Truth and integrity, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Behold Lake Mendocino Mobile Home Estates, a senior (55-plus) mobile home park north of Ukiah’s city limits and one of at least 60 mobile (or manufactured) home parks in Mendocino County. Touted as a 5-star park on its out-of-area owner’s website, many of its shared spaces today have fallen into disrepair; buckling walkways, untrimmed trees, and unenforced restrictions on a handful of rules—flouting residents who stuff their carports with trash create both safety hazards and eyesores in spots throughout the park.
So maintenance and rules enforcement are two issues that a group of residents we met with say need to be addressed. But what’s got many residents up in arms began showing up in their mailboxes a couple months ago: a terse, attorney-written page-and-a-half letter announcing 2018 rent increases as high as 17%, plus, for the first time, additional separate charges for water and sewer on top of that base rent rate, which until now included those charges. Also for the first time, despite the owner’s website claim that “all leases are long-term,” residents will in 2018 be required to sign month-to-month leases, opening the door for more frequent rent hikes and increasing future rent instability.
On October 13 of this year, two residents actively involved in fighting the increases and new contract conditions, wrote and signed a letter to the CEO and COO of the company that owns the park. They wrote that, added together, the 2018 increases for a standard lot total 6.1% while the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased 1.9% and Social Security benefits increased just 0.3% for the same period.
On the flip side, the owner’s earlier letter to residents describing and defending the increases and contractual changes characterized the increases as necessary because the company collected less than it needed to cover expenses over the last six years “primarily to help all homeowners weather the impact of the housing collapse of 2008/2010.”
Now, for a quick snapshot of the lay of the land: The 16-square-mile City of Ukiah has mobile home park rent control, which is basically tied to the CPI and limits annual rent increases to 5%. According to Mendocino County Supervisor Vice Chair Dan Hamburg, whose Fifth District covers part of Ukiah, there hasn’t been any opposition that he knows of to the city’s rent control ordinance. “I’ve not gotten any feedback about that,” he said.
And though Bruce Ledford, owner of the 55-space Circle Trailer Park downtown, told us that he’s opposed to rent control on principle — “It puts me at a disadvantage for many reasons” — he says he never raises his monthly rent more than $10 (with the single exception of a $25 rent hike following a sewer assessment one year). He went on to say that he thinks rent-hike problems like those facing residents in Mendocino Lake Mobile Home Estates stem from one basic source. “The problem originated when bigger, fancier parks were bought by rich, out-of-town owners,” he said.
More on that later.
Then there’s the county. In 2012 The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted down an ordinance that would have done for mobile home residents in the county what was done for them in the City of Ukiah. Hamburg, who will be Chairman next year, echoed what other supervisors said during the ordinance vote and still say. “This county is so spread out it’s hard to do one-size-fits-all,” he said, adding that, “Basically, I am in favor of preventing gouging people, including those in mobile home parks.” He said that he would “entertain any proposal” to revisit the issue though “it would take a push” for supervisors to take the issue up again because of the staff time required and the long list of more immediate issues in front of them, especially in the wake of recent fires that sent hundreds of residents scrambling for housing in a county already suffering from a chronic housing shortage.
First District Supervisor Carre Brown, whose geographic territory covers the Lake Mendocino Mobile Home Park, said she feels residents’ pain but had to consider the county as a whole when she voted against the mobile home park housing ordinance back in 2012. “It was a poor ordinance…it took deep thinking on my part,” she told us. She said that at the time there were three standing committee meetings “with a roomful of people and lots of discussion” before the unanimous thumbs down vote, adding “I think it’s a responsibility of government but we’re a poor county…we can’t make a gift of taxpayer money.” Brown said that she feels for residents, that she was born and raised in Ukiah. “I sympathize with them,” she said.
Brown’s vote against the county rent control ordinance did not sit well with some Mendocino Lake Mobile Home Estates residents. “She led us to believe that she would support us,” said 14-year resident Susan Everett, who moved to the park from Ukiah. “She came to several Golden State Manufactured-home Owners League (GSMOL) meetings and promised us the moon.”
Like Bruce Ledford, the Circle Trailer Park owner we spoke with in Ukiah, Supervisor Brown said that a big part of the problem is park ownership, especially in a county where nearly all park owners are locals. “When you don’t know the ownership, you don’t know anything about it,” said Brown.
So who owns Mendocino Lake Mobile Home Estates, and who is responsible for responding to resident complaints and concerns?
We started with the park’s on-site manager, Sam Ridino. He’s officially the local go-to guy for resident concerns. He’s also the younger brother of Robert Ridino, CEO of Aptos-based SAR Enterprises, which owns the park. I called him for the first time on 11/20:
Me: Sam Ridino, Please.
Ridino: This is him.
