Friday, September 16, 2011

Mobile-home rent hike request rouses Santee

Park owner says it’s needed, renters say they can’t afford it

— With 12 mobile home parks providing housing for some of its 55,000 residents, Santee seems to be a welcome place for those looking to live in a manufactured home.

The city has specific rent-control guidelines that it adopted in 1994 to protect residents who own mobile homes and rent the land beneath them and to safeguard owners of the properties as well.

Santee Mayor Randy Voepel, who has long been a champion for people who rent spaces in local mobile-home parks, now finds himself in the unusual position of defending Cameron’s Mobile Estates on North Magnolia Avenue, which wants to raise rents significantly.

“The Cameron family has kept their rents low for many, many years,” Voepel said. “If the rent is too low and the formula allows, they may well be able to raise it.”

Diane Mead, who lives in a manufactured home in Cameron’s, moved to Santee 5½ years ago, “because rents were going out of control” in San Diego.

Mead is president of the homeowners association in Cameron’s and one of many in the 303-home park who are concerned about a letter they recently received from a law firm representing Cameron’s Mobile Estates noting that the owners are seeking a rent increase that would go into effect Jan. 1.

Nearly 100 residents gathered at a scheduled homeowners meeting the night of the blackout in San Diego County to figure out to respond to the letter, which states that the Cameron family is submitting an application to the city of Santee for an adjustment in rent, “to receive a just and reasonable return on the park property and prevent an illegal taking under the state and federal Constitution.”

According to a spreadsheet provided by the city, residents of Cameron’s Mobile Estates pay an average of just more than $357 per month for a space on the property. That is the lowest rate in Santee, according to city figures.

Cameron’s application to the city asks for an average rent increase of $557.64 “to maintain the net operating income earned by the park in the 1989 base year, adjustment.” The net operating income is tabulated to cover utilities, insurance, water and sewer, grounds maintenance and other costs.

“Alternatively,” the application to the city notes, “an increase, on average of $422.19 to bring space rents for all spaces within the park to $750 per month, per space for all spaces of the park.”

In a prepared statement, the mobile park’s chief executive officer, A. James Moxham, said the Cameron family “(is) a long standing Santee family that (has) built their homes, businesses and live here and remain a very private family today. Their desire for privacy has resulted in their unwillingness in the past to seek a rent adjustment, which would allow them a fair return on their investment over time as contemplated by the Santee ordinance.

“The continued deterioration of Cameron’s Mobile Estates (Park) financial position necessitates the request... The family does not seek any repayment of the millions of dollars in lost rent over the last 21 years.”

Tom Romstad, mobile home rent control administrator for the city, said Santee’s ordinance is designed to protect people from unreasonable increases from year to year. He said the city permitted a rent increase of slightly less than 1 percent at Cameron’s earlier this year.

“The ordinance has built into it a safety valve for park owners,” he said. “Its purpose is the city not restrict them in their rents to such a degree that it constitutes a violation of their constitutional rights for property.”

Voepel said the city has spent more than $1.1 million over the last 15 years defending mobile-home residents from rate increases.

Mead says residents, many of them in failing health and most with limited, fixed incomes see just one thing: “a 170 percent increase.”

“Residents here are frightened, they’re angry,” Mead said. “Numerous people would not be able to afford even a $25 or $50 dollar increase. These seniors don’t know what to do or where to turn. I understand this is a business but to have 170 percent more profit affects all the seniors. They’ll lose their homes, or they’ll have to sell their homes. A modest increase is understandable, but not this.”

Rents at other parks in Santee range from an average of $445 at Town & Country Manufactured Housing Estates to $715 at Greenbrier Gardens Mobile Estates.

Art Hallman, who has lived in the Cameron’s park for 12 years, is a part-time real estate agent who said he has sold 10 mobile homes in the park over the last seven months. He noted with disappointment that his most recent near-sale fell through because of the current situation. He said he sees more of the same ahead.

“This is a scenario that totally defeats rent control,” Hallman said. “If we lose this battle, we’ve lost rent control.”

The City Council is expected to take up the matter before the end of the year.

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