Mobile Home Tenants Battle Landlords Over Rent Hikes

When doctors diagnosed Jennifer Turnow, 43, with a degenerative joint disease, she determined to find a new place to live. Somewhere cheaper, smaller and handicap accessible.

“Eventually I will be disabled,” says Turnow, who has two children, aged 6 and 8. “My husband already is. So we knew that rent control would be our saving grace.”

Three years ago, the Turnows moved from San Mateo to Oak Crest Estates mobile home park, a gated 157-unit community along San Jose’s north border, hoping to spare as much of their fixed income as possible from housing costs. Even after downsizing, their modest white, blue-trimmed unit demands about 75 percent of their monthly earnings.

“We struggle as it is,” she says. “Anything more would push us over the edge. It would take up almost everything we have.”

For a family already scrimping, it would mean getting by with less food, less electricity and maybe, if it came to that, dropping some of the family’s health insurance.

“But that’s what we’re facing,” she says. “It scares us.”

For the second time in the past few years, Oak Crest tenants find themselves at odds with the park’s managers. Investment Property Group (IPG), which holds the land lease, wants to up the rent by $125 and some change—on top of the 3 percent uptick allowed by San Jose’s mobile home rent control ordinance. For tenants with monthly rents around $850, that comes close to an 18 percent increase.

Edna and Jack, a retired couple in their 70s, pay $1,000 for the mortgage on their unit and $1,300 for the lot beneath it. Eighty percent of their combined monthly income goes to keeping a roof over their heads. Paying any more could force them to move—away from their home, away from her 90-year-old mother and away from their children and grandkids.

“It’s ugly,” says Roger Whitcomb, president of the park’s homeowners association. “It puts a huge damper on just living here and for me, personally, it’s going to hurt. There’s always sort of a tension between landlords and tenants, but all of a sudden, this just ratchets it up a thousand percent because now we’re adversaries in court.”

Alan Hinman, who moved into Oak Crest nearly a decade ago, worries that IPG is trying to skirt San Jose’s mobile home rent control, passing off capital improvement costs down to residents by casting them as “service upgrades.”

“They want to add on to the rent because they said they spent money on fixing the place up,” says Hinman, who says he’s collected 2,579 pages of receipts, among other records, detailing what property management spent on the park. “These aren’t service upgrades. A lot of this stuff isn’t an improvement. This is maintenance. This is the cost of doing business.”

Both residents and park managers will present their case before a city-appointed mediator Friday. More than 100 Oak Crest tenants chipped in about $100 each to hire an attorney, Bruce Stanton, who also represents the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League. But not everyone can afford legal help. A couple-dozen residents appointed Hinman as their proxy.

“It’s wearing us out,” Whitcomb says, adding that he’s not sure how much energy some of the elderly residents have to work through this rigmarole every few years. Legal fees have amounted to $13,000, by his calculation.

The dispute at Oak Crest has residents of other local mobile home parks worried that the same could happen to them. Affordable housing advocates agree that the petition holds implications for the rest of Silicon Valley.

“It’s troubling because these tenants are totally at the mercy of the landowner,” says James Zahradka, an attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. “It’s also tough because there are so many folks living on fixed incomes in these communities. They can’t easily generate any more money.”

Mobile homes are embedded in the valley’s landscape, built as quick cheap housing for the influx of residents during the region’s transformation from orchards and ranchlands to quasi-urban job center in the ’70s. San Jose, with its 10,778 units divided among 58 parks, claims the highest concentration of mobile homes of any city in California.

But rising property values increasingly threaten these parks, which are now considered a bastion of un-subsidized affordable housing in one of the most expensive regions in the country. Property owners trying to keep up with the market, however, inevitably run into a crossroad: either ramp up the rent or sell the land.

Within the past decade, 4,972 mobile home lots in California dropped off the map to make way for new development, according to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Mountain View lost more than any one city—307 units in the past 20 years. Sunnyvale has lost five since 1991 and since passed an ordinance to protect the remaining few. The future of Palo Alto's only mobile home park remains uncertain. Santa Clara County and the city mustered up $16 million to preserve it, but the deal depends on the landlord's final approval.

In San Jose, the city has put mobile home park conversions on hold until policymakers figure out how to protect the predominantly elderly and low-income residents who would face eviction if they closed. Dave Bopf, San Jose’s interim assistant director of housing, says that’s a matter the City Council will work out in the coming year.

“It’s important that we create new jobs, that we increase our tax base, but do we do that by displacing seniors in a vibrant mobile home community?” Bopf asks.

Meanwhile, he says, the city expects to mediate a growing number of rent-hike petitions like those at Oak Crest. In 1986, San Jose adopted its rent control ordinance, keeping annual rent increases at 3 to 7 percent for mobile homes. For the most part, nobody tried to get around that.

