“Santa Ana is resilient, it respects and defends itself,” Rosa Pizano declares. She is seated at her kitchen table in Santa Ana’s Country Club Mobile Home Park. Pizano, in her late-60s, has a petite frame and warm smile. Floral wallpaper lines the walls of her kitchen.
Pizano is a leader with Manufactured Housing Action, a national movement of manufactured home community residents and allies fighting to protect the affordability and quality of their communities. I had started interning with MHAction in the summer of 2021 with a focus on mobile home organizing in California. The fight for a rent control ordinance in Santa Ana soon proved to be a campaign with implications for manufactured home owners across the state.
Pizano has been in the fight for two decades. A resident of her mobile home park since 1993, Pizano began organizing for rent stabilization and tenants’ rights in her community in 2001.
Twenty years later, on the evening of October 19, 2021, the City Council of Santa Ana passed citywide rent control and just cause eviction ordinances that would include mobile homes. These historic laws were passed with a 4-3 vote after more than a decade of organizing by manufactured home owners and housing justice advocates. The rent stabilization ordinance caps rent hikes at three percent per year or eighty percent of the percent change in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. Furthermore, in the case of evictions, owners, which includes owners of not just apartments and residences but also owners of mobile home parks, are now mandated to provide three months of relocation assistance or waive payments of rent for the final three months of tenancy. The laws officially went into effect on November 19, 2021.
Pizano recalled providing testimony at the city council meetings, with some public commenting sessions lasting until three or four o’clock in the morning. “We were so tired, but it was very exciting,” she told me over an interpreted Zoom call. “We are hoping the law will be approved, even though we had three votes against and four in favor. We will continue with marches and show up to the city council.”
While celebratory in tone, Pizano sounded more determined than relieved. This is because the apartment associations and landlord groups opposed to the rent control and eviction protection ordinances – organized under the name Santa Ana for Fair & Equitable (SAFE) Housing – have mobilized since the October 19 vote; at the time of our interview, the opposition was collecting signatures from Santa Ana residents in an effort to force the city council to reconsider its decision. They claimed that the city council hastily approved the new ordinances without sufficient public outreach.
If the opposition had gathered approximately 12,000 verified voter signatures by November 21, 2021, the city council would have been required to either review the status of the ordinances or place them on the ballot. As of now – January 2022 – the ordinances are safe from repeal efforts. However, SAFE Housing is now looking to file complaints about the city council allegedly violating state public meeting law during its deliberations on rent stabilization. The future of Santa Ana rent control – and its enforcement – remains unclear.
Santa Ana’s rent stabilization and just cause eviction ordinances, the first of their kind to extend protections specifically to manufactured home owners, are crucial to safeguarding the city’s affordable housing. The fight for rent control must continue.
With a population of over 300,000, Santa Ana is the second-largest city in southern California’s Orange County. Home to many immigrant communities and first-generation Americans, the population is approximately 75 percent Latine and 14 percent Asian.
While Orange County is considered to be one of southern California’s most affluent areas, Santa Ana diverges from this image. According to Santa Ana Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, the median household income in Orange County is about $96,000. However, the median income per household in Santa Ana is significantly lower, at about $70,000. The share of people in poverty in Santa Ana is higher than that of both Los Angeles and California as a whole. Nearly 60 percent of the city consists of renters. “We’re more similar to Los Angeles than we are to the rest of Orange County,” Phan maintained. While AB 1482, passed in 2019, enshrined into the law anti-rent gouging and eviction protections, the statewide law did not cover manufactured home communities.
Manufactured homes, the technical name for mobile homes, are factory-built homes that meet a nationwide performance standard under the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because of this off-site production, one of the most distinctive features of manufactured housing is its affordability – in fact, manufactured homes serve as the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country. While residents own their physical homes, they rent the plot of land their homes stand on. Retirees and seniors on fixed incomes have traditionally been the main target population of manufactured housing, but in recent years, a greater proportion of low-income immigrants, especially Latine communities, have come to live in manufactured home parks. Santa Ana currently has 28 manufactured home communities. Ward 1, which Phan oversees, is home to both a robust Vietnamese American community and the greatest number of mobile home parks in the city.
“[Since] AB 1482 does not apply to mobile home parks, I felt that it was very important to ensure we have protections for mobile home park residents… Many of them, if not most of them, are seniors who are on fixed incomes. And when I was campaigning and visiting the mobile home parks, that was the only thing they wanted to talk to me about,” Phan recalled. “Many of these seniors are Vietnamese Americans, who are like myself, immigrants and refugees who came here and bought into the American dream.”
To communities like Pizano’s, the new law signifies a “big relief,” given that Kingsley Corporation, the owner of Country Club Mobile Home Park, was increasing annual rent at the rate of 75 dollars a year. With the new cap on rent hikes set at three percent, she is confident that she will now be able to bear the brunt of rent increases.
