Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Councilwoman angered by conditions, rent prices at El Monte mobile home park, San Gabriel Valley

EL MONTE - Councilwoman Norma Macias is speaking out against what she calls "shameful" conditions at a local mobile-home park.

Macias recently visited Brookside Mobile Country Club, next to Mountain View High School, after receiving complaints from some residents of deplorable conditions and exorbitant rents.

The councilwoman said she intends to do whatever she can, including raising the issue with her council colleagues, to support residents of the park.

"What is taking place here is nothing short of criminal, to take advantage and gouge these people," Macias said. "I, for certain, want to make an issue of what is going on here. We need to do our best to protect our residents."

Officials with Tatum-Kaplan Financial Group, which owns the park through its subsidiary Brookside Investments LTS, declined an interview request for this story. The park's management company, Mobile Community Management Co., a Santa-Ana based group also owned by Kaplan, responded with a fact sheet about the property and company.

Macias, who is considering running for the new 32nd Congressional District, said mobile- home residents are naturally placed in a tough situation when it comes to renting spaces for their homes. Despite the name, mobile homes are often difficult to move because they are damaged or a transfer is too costly. Park owners take advantage, Macias said.

"These people are stuck," she said. "The landlord knows these people are stuck. It really breaks my heart."

One resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said his family has lived in the community for more than 30 years and has seen their rent skyrocket.

When they first lived there, rent was $100. Now, it is $1,160 a month "just for the dirt," he said.

According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, the median rent for apartments and homes in El Monte from 2005 to 2009 was $1,003.

The man said he would move from Brookside but doesn't have the money.

"It can cost $10,000 to move one of these," he said. "We live on a fixed income, and (the landlords) know it. It is all for the money."

Some people have moved away. Walking through the more than 400-space mobile home park at 12700 Elliot Ave., it is easy to tell the park has numerous vacancies. Bare, gray cement slabs are scattered throughout as homes have been removed or transferred. Other homes have been left behind, now boarded up to prevent transients from squatting.

"They have an astonishing rate of vacancy," El Monte redevelopment attorney Dave Gondek said.

Roads are cracked and in one area of the park a former retaining wall is broken and buried beneath a hill of sand.

The park's poor appearance also stems from some residents' lack of concern or an inability to perform maintenance, officials said. Some homes are cracked and worn, and others have overgrown brush and weeds.

Police Capt. Santos Hernandez said police and city staff helped an elderly resident by cutting back overgrown shrubs in the back of her property.

Code-enforcement officers said they are reviewing the property, including the retaining wall, but had no determinations on violations.

Rent control

Like the feudal system in medieval England in which a free man owned his cottage and a feudal lord owned the land and charged a fee for using it, most mobile-home residents own their homes but rent the land beneath the property.

Renters at the Brookside property said rent ranges from $1,000 to $1,500.

Officials with other local cities said mobile-home spaces rent for about $800 or less. Glendora has rent control that keeps rents at about $800. Advertisements show rents in Palmdale, Riverside and Pomona for more than 1,000- square-foot lots are about $450. The Whittier East Community rents lots at $593 a month. In Laguna Beach, a 2,400-square- foot lot is advertised at $1,876.

Unlike Glendora, El Monte doesn't have rent control because of a 1990 ballot initiative. That same initiative also prevents the city from even trying to revisit the issue, which was passed with the help from the owners of Brookside, the Tatum-Kaplan Financial Group, Gondek said.

In 1988, in an effort to stymie rapidly increasing rents for mobile-home parks, the City Council adopted a rent-control ordinance, Gondek said.

It established an avenue for rent review between tenant and park owner with mediators overseeing the review.

Park owners challenged the ordinance with a referendum, but narrowly lost.

Two years later in 1990, the Tatum-Kaplan group, led by Jeffrey Kaplan, brought forth an initiative that proposed to abolish the rent-control ordinance, Gondek said. The selling point of the new plan was rental assistance for low-income senior citizens. Those who qualified would receive a 10 percent discount on rent.

Voters passed the ordinance, and it has been the rule of law ever since.

And if the city ever wanted to challenge it, it couldn't, Gondek said. The redevelopment attorney said Kaplan's team was "clever," and within the language of the voter- approved ordinance, the city is forbidden from contributing any staff time or city funds toward efforts to overturn the law or establish rent control.

For the city to get involved, a new ballot initiative must overturn the law to free the city, Gondek said.

"The language of the ordinance pretty much puts the city of El Monte, as a unit of local government, in a straitjacket," he said.

Tatum-Kaplan's history

Anderson said he is familiar with the Tatum-Kaplan Financial Group, the firm that owns numerous mobile-home parks under several business names, including Brookside.

"They have a tendency to look at the bottom line. A lot of them are that way," he said.

Jeffrey Kaplan and Thomas Tatum own Mobile Community Management Company. Although that company runs Brookside, the land at Brookside is owned by First National Finance, another organization run by Kaplan and Tatum, according to company officials and the Los Angeles County Assessor's Office.

Kaplan, a lawyer who heavily invested in the mobile- home business in the 1980s, owns more than a dozen mobile-home parks in Southern California, according to records from the California Secretary of State's office.

He purchased the Brookside park in the 1980s and initially leased the land, including a 2.1-acre parcel from El Monte Union High School District, city officials said. He later bought the property, including a 2004 deal to buy the school district property for $450,000, according to the purchase agreement.

Kaplan also led a failed state initiative in 1996, similar to the El Monte ordinance, to do away with rent control for mobile homes.

Kaplan and his companies have had their share of lawsuits regarding mobile home parks. Kaplan, Tatum or Mobile Community Management are named in 11 civil suits in San Bernardino County dating back to 1998 and another 10 in Orange County from 1989 to 2010, including fraud, unfair business practices and breach of contract.

A lawsuit has also been filed by residents at Brookside, but attorneys representing the group did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Objecting to rent increases, some Brookside residents formed an association in 2008 and threatened a rent strike, according to the fact sheet provided by Mobile Community Management.

In 2009, about one-third of Brookside residents filed a lawsuit against their landlords after meetings with them dissolved, according to the sheet. Park managers deny any wrongdoing, according to the fact sheet.

Residents disagree.

"They are finding the fastest way to get money out of people's pockets," a resident said.

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