“A long time passed where we had zero petitions to go beyond that 3-percent increase,” Bopf, says. “But since the rebound of the rental market, that changed. I think a lot of this is driven by the fact that rents as a whole [for the region] have increased by 46 percent in the past five years.”

After a decade without any petitions, the city has seen about two per each of the past few years. Oak Crest Estates management submitted its first in 2011, which residents talked down from $245 to $5. Hinman says gas leaks once left tenants without heat in the dead of winter. Sewage stops up aging pipes. The pool grew so moldy that the park had to replace it entirely. Aging eucalyptus trees along the perimeter drop heavy branches during storms—one even crushed a resident’s $800 fountain. Not long after park owners remodeled the clubhouse, a wheelchair-bound tenant got trapped in an apparently ADA-noncompliant bathroom stall because she couldn’t turn around.

“It is truly dangerous,” says Hinman. “We feel that it’s only a matter of time before somebody is going to get seriously hurt or killed. These are elderly people, some are in wheelchairs.”

IPG’s attorney did not return calls for comment.

Of course, property owners are entitled to a return on investment, Bopf points out, which creates inherent tension with the people who live there and may have to foot the cost. At Oak Crest, IPG management spent about $500,000 remodeling the clubhouse, repaving most of the roads and other projects. But it’s up to the city’s hearing officer to determine whether those upgrades were owed to the residents, or if they constitute a value increase that merit higher rents.

“We didn’t know that IPG would repeatedly come at us for these huge increases,” Turnow says. “We budgeted for those 3 percent increases—we can handle that. If they add on to it every few years, though, it could force us to move.”

Oak Crest residents Alan Hinman and JJ Vogle sort through records they say show how badly the park fell into disrepair. (Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth)

Oak Crest residents Alan Hinman and JJ Vogle sort through records they say show how badly the park fell into disrepair.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

31 Comments

  1. > “When doctors diagnosed Jennifer Turnow, 43, with a degenerative joint disease, she determined to find a new place to live.”

    First sentence: throw out the pity card.

    We know where this story is going.

  2. If they stopped raising property taxes, maybe landlords wouldn’t have to increase rent? If we weren’t sacked with, “It’s only a dime!” bag taxes, and other nonsense maybe our costs of living would be lower?

    • Sorry, please point me to precisely which property taxes “they” raised? The high cost of living has little to do with taxes and much to do with the fact that we’ve been artificially restricting the housing supply for the past 40 years.

      • I own a house and it goes up every year the tax assessor “re-assesses” the value of our home. Works the same for everyone. I’m sure the owner of the mobile park home has seen multiple property value re assessments in the last 10 years.

        On the note of “artificially restricting the housing supply” I couldn’t disagree more. San Jose has more apartments per sqft in it’s inventory than any other city in the county. It’s a supply/demand issue. With all the developments in North San Jose with the “Urban Villages” we’re going to see our rental inventory increase even more.

        The issue isn’t one of a lack of supply, but of rising costs for landlords, which gets passed down to renters. If mobile home parks could be built vertically, with one mobile home stacked on top of another, then profitability would not be an issue.

        • Well I’d start with the fact that a “re-assessment” doesn’t reflect some kind of government need for more money, rather an increase in value of the property. However, here in California (I’ll assume you’re from out of state, as this would be well known by any local property owner) we don’t actually have yearly re-assessments for residential or commercial property, so that would not be a factor for the landlord. I’d suggest reading up on Prop 13, plus the actual housing development and inventory numbers before applying the knee-jerk “greedy government” meme here.

          • Nope, you’re wrong on all counts. I live in the Hammer neighborhood of district 9 since 2000. In the 15 years we’ve lived there we’ve received a re- assessment on schedule every 2 years. One year we fought it, and got a stay for 1 year, then they jacked it up the following year. We figured the time spent fighting it wasn’t worth fighting it again.

            And yes, I’m well familiar with Prop 13. It keeps my 65 year old retired mother in law, who worked as a nurse her whole life from having to pay the outrageous sums of property tax her daughter and son-in-law have to pay. It keeps my 85 year old grandmother from the same fate.

            The only thing I don’t agree with on Prop 13 is the passing down of the tax relief. Once the original owner is dead and gone, the property tax should be at the current market rate and not willed to their descendants.

          • Something else to add here Eric,

            The county has been raising their “service fees” along with the property value reassessments. I think my fee’s last year were in the $1200 range.

  3. Jenn W-

    The structure of this story is all too predictable. Find a down-on-your-luck family; hype up their plight of poor life-style choices and blame social injustice on rich property owners, evoke sympathy from the public then-go cash your paycheck from The Metro and move on to the next issue.

    Somewhere along your story line, I had to pause to wipe the tears from my incessant weeping, quell the anguish of my gnashing of teeth and to vomit a couple of times.

