Seniors living at the Rancho La Paz mobile home park could find out Tuesday night if the Fullerton City Council will step in and help them manage rents with either a temporary rent control ordinance or a rent relief fund.

Hours of public debate at a  July 16, meeting ended when the Council pushed discussion of the issue to the Aug. 6 meeting, as council members had differing ideas over how to step in, with some questioning whether they should intervene at all. Elderly residents of the park say they can’t afford pending rent increases.

“We don’t have until August,” one man said from the audience.

Rancho La Paz residents who spoke at the meeting said many people are already losing hope as rents under the park’s new owner, John Saunders, are slated to go up by 19 percent on Oct. 1. Exactly one year later, rent will increase another 19 percent. In 2021, the rent will increase 15 percent and after that rents will increase 9 percent annually until 2024.

Other people, according to resident Rose Mary McLeod, simply don’t want to live long enough to see themselves in financial distress under the rent hikes.

“If God is merciful with me, maybe my husband and I won’t live until the point where we have to” qualify for financial assistance, she said.

“Oh my goodness,” replied Councilwoman Jan Flory, as other council members shook their heads.

“Listen, a lot of people in the park feel that way. They just give up,” McLeod said. “There’s such a thing as active suicide, or passive suicide. We just say, ‘I don’t want to live anymore.’”

Saunders, in a letter to the city, said the rent hikes are needed to keep up with an increase in property taxes and the costs of operating the mobile home park, which he says have “significantly exceeded its revenues.”

Council members at their next meeting will discuss the possibility of temporary rent control — which they called a “moratorium” — in mobile home parks citywide while the city uses that time to figure out a permanent solution. They’ll also discuss a possible rental assistance program using the city’s leftover federal money.

Flory’s request to discuss the temporary rent control at the next meeting was approved 4-1 with Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald opposed. Councilman Ahmad Zahra’s request to discuss the rental assistance program was approved unanimously.

But council members won’t be approving any policy at the Aug. 6 meeting. Instead, if they decide on either the temporary rent increase ban or the rental assistance program, they’ll direct staff to come back at a future meeting with a possible ordinance.

While Flory and Zahra were in favor of intervening in some way on behalf of the Rancho La Paz residents, they had different ideas of how to do so.

Zahra said he was skeptical about a rent control ordinance, arguing that since the mobile home park is sliced by the city’s border with Anaheim, residents on the Anaheim side wouldn’t see any relief under a Fullerton policy and perhaps their situation, as a result of an ordinance, would be exacerbated under Saunders.

And Flory said she was skeptical of the rental assistance program, arguing the city didn’t have enough information to act on it July 16 and favored looking into the temporary rent control.

Council members Bruce Whitaker and Fitzgerald said they were skeptical about the city getting involved in private business.

After Flory motioned for staff to study the temporary rent control, Fitzgerald turned to her and said: “You are interfering with the property rights and business operation of six mobile home parks (that operate in Fullerton), because you’re not satisfied with the actions of one mobile home park.”

Flory, looking back at Fitzgerald, responded: “I take responsibility for that.” There was applause from the audience.

Around 30 people — most of them Rancho La Paz residents — spoke to the Council July 16, asking the Council to intervene. They also publicly condemned Saunders, accusing him of seeking large profit to see returns on his investment in the property.

Rancho La Paz resident June Perez, who was on the mobile home tenant committee that negotiated the rollout of the rent increases with Saunders, said they met personally with him on at least five occasions.

“John Saunders (said) several times that he wanted to frontload the rate in order to recoup his investment in two-and-a-half years,” Perez said. People in the audience shook their heads and laughed. “This group of tenants will need substantial subsidies in order to stay in their homes.”

Saunders is offering tenants his own rental subsidy program, which his consultant Peter Wittingham said during the meeting Saunders is funding himself.

According to a city staff report, a single person household can’t make over $41,500 annually to qualify for Saunders’ subsidy. Also, an applicant’s net assets can’t be higher than $200,000 — including a retirement account. The mobile home isn’t included in the program’s definition of assets.

Flory publicly asked Wittingham why Saunders wouldn’t include his own subsidy program as a provision on tenants’ lease agreements, effectively making the subsidy more legally binding.

“I can’t imagine why you would object to doing that,” she said.

“There are other issues dealing with the financing of the park,” Wittingham responded. “Without going too far into the weeds, Mr. Saunders has several loans that facilitated the purchase of this park.”

Wittingham argued that in other mobile home parks where Saunders offers his own subsidy program, he’s provided the programs for multiple years and continued to offer assistance.

He added that putting Saunders’ subsidy commitment into a lease “is something that I believe for a variety of reasons is not doable.”

“Doesn’t sound good enough to me,” Flory said, to more applause.

Other mobile home park owners in the city showed up to object to the Council adopting an ordinance that would impact them as well, but also criticized Saunders.

Susan James, a managing member of Rancho Fullerton Mobile Home Estates, said over the past five years “our rent increase has been between $10 to $30.”

“Due to the recent increases at Rancho La Paz, our residents have become nervous about our community. We have no plans to sell our family business,” James said.

She added that although the rent increases in Rancho La Paz are cause for concern, the Council should explore other alternatives “prior to carrying out rent control — like long term leases, assistance programs and city funded programs.”

“Rent control should be the last resort,” she said.

Residents on the Anaheim portion of Rancho La Paz showed up at the Anaheim City Council meeting July 16 to criticize the Council for tabling the issue indefinitely.

“Do you know how this affected our neighbors? I have a 90-year-old veteran sitting on my couch crying” because of the rent increases, Rancho La Paz resident Lupe Ramirez said to the Council during public comment.

Resident Cheryl Moi compared the two city councils at the Anaheim meeting, praising Councilmembers Denise Barnes and Jose Moreno while lambasting the rest.

“I’m sorry, but I think this whole council is a disgrace. There are two members when they talk, they talk about people, citizens, veterans and children,” Moi Said. “The rest of you, when you talk its about buildings and money. You’re supposed to be here for the people.”

At the Fullerton meeting, Rancho La Paz resident Todd Harrison urged the Council during public comment to look at the “human toll” of whatever decision they end up making.

“You have before you, I hope, ample reports … and our personal stories,” he said to the Council.

“My time is up,” he added, “in more ways than one.”

Staff writer Spencer Custodio contributed reporting.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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