watkins told reporters that Hometown America still must give its approval for such a unit. He said he brought forward details of one outside unit that fit the “footprint” of his site but was told by an Orchard staff representative, “Oh, it won’t work. You can’t do that.”

Resident Deborah Collins said the rebuilding process is extending to the point where for many affected residents, “it’s going to take two to three years.”

Miller’s granddaughter, Daniella Stanghellini, said she is concerned her 94-year-old grandmother won’t live long enough to return to the park.

“I’m not just fighting a rebuild clock,” Stanghellini said. “I’m fighting a life clock.”

In response, Braun said Hometown America may revise the date when residents must again start paying space rents. He noted that when the park was without power and water immediately after the fire, the company decided it shouldn’t charge rent to any of the residents.

To date, four Orchard homeowners have signed contracts to purchase new homes, he said, and the company will continue to sign up the other residents at the rate of four to five a week.

Braun maintained the limiting factor for a prompt recovery isn’t acquiring the manufactured houses, but rather locating the contractors needed to complete the homes. The Orchard units are different from those in many mobile home parks because they typically include attached two-car garages and driveways, which need to be built on site.

“The chokepoint is the availability of the installers and the finishing crews to finish the houses,” Braun said.

The company has considered bringing in work crews from out of state and also getting needed government approvals to allow residents to move into the new units even before constructing the garages. But the efforts to begin rebuilding thousands of houses in the region have made it difficult to find builders.

Braun acknowledged the company could have done a better job communicating with residents. He said he can’t say how long it could take to rebuild the fire survivors’ homes, “but I can assure you that we’re doing everything we can to bring people back (to the park) as fast as possible.”

Hometown America likely will lose money on each unit it provides for the residents, he said. The company has offered to price them at the manufacturer’s cost, plus 10 percent to cover for administrative costs.

Braun said he had not heard yet of any residents who wanted to bring in a new unit from an outside dealer, but the company has emphasized residents have a right to do so and written guidelines exist on what is allowed in the park. To date residents have made plans to rebuild only 45 of the 68 burned homes, Braun said.

The company eventually will put units back on all the remaining burned lots, Braun said, but he insisted that work won’t begin until all the fires survivors first have been able to move back into The Orchard.

“All I wanted to do was get people back in houses,” Braun said.

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