At a special meeting Monday afternoon, Huntington Beach city council members approved a charter amendment ballot measure that would allow future councils to enact rent controls on mobile home parks.
The council voted 4-3, with Mayor Matthew Harper and council members Joe Carchio and Dave Sullivan dissenting.
The meeting was a last-minute attempt before the August 8 ballot deadline to address months of testimony by park residents, who say that steep rent increases by park owners have forced people with fixed incomes, such as veterans and seniors, to forfeit their mobile homes.
In its original form, the amendment would have implement rent controls for senior citizens and veterans whose rent payment is more than a third of their monthly income. By the end of Monday’s meeting, the amendment was whittled down to more general language that would exempt mobile home parks from a 2002 charter rule that prohibits the city from enacting price or rent controls on property.
If voters approve the charter amendment in November, only then would the city council be able to propose an ordinance imposing rent controls on park owners.
More than 100 people turned out for the late afternoon meeting, with at least half in support of the amendment. Mobile home owners have pressured the council for more than a year to something about increased rents and a lack of affordable housing in the city. Earlier this year, the city adopted an ordinance preventing the conversion of senior mobile home parks to all-ages communities.
But realtors, mobile park owners and some residents have turned out in force at council meetings to oppose the charter amendment, arguing that instituting any form of rent control would lower property values and unfairly punish mobile home park owners.
"Huntington Beach is taking time, money and citizen input to see if mobile home tenants should get preferential treatment,” said Jeffrey Jackson with the Orange County Association of Realtors. “Rents are rising - it's the market, and the market will do what it wants to do. Artificial constraints that create an uneven playing field -- you aren't protecting a particular class, it’s lousy public policy.”
Park owners, who said many residents already receive rental assistance or subsidies, said the amendment would be a sweeping change to the city charter, to the benefit of just a few people. They asked the council to gather more input from property owners and the community, and address the issue through other means.
“You’re rushing past a resolution today to put rent control on the ballot...for a very narrow problem, faced by a few people, in a couple places in Huntington Beach,” said Richard Hughes, of the family-owned Rancho del Rey Senior Park.
Yet mobile home park residents said not all park managers and owners are open to working with tenants. Betsy Crimi, a resident at Rancho Huntington Park, claimed the park’s owner has not been amenable to working with residents.
“None of these people realize the anxiety, fear, the psychological pressure that these seniors have experienced…they are probably not here because they can't get to the podium to talk for themselves,” said Crimi.
Tenants at mobile parks own their homes, but not the land they sit on. Residents have claimed that many park owners are implementing steep rent increases that cause tenants on fixed incomes, such as seniors and veterans, to forfeit their homes, because of difficulty selling their home or the high cost of transporting a manufactured home.
“Rent stabilization needs to be for all. The moment some [park owners] choose to put an increase and rush it through, people are forced out. You can’t sell it? Oh well,” said Sharon Petersen, a resident of Los Amigos Park. “There are two sets of rights - the rights of the person who owns the mobile home, and the person who owns the dirt it sits on,” said Petersen.
“Both have property rights, and both have to be considered fairly and equally. You have a moral duty to do what is right,” she added.
Many speakers also criticized the last-minute nature of the amendment, with no accompanying fiscal analysis or impact study. The city does not have estimates of how much a rent control program would cost to implement. According to City Attorney Jennifer McGrath, an estimated 2500 mobile home owners could qualify under such an ordinance, depending on the qualifications and requirements adopted by a future council.
At Monday’s meeting, council members wrestled word choice and punctuation for the amendment on the dais. They ultimately scrapped much of the language in initial drafts that targeted the changes for seniors and veterans whose rent was more than 33 percent of their income, arguing that those specifics belong in an ordinance, not the city charter.
Councilwoman Jill Hardy rejected the notion that the charter amendment constitutes a rent control law.
“All this [amendment] does is allow for an exemption if the council choose to create an ordinance for that. This does not create rental stabilization or control, whatever you want to call it - it creates the ability for the city to address some of the concerns that people have brought to us,” said Hardy. “We can't, to have all these people coming to us with their stories, and not do anything about it because of section 803.”
Sullivan ultimately opposed the amendment because of the changes.
“I think we ought to be straightforward in telling voters what they're dealing with and not going under some nebulous exception and making the rules later. What we have is a crisis, of people who are really impacted,” Sullivan said.
Harper, who has opposed the amendment on the grounds that it is an infringement of property rights explicitly protected in the charter, says advocates of the amendment should demonstrate support for rent control by gathering signatures to place it on the ballot.
“The voters have decided, that’s why I’m trying to preserve section 803,” said Harper, referring to the successful 2002 ballot initiative that added the property rights language to the charter.
“We voted [in 2002] to put rent control off the table. And if folks believe there is a groundswell - then gather the petitions, just like petitions were gathered on the other side, just 12 years ago.”
Carchio echoed several speakers who argued that, should the amendment fail, the situation would not be improved and the city would have damaged its working relationship with park owners.
“If we place this on the ballot, it’s going to be voted down as it was in 2002. And we'll never get another chance to get an agreement between park owners and well-deserving mobile home owners,” said Carchio. “Everyone is sympathetic to individuals who for whatever reason can't absorb these increases...but placing the blame on businessmen who have investors they have to answer to, too, is not the proper way to address this situation.”
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