Arcata takes first step toward rent control

Senior citizens flooded Council Chamber, many holding bobbing balloons that read

Senior citizens flooded Council Chamber, many holding bobbing balloons. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

CITY HALL – The Arcata City Council last week directed staff to shape up some potential policy options for mobile home rent stabilization, aka rent control, in Arcata. The preliminary action followed a request from the Lazy J Home Owners Association for the council to take up the matter.

Residents of that north Arcata community have complained recently about rent increases and other issues with the Lazy J’s owners, a company called Inspire Communities which owns multiple properties in seven states.

Some of the residents at the Lazy J complain of unfair and exorbitant rent increases, and fear that more are on the way.

City Manager Karen Diemer said rent control has been discussed before at the city level, but that state law has “pre-empted” any local rent control ordinances. Now though, other California cities have already adopted rent regulations, including Modesto, Marina and Santa Rosa. Diemer said those cities have found new ways to implement rental cost stabilization by tying it to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or other economic conditions.

An e-comment had been sent in from the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association (WMHCA) just hours before the meeting saying that the industry group had only just found out about the agenda item. The letter asked for a postponement of the hearing. “It would be unfair and unwise to listen to only one side – the side that favors and would benefit from rent control,” wrote Doug Johnson, senior regional representative of the WMHCA. But since no binding action was planned, the council went ahead with the public hearing.

The WMHCA submitted a two-page letter stating that rent control results in driving up home values, eventually making them “so expensive that that lower-income families and seniors will be squeezed out.”

The WMHCA latter cited Lazy J as a model of the industry’s commitment to “fair and resonable rents.” It stated that the Janes Road park’s residents enjoy “among the lowest mobile home community rents in all of California.” Johnson stated that 11 Northern California jurisdictions had considered and rejected rent control over the past 10 years, while over the past five years, Capitola, Benicia and Merced have repealed their ordinances.

In a letter to the council, Timothy C. Strack, Inspire Communities director of property management, said that rent increases of $20 in 2014 and $17 in 2015 were used to offset $73,883.20 in property tax increases. Strack said his company has invested $240,000 in capital improvements at the park, and will spend another $362,000 over the next 18 months for street repairs and a new community center.

About two dozen other e-comments were strongly supportive mobile home park rent control.

Linda Derksen said the Lazy J’s moile homes “are a bulwark against homelessness in Arcata.” Laster Cook said that many Lazy J residents “were squeezed out of Sandpiper [mobile home park] to here. What would be next? They need security in their lives.”

After an admonition by Mayor Michael Winkler that no one applaud or boo utterances by others, a torrent of pro-rent stabilization testimony was heard. If anyone needed confirmation of the “feisty senior” stereotype, they needn’t have looked any farther than Council Chamber, which was teeming with white-haired elders holding white balloons emblazoned with the slogan, “SOS –  Save Our Seniors.”

One after another, residents of the Lazy J and other rental properties stepped up to tell the council of tight budgets, fixed incomes, rent hikes and unexpected difficulty in making ends meet.

Lazy J resident (and Union columnist) Mary Ella Anderson extolled her community, describing it as tight-knit and mutually supportive. “We’re a neighborhood,” she said. “We look out for each other. We moved there there with the idea that we were going to stay there, that we were going to be here at that park until we went to the hopsital, or the crematorium or the graveyard or wherever we end our days. Now that’s not looking like it will be possible for those of us on a low income.”

She said more than 500 low income mobile home park residents in Arcata are at risk, and would gain protection from a rent control ordinance.

Lazy J resident Carol Spencer said that for some senior residents, rent hikes mean choosing between heating their homes, buying their prescription medicine or eating.

Several speakers stated that they’ve endured multiple rent increases at the Lazy J, with no end in sight. Some challenged Inspire Communities’ assertions about modest rent increases.

One woman said her rent at Lazy J has gone up by $100 since 2005. “There are many that this has happened to,” she said. “My rent was $80 more than it was last month.”

Another man who said he was an 12-year Lazy J resident stated that in that time his rent has doubled but that his income hasn’t. “We knew there were going to be rent increases but they’ve gone up much higher than we anticipated,” he said. “This trend is just unsustainable.”

Larry Keller, vice president of the Lazy J Homeonwers Association, said that his rent has gone up $57 over the past two-and-a-half years. “It’s a major thing for a lot of those people, and they don’t have the money,” he said. “You get kind of a helpless feeling.”

A 91-year-old resident said that many residents of Lazy J “have given up in despair,” but that she felt her appearance would be useful for the council to see who is being affected by the rent hikes. She said her mobile home is immobile, as it is too old and costly to move. “It seems to me that imperative action needs to be taken,” she said.

A woman who said she lived at the Lazy J for 14 years said that the rent increases have outstripped cost-of-living increases in her Social Security stipend, her sole source of income.

Ken Sawatsky went against the grain, cautioning that rent control could force Inspire to evict all the current tenants and “repurpose” the park to get around the new regs.

Another resident called the rent increases “rapacious predation,” and supported rent stabilizaion.

After more testimony, the council directed city staff to investigate possible rent stabilization options for later consideration. This produced gales of applause from the assembled seniors.

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