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Residents living at the Rancho La Paz senior mobile home park will have to rely on subsidies provided by the property owner, instead of rent control measures, to help manage incoming rent increases that many said will be too expensive for them. 

Fullerton Councilwoman Jan Flory, who previously pushed for the six-month rent control ordinance that would limit mobile home park rent increases to three percent annually, said she met with property owner John Saunders and his consultant Peter Whittingham Monday, which led to Saunders making some compromises. 

“We wrestled for an hour and a half over these issues,” Flory said at Tuesday’s Council meeting. “We wrestled about smoothing the rent increases because they’re onerous.” 

The Council unanimously voted to receive and file the proposed ordinance Tuesday so a Councilmember can bring it back at a later date if the concessions made by Saunders don’t work out for the Rancho La Paz residents. 

“Mr. Saunders agreed to keep the rental subsidy program in place for at least six years,” Flory said, adding that the park will stay a seniors-only mobile home park for at least five years and mobile home sales will be approved or denied within 10 business days. 

Saunders will fund the subsidy program and it will be administered through the Mobile Home Educational Trust.

The details were summarized in bullet points of a brief email sent to Flory by Saunders roughly 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, two hours before the regular portion of the meeting started. 

But Rancho La Paz residents weren’t sold on Saunders’ promises. 

“His actions speak much louder than his words,” Todd Harrison said during public comment. 

In the past, Saunders went through similar battles over mobile home park rent increases in Huntington Beach.

The Huntington Beach City Council approved a ballot measure in 2014 that would’ve enacted rent control in mobile home parks, but withdrew it after Saunders ironed out new leases with tenants, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“My time is up in more ways than one,” Harrison said. 

“My plan B is pretty much reduced to these,” he said, holding up a lottery ticket. 

Seniors have been lobbying both Fullerton and Anaheim city councils since March because Rancho La Paz straddles the border of the two cities. 

Saunders bought the property in February and the property tax increased from $100,000 to $800,000 a year. 

According to a letter from Saunders in the Fullerton City Council agenda report, rents will go up 19 percent Oct. 1 and will increase another 19 percent Oct. 1, 2020. In 2021, the rent will increase 15 percent and after that rents will increase 9 percent annually until 2024. 

Harrison, who currently pays $670 a month, will see his rent increase to $797 Oct. 1 and will be $948 beginning Oct. 1, 2020. By 2024, his rent will be $1,413 a month, a 111-percent increase. 

According to information attached to the Fullerton City Council July 16 agenda, a single person household can’t make over $41,500 annually to qualify for the subsidy. And 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. 

During council remarks before public comment, Flory warned residents that if the Council were to adopt the temporary rent control ordinance, Saunders would cancel his rent subsidy program that he’s going to fund. 

“If we were to effectuate this interim moratorium tonight … he would withdraw the subsidy program. That would hurt nobody but the tenants. So it was sort of like a sword of Damocles. And the kicker is this, that if we were to enact this ordinance and have the first reading tonight, we would be thrown into a pile of litigation,” Flory said, adding the ordinance likely can’t be retroactive since Saunders gave the official notice of rent increases July 1. 

Flory shared the email with Voice of OC and it stated the stipulations, including keeping the subsidy program for six years, will remain “for so long as no rent stabilization or similar measure is enacted.” 

The email also said the stipulations will apply to the roughly 390 mobile homes in the entire park, not just the Fullerton side. 

Some Councilmembers also said they would like the city to create a rental assistance fund through various grants the city receives — the assistance fund is expected to be discussed at the Aug. 20 meeting. 

Councilman Ahmad Zahra said he was disappointed with the direction of the City Council. 

“I don’t know if I have any words. I’m disappointed — I’m heartbroken,” Zahra said during Council deliberations. “I know that there’s a lot of distrust so I wanted to make sure we have our own rental assistance program for seniors of mobile home parks.”

Councilman Bruce Whitaker said the city should look at using a portion of state funding aimed at alleviating and preventing homelessness for the rental assistance program. 

“I think the most promise is looking at the homeless prevention efforts,” Whitaker said. “A share of that needs to be appropriated to help prevent homeless situations, particularly for those on fixed incomes.” 

Rents were originally going to increase June 1 and some residents said they were facing up to a $400 increase at the time. 

But Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu along with Councilmen Stephen Faessel and Trevor O’Neil met with Saunders in late March and were able to delay the rent increases and initiate negotiation talks between residents and Saunders. 

The rent increase schedule is the result of those negotiations, with a retired Orange County Superior Court judge serving as an arbitrator. 

The Anaheim City Council decided to indefinitely table a similar six-month rent control ordinance for mobile home parks April 16 after an hours-long meeting. 

Some seniors who spoke during public comment Tuesday noted differences between the two city councils. 

When Anaheim and Fullerton city councils discussed the possibility of rent control at their respective April 2 meetings, Anaheim Councilmembers fought with each other and immediately moved to postpone the rent control ordinance while Fullerton Councilmembers directed staff to look into a variety of possible solutions, including a temporary rent control ordinance and a rental assistance fund. 

Rancho La Paz senior Cheryl Moi, who lives on the Anaheim side of the park, said she appreciated efforts by Fullerton Councilmembers, but was disappointed about relying on Saunders instead of a temporary rent control ordinance. 

Moi has helped organize Rancho La Paz residents since March. 

Numerous Rancho La Paz residents, since March, have told Voice of OC Anaheim Councilmembers Denise Barnes and Jose Moreno have visited the park regularly. 

Barnes was in the audience to watch the Fullerton meeting Tuesday evening. 

“I came here tonight to thank you all for caring about us. Because it’s been so obvious, I’ve been to all the Anaheim Council Meetings, and five of them don’t give a shit about us — and two of them really help us. We had our hopes set on you guys,” Moi said. 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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