Santa Rosa seniors fight for stricter rent control at mobile home parks, the city’s last affordable housing
Last month, 80-year-old Joyce Amos got a startling notice: Come Jan. 1, she’ll see a 5.7% rent increase on the land under her mobile home.
Lonely after her husband died, Amos moved from Hayward to the Country Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa in 2013 where she found a home she loves and a community she cherishes. But, in the nine years she’s lived there, her rent has gone up more than 36%, stretching her fixed income to its limits.
“A few bills I’ve just stopped paying because I can't afford it,” Amos told me.
Sue Wilson, 85, is in a similar bind.
She and her husband purchased a mobile home in the park 12 years ago after realizing their Oakmont apartment rent would be unmanageable if something happened to one of them.
Wilson’s husband has since passed, and she relies entirely on Social Security and a bit from an IRA.
In February, for the first time since she’s lived in the park, her housing costs, thanks in part to skyrocketing utility prices, exceeded her Social Security.
“It just upset me,” Wilson said. “I just can’t have that happen again.”
Now, with the latest rent increase looming, she’s worried.
“I think it's going to hit me pretty darn hard,” she told me. She doesn’t have much wiggle room besides wearing triple layers this winter to keep the gas bill down.
“They're gonna price us outta here, and there's no place to go,” Amos told me.
Mobile homes represent one of the few affordable housing options remaining for many. In most cases, residents purchase the home, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional house, and then rent the land underneath from a park owner.
Different laws govern mobile homes from other housing, and rent control is a local control issue with no state limits.
Across California, 104 cities and counties have some form of rent stabilization rules, with yearly increases mostly tied to a percentage of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the measure of prices for goods and services paid by consumers in an area.
And that’s the heart of the issue for Santa Rosa mobile home residents fighting to amend the city’s rent ordinance, which currently allows for rent hikes equal to 100% of the San Francisco area CPI with a 6% cap. This year, that’s 5.7%.
For the mostly seniors who occupy these parks, that’s a problem. Twelve of Santa Rosa’s 16 parks are for ages 55 and older, and the majority, according to resident surveys, are heavily dependent on a fixed income.
Even with the 8.7% cost of living adjustment bump announced for 2023, the highest in 40 years to account for record inflation, Social Security payments have failed to keep pace with CPI over the years. Cost of living adjustments have exceeded the CPI increase in only eight of the past 22 years.
To Tom LaPenna, 75, president of Santa Rosa Manufactured-Homeowners Association, and a resident at Sequoia Gardens Mobile Home Park, the easiest solution is to adjust Santa Rosa’s ordinance to a lower percentage of CPI, as many other jurisdictions have done.
The last time the law, first set in 1993, was updated was 2004.
“We should have done this years ago,” LaPenna said. “It’s past due.”
He and other advocates are pushing for 50% of CPI with a 3% cap, arguing that Santa Rosa shouldn’t be tied to San Francisco’s very different economy. He pointed out that even San Francisco uses 60% of its CPI in calculating rent increase limits.
Greg O’Hagan, who represents owners of the Rancho San Miguel Mobile Home Park, noted that despite the 5.7% rent increase for 2023, the average yearly increase over the past 22 years is a much lower 2.75%.
“This is an average over time,” O’Hagan said. “That's the way an ordinance needs to be looked at; not one snapshot in time.”
Behind the average, though, are years like 2014 to 2017, where Social Security went up a collective 4% versus CPI’s 11.7%, which can set some residents back.
“It's constantly catch-up, catch-up, catch-up, but you never catch-up,” said Jo Ann Jones, 74, another resident of The Country Mobile Home Park.
“For those seniors that are living on a fixed income, every adjustment to CPI that isn't met by an equal adjustment from Social Security risks pushing them out onto the streets,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers told me.
He said he supports a change to the ordinance.
“Obviously everybody is feeling the pinch of inflation, but those folks living in those parks really are a paycheck away from being on the street. That's the context within which we’re talking about this,” Rogers said.