Qui Vuong, a senior resident of the Bali Hi Mobile Home Park, is an organizer and leader within Santa Ana’s Vietnamese community, serving as the president of Bali Hi’s homeowners’ association. Vuong moved to Bali Hi six years ago with his late wife. While living in a mobile home park was viewed as an affordable option, Vuong was soon confronted with the exorbitant costs of healthcare and rising rent prices.
“After we moved in here, we got devastated by healthcare. Open heart quadruple bypass surgery for me, and [my wife] developed cancer… So as a result of that, my situation got from worse to worse,” he recollected. While he and his wife ended up receiving government subsidies for healthcare, Vuong described the challenges he faced with the “benefits cliff,” or the catch-22 where one cannot afford to make more money because of the risk of surpassing the threshold for receiving government benefits.
While manufactured home parks have traditionally been owned by “mom-and-pop” enterprises, over the past 20 years, large corporations and private equity firms have constituted a large portion of community ownership. These private equity firms and institutional investors have found a stable source of revenue in manufactured homes, given their limited maintenance costs.
To both Vuong and Pizano, the problems resulting from the corporate buy-up of manufactured home communities extend beyond rent gouging.
According to Vuong, the economics of vulnerable seniors living on fixed incomes without reasonable “cost of living” protections is unconscionable, fraught with its own potential unwanted consequences for communities, while leaving “for profit” landlords plenty of room for abuse. He explained, “If you stack on top the politics of corruption and misinformation, and then the dynamics of clear conflicts of interest, unchecked mismanagement, multi-dimensional senior abuse, inadvertent housing gouging, wrongful evictions, and harassment, all realities leading to ultimate homelessness, that’s quite a loaded package for local communities and its taxpayers to have to eventually bail out.”
Vuong continued, “I see all these vulnerable seniors thinking, ‘How am I going to be able to make rent’s meet next month if they raise the rent again?’ I watch my poor neighbors tighten their belts, suffer an unnecessary mental and physical toll that leads to failing health… and my heart breaks. We are paying rent! We are trying to keep up the best we can. A rent stabilization ordinance for all seniors living on fixed income enacted by the city of Santa Ana and any other forward-thinking municipalities across the country would make sense as the first line of self-defense.”
To Pizano, the biggest challenge of living in Country Club Mobile Home Park has been the manager’s harassment and tactics of intimidation towards the park’s residents, especially when it comes to letters of eviction. Furthermore, many of the materials given to the residents, including park rules and leases, are in English and not in Spanish, which is the primary language spoken by residents. “We want a rule where the manager can only stay for five years. We demand fair and peaceful treatment. We demand receipts of payments. We demand Kingsley Corporation to be more conscious and treat people more equally,” she exclaimed.
Santa Ana’s new rent control and eviction protection ordinances, along with the debates and tensions they have spawned, reflect a greater housing crisis across the state of California and the country. According to NPR, the country is nearly 4 million homes short of demand, with the national housing shortage being especially acute for starter homes. In California, the median price of a home has eclipsed $800,000, and one in four rental households pay more than half of their pretax income on rent. In Santa Ana alone, the average unit for rent is almost $1,900 a month (for reference, the national average is approximately $1,100/month). Rent control is only part of the solution to the housing crisis.
“I was always really ambivalent about rent control,” Phan admitted. “On one hand, it protects people who are already in homes. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of conversation around how it lowers the supply and hurts newcomers… I do believe that the ultimate solution to the housing crisis is increasing supply.” Yet, after conducting much research and witnessing widespread evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Phan was able to reconcile her initial ambivalence.
“Rent control is what I consider part of a holistic approach to housing affordability,” she explained. “There was, in fact, one specific conversation that flipped a switch in my head. It was also during COVID-19 because we saw when folks were afraid of what would happen if they got evicted and couldn’t afford rent… supply will solve the housing crisis in the long run. But even the fastest housing development takes three to five years, right? People need help now.”
Phan continued, “It really made me think about how our house is on fire. When your house is on fire, you don’t start talking about the materials you need to use as fire retardant to rebuild the house or make it stronger, you just put out the fire. And to me, that’s what rent stabilization does for our community.”
What’s more, the fight for rent stabilization in Santa Ana has historically been immigrant-led. When asked when the community organizing behind the ordinances started, Phan recalled senior mobile home park residents, most of whom were Vietnamese American, lobbying the city council to help them out back in the early 2000s. More recently, a coalition of organizations, including Tenants United Santa Ana and VietRise, made numerous attempts to collect signatures in favor of rent stabilization being put up for a vote by the city council. Their efforts finally succeeded in September of 2021.
Despite the uncertainties around the law’s enforcement, Phan is looking towards the future. One of her major goals is to pass an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which would entail that whenever someone builds a residential unit, a certain percentage would have to qualify as affordable to those with