Me: I’m doing a story about resident concerns about the 2018 rent increases. Can we meet so I can talk with you about them?
Ridino: I can’t answer any questions. You have to ask SAR.
Me: Since you are the property manager, why can’t you comment on your property?
Ridino: I’m in the middle of something. Can you call back tomorrow after 10?
Tomorrow after 10: Voicemail, caller unavailable
The next day: Voicemail, caller unavailable
Four days later:
Me: It’s me again, do you have a few minutes now to talk with me about the park’s rent increases for next year?
Ridino: It’s Sunday. I don’t work on Sundays.
Me: I’m calling today because you haven’t called me back on any other day.
Ridino: Why would I want to talk to you?
Me: If I can’t speak with you can you suggest someone else at the company I might speak with?
This unsatisfying exchange left little choice but to storm the mothership: SAR Enterprises, headquartered in Aptos, California. My first call was to SAR vice president/COO Jesse Hunt, described by one resident as a “spokesman” for the company.
Cheerful SAR receptionist: SAR Enterprises. How may I help you?
Me: I’m doing a story about rate increases and other issues at Lake Mendocino Mobile Home Estates and the onsite manager won’t talk to me. I understand that Jesse Hunt has been a spokesman for the park’s residents. May I speak with him for a few minutes?
Cheerful SAR receptionist: I’ll see if he’s interested. (pause, then comes back to phone) He says you have to talk with (President/CEO) Robert Ridino. May I transfer you?
Robert Ridino voicemail: Out of the office, leave me a message, yadayada.
Me: Left a brief message and asked him to please call me back.
Ridino: Radio Silence.
In all the years I’ve been doing this I’m still amazed that so many corporations and privately held companies haven’t gotten the memo that it is always a bad idea to blow off a reporter. Decisions to shut out the media are typically driven by liability-terrified attorneys willing to gamble that the “no comment” that will expose their companies as the evasive, self-serving money grubbers they are will do them less damage than answering a few questions. Perhaps given SAR Enterprises’ apparently healthy bottom line the company will part with enough of their extra cash to hire some competent public relations help.
So the closed doors in the SAR executive suite mean that our window into the company’s thinking is limited to people who deal with the company, its written record, or from its own canned prose, print and electronic.
SAR describes itself, on its slick website featuring a bunch of sailboats against a perfect blue sky, as “…a team of dedicated professionals that blend our history and experience in real estate to form a team that can source, acquire, develop, and manage unique investment opportunities in a challenging and changing real estate market. Under the leadership of Robert Ridino, our reputation is strengthened by the team of dedicated professionals committed to carrying on the SAR mission. Our staff members are empowered to serve clients and bring creative solutions to complex issues.” It goes on to state that, “Under (Robert Ridino’s) leadership SAR has acquired, developed, and primarily self-managed over $300 million worth of real estate assets nationwide.” (That’s up from $225 million reported at the time the county ordinance was voted down.)
Such is the state of the rich out-of-town property owner and landlord. So with a glowing client-oriented mission like that, it should be easy-peasy to talk with company CEO Robert Ridino and his little brother Sam about their business success, right? (BTW, Sam Ridino doesn’t even show up on the website’s management page.) Wrong.
If by this time you’re scratching your head and thinking to yourself that there oughta be a law, well, there is a law, several of them in fact. There’s the 2017 California Mobilehome Residency Law, provided, according to its fire-engine-red cover, courtesy of Second Senate District Senator Democrat Mike McGuire, whose district encompasses the North Coast from Marin to Del Norte counties. The bound tome is jam-packed with the legal responsibilities of both mobile home park owners and residents. It spells out (Article 798.53) that “The management shall meet and consult with homeowners, upon written request, within 30 days of the request, either individually, collectively, or with representatives of a group of homeowners who have signed a request to be so represented on…”
The article goes on to list issues including park rules, maintenance standards, and rental agreements, among other issues. Despite his role as one of our public servants, the good senator did not call us back when asked for a comment. In the words of resident Susan Everett, referring to the bound residency law, “They did all this work (to develop these regulations) but they’re never enforced.”
Sadly, a law is only as good as the will and the resources to enforce it.
The requirement to meet with residents is a particularly painful thorn in the side of many Lake Mendocino Estate residents. One resident said that, following a recent community meeting request, Sam Ridino declined, saying, “That’s gonna be a bitch fest. I’ll only meet with you individually.” A group of concerned residents took it upon themselves to meet on the evening of the day I met with them to discuss the looming 2018 rent increases and new contractual terms. Resident Bob Flinn, who came out onto his leafy deck to chat with us as we strolled through the park, said that he planned to attend the meeting and is most concerned about the soon-to-be-separated-out water and sewer charges and their respective computations. Everett emailed me the next day to report that about 30 residents signed in at the meeting, though since some attended without signing in the actual attendance was higher.