    Mobilehome Parks are doomed. They have been facing a certain death sentence for decades. It is not my fault that people believe they have an unalienable right to use another’s land without being at the mercy of recompense. Nor is it my fault that people do not adequately plan financially for their housing requirements and or well-being in a specific geographical area. And it is certainly not my fault that the “Envision 2040 General Plan” calls for “Urban Villages” which further exacerbates the demise of Mobilehome Parks.

    Should the City use monies generated from the Communist inspired and Council imposed “Nexus fees” to purchase and or subsidize existing Mobilehome Parks?

    Council should repeal the Communist Nexus fees and let the “Free Market Economy” Rule and dominate all housing instruments.

    David $. Wall

    • Why are you so angry about this David? Do you own a park? Are you going through what these people are going through? Do you live in a mobile home? You write as if it is stealing and mooching off the land. It is not! These homes are on the land and the land is being paid for, but there is a point where increases become rediculous! I hope you got over your vomiting and teeth gnashing long enough to pull the stick out of your ass?

    • Mr. Wall, you have no idea what you are talking about when it comes to the people who live at Oakcrest. Many of these people are retired educators, police officers, accountants, (the list goes on in terms of hard working people) as well as young families and couples like Jenn and Marc Turnow trying to find their way in a highly inflated market. I worked for 33 years at IBM, retired and downsized in a place that I would never have considered had it not been under rent control knowing that my earning power would be reduced and I would have to depend on Social Security and my 401K which by the way has been impacted by a poor US economy created by the greed of those who lured people seeking the American dream to buy unethical mortgages. As for me, I took very good care to save money and live within my means all of my life including paying my bills on time, my taxes, health care and long term care benefits – no hand outs here. And, may I remind you, sir, that the gap between the very wealthy and those who now have to struggle to make ends meet continues to grow unless one is fortunate enough to be of working age and employed by Google, Apple or Facebook. Developers are down right greedy. And where in God’s world are we going to get the water to support all of these high rise apartments that are being built on North First Street some I understand charging $3000 a month for a studio apartment – outrageous!!? I am grateful to the reporter who wrote this story. Shame on you, Mr. Wall, for your lack of compassion and understanding. I sure hope you don’t have a life crisis – health or financial reversal – or may you should – it could teach you a lesson or two about what is really important in life.

      • Well stated. I planned for my retirement as well. I live frugally and yet I find I need to dip into savings more often than I should. I am healthy and worry about outliving my savings.

        • It’s happening to too many of us. We planned on certain things like COLA raises on SSA keeping up with inflation & actual cost of living. We didn’t plan on our healthcare to cost outrageous amounts with some meds over $500 ea & having our insurance deny paying for it. We didn’t have a crystal ball.

  4. It’s good that the author acknowledges the mobile home parks as “bastions of unsubsidized affordable housing”. It’s true.
    IF there’s no rent control. The more rent control, the more it becomes subsidized housing- maybe not subsidized directly by taxpayers but subsidized nonetheless.
    The author mentions the “elderly and low-income people” who are at risk of being evicted. While I have sympathy for some of them, particularly the old folks, I suspect that there are large numbers of chronic entitlement program slackers and poor illegal aliens for whom I have no tolerance.

    • “I suspect that there are large numbers of chronic entitlement program slackers and poor illegal aliens”

      Sorry John Galt, methinks you doth ‘suspect’ too much, without any actual knowledge. If you are trying to draw a comparison to the Buena Vista Park in Palo Alto, you are way off base. In large part the homeowners in Oakcrest Estates are retired middle income people; the preponderance of whom have lived in the community for a considerable length of time. Not everyone has the same fortune and therefore have to make tough choices about their accommodations. You B/S about subsidized housing is exactly that: B/S. Oakcrest is not a Section 8 community.

      The owners of the park bought the place 6-7 years ago,fully aware of the number of problems that existed with the sewer lines and other outdated utility connections. The buyer, IPG, is a large investment outfit that specializes in Mobile Home Communities. Their MO seems to be to make improvements that enhance the value of their investment and then attempt to pass those costs on to their tenants. All the while, reaping the benefits of increased property value. It is also true that IPG was aware of the San Jose rent control ordinance. IPG knew darn well what they were buying. Sadly Obamanomics hasn’t allowed them the raise the rents as fast as they planned. All of the “Urban Villages” that have popped up in the area (and the rents they command) has their sphincter puckered. The option of paying all residents the fair market value is always on the table. IPG could then throw up their own “Urban Village”. And a quite sizable one at that! Now that’s capitalism at it’s finest.

      The heart of the dispute is about whether these expenditures should rightfully be placed at the feet of the tenants or are actually an IPG investment.

      BTW Mr. Robert Michael Cortese, while you have been so busy grumbling about the assessed value of your home constantly going up; the value of the homes in Oakcrest dropped around 50%, as a result of the real estate bubble bursting. So enough of your self pity!

      And finally to Mr Wall: surely you understand that capitalism is by it’s very nature pyramidal. Thus not everyone can have a $ for their middle initial. I’m fairly certain that your ego is larger that your IQ!

      • Jim my grumbling was only in response to rising rents, and to offer some common ground for both landlords and renters to rally upon. Apologies for offending you, but it wasn’t meant as self pity, just a statement of fact.

    • Hey Jim. I’ve never been to Buena Vista Park in Palo Alto. I was referring to mobile home parks in general. I’ve been in a number of them in San Jose. Despite admonishments by pc elitists that we must throw out the evidence of our own eyes and ears and instead believe what we’re told, I know what I see. The emperor has no clothes. The leftist ruling elite could easily dissolve my “fears and misperceptions” that entitlement programs are being overwhelmed by chronic entitlement slackers and illegal aliens. All they need to do is insist that the benefits of government entitlement programs are reserved for deserving legal residents. Then I won’t be so kneejerk skeptical that state intervention such as rent control is really doing our country any good.

  5. Another poster family from Ms. Wadsworth. But yet again, she has chosen some very unsympathetic folks as poster people for her latest crusade. Jennifer tells us both parents are disabled, and then speaks of their monthly “earnings”. Seems a contradiction. They’re most likely on the dole.
    Mrs. Turnow could take some of the stress off her degenerating joints if she lost 40 pounds. They can’t be that broke, judging by their weight. Her 8 year old son is already morbidly obese, with her daughter merely obese, but surely soon to be morbidly obese. Too bad child protective services can’t step in and take these kids off the road to diabetes their parents have placed them on. Perhaps the kids can be saved from diabetes and early deaths if Dad determines the meal portions, since from the photo he seems to be of normal weight; but perhaps it’s because we can’t see his belly in the photo.
    If Jennifer really wanted to help these folks, instead of ragging on the mobile home park owners, she’d get all four of them into a good nutrition program somewhere.

    • How dare you attack them like this! I hate when people make fun of weight especially attacking their children! You make me so sick! This is about the home rates not the persons bodies!!! If you have nothing constructive to say about the matter at hand stop typing!

      • I was not attacking the children. I was attacking their parents for allowing their kids to achieve such unhealthy weight at such a young age. If those kids don’t get some help soon, they’ll be doomed to a life of diabetes and an early death. You hate it when “people make fun of weight.” Lemme guess–you’re grossly overweight.

    • JohnMichael, you clearly have a cranial-rectal impaction so great that you cannot see clearly.
      Your armchair analysis is fantastic also. Where ever can I get the M.D. degree and psychic abilities to see this families struggles, that you so clearly have? A dime store perhaps?
      A d-bag of your magnitude could surely cleanse an entire whale’s vajay-Jay.
      You sure have all the answers.

      • > JohnMichael, you clearly have a cranial-rectal impaction so great that you cannot see clearly.

        JohnMichael:

        I’m curious. Could you post a photograph of yourself?

  6. I thought Americans had compassion and understood fairness, however, when I read these comments, I guess not.

    • Thank you Jill! This is only a very small part of my family story. Must assume we are on the dole we are not. I work full time and am proud to say pay for our medical coverage. I have never asked for a hand out nor ever will.
      JT

      • Jenn T: Glad to hear you pay your bills. Now, get a clue and put your kids on a rational diet that will keep them from lifelong diabetes and an early death.

        • Sir: If you knew this family as I do, ( I am a neighbor) you would not feel the way you do.! They have had challenges all their lives. You see, they were not born with a silver spoon in ‘ their ‘ mouth. They have had health problems for a long time.. They love each other and the children. They are diligent parents ,good neighbors. great cooks ,and hard workers . They accomplish their daily list of going to work, family shopping, cooking, baking, laundry etc. while they are in pain!!!!
          I feel very sorry for you because you spoke out against them and it hurt them. Ever hear the word KARMA? Somewhere, somehow you will get yours!,

    • I can’t believe the heartlessness of these people! I know for a fact rent control is a joke in SJ. I know several people who have lost homes they lived in for over 15 yrs due to these greedy landlords. Personal insults are totally uncalled for! Apparently some of these people are landlords. Why else would they make those statements. People don’t plan to get sick, they can put away $ but how long would that last? Social security no longer keeps up with the actual cost of living so recipients lose ground every year. Obviously there is a cost to running a business & that’s what profits are for.

  7. What all you people are failing to see is that as long as you keep voting idiot Democrats and the old long time members of the Republican Party into office you will continue to get what you all deserve and none of you will have the right to complain either way.

    • Confiscators demonstrate the deepest cranial-rectal impaction (or page built by IPG in desguise)!