This brings us to the aforementioned nonprofit charitable trust corporation GSMOL which, according to its tri-fold brochure, is “dedicated to preserving manufactured home ownership as affordable, quality housing through legislative efforts,” among other educational and organizing activities. The residents I spoke with, who said they used to pay a membership fee every year to belong to GSMOL, said they were underwhelmed with the effectiveness of the trade organization. “They have no teeth,” a resident told me. “We’ve been paying $25 a year just to belong.” It’s back to that non-enforcement thing.
As you read this article signatures are being gathered to put a statewide rent control initiative on next November’s ballot. With the working title of “The Affordable Housing Act,” (the California attorney general ultimately reviews an initiative’s wording and assigns a ballot title), the initiative cites many needs for statewide rent control, including that: California rents have skyrocketed, more Californians are renting than ever before, and, according to the US Census Bureau, three times as many Californians are living in overcrowded apartments compared with the US as a whole. Those are just three aspects of the dismal housing reality in the state.
Unsurprisingly, the ink was barely dry on the petition before the California Apartment Association voiced its opposition, some came in within minutes of the filing. Ditto for the California Association of Realtors, where a spokesperson, like every private business person since the first carpenters stepped off the Mayflower, told CAPITOL WEEKLY that “rent control is nothing more than a thinly veiled version of government-mandated price control and doesn’t work.”
In any event, as written, it’s unclear (at least to this reader) whether the price controls in the proposed initiative, should it make it to the November ballot in its present form and be passed by voters, would even apply to mobile home park residents.
Back home again, Supervisor Brown told us that Mendocino Lake Estates residents “need to find legal representation,” which residents say is easier said than done. One resident, who (like several other residents quoted in this article) asked to remain anonymous because she’s lived in the park for fewer than five years and fears retribution from the park’s owner, said “I contacted several (outside attorneys) and none would take it,” adding that some said the chances of winning in court were too slim. Susan Everett said that “attorneys say that they can’t promise they’ll win and if they can’t promise that they won’t take it on.”
So finally, when companies care only about their bottom lines, when local officials, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t provide regulatory relief, when laws already on the books go unenforced, and when private attorneys won’t take a chance on a case because they’re afraid they’ll lose in court, who you gonna call? Who’s left?
Legal Services of Northern California is a state agency pretty much of last resort. The Ukiah Office’s managing attorney Angélica Millán, who told me she decided to spend her professional life helping the poor and underrepresented after growing up poor in farm-worker housing in Healdsburg, said that unfortunately there are few legal avenues open to county mobile home park residents to challenge rent or other increases, though “there could be a hook” if the park is sold and repurposed or if elder exploitation could be proved. She said it is true that owners are required to meet with residents, and that it’s also true that owners are required to adequately maintain their properties. She also acknowledges the reluctance of local attorneys to take up cases like this because they’re hard to win in court. One resident said fatalistically that, “You’re taking on a big corporation (though SAR is privately held), and as far as contingencies are concerned, there’s no pot of gold at the end.”
Perhaps, as both Brown and Millán theorize, in the end it comes down to the public will, a slippery creature that’s famously unpredictable. Mendocino County voters, rich, poor, and in between, recently marshaled that will to overwhelmingly pass Measure B, which calls for a half-cent sales tax to fund mental health facilities and services. It took two trys, but voters eventually bit the bullet and agreed to pony up the tax dollars to fill a shared critical need. This casts doubt on the popular theory that county residents won’t pass anything that costs money. If voters believe an issue is important enough, the votes will come. But how exactly does an issue become important enough? When I asked Supervisor Brown why the need for reasonable rent increases for county mobile home park residents hasn’t aroused the public will like the need for mental health treatment did, she said it might be because mental health issues are more universally experienced and visible, that there’s hardly a family in the county that hasn’t been touched by it. Or maybe the issue needs a high-level public champion, like county Sheriff Tom Allman was for Measure B.
It has to start somewhere, and issues like rent control have a lot of moving parts. Existing federal, state, county, and city regulations have to be considered to avoid conflicts that could arise in new rules and regs. The interests of business, local and out-of-area, are in the mix, as are voters strapped for cash who carefully consider the perceived value of a societal change against a tax increase. That brings us back to the public will, without which inertia will keep things rolling along just the way they are.
Non-emergency changes for the public good typically arise from a need that’s identified, born, and nurtured by a small group of concerned individuals who are passionate about and committed to a change, a group like the residents of Lake Mendocino Estates who write the letters, organize the meetings, lobby their representatives and, in general, do the hard, tedious work that is foundational for moving belief along the long, winding road that eventually leads to a new law. They’re the worker bees who attract others to their causes with their passion and don’t give up until justice is finally done. It’s the spirit of the park resident who declared, “I invested my life savings here and will remain a thorn in your side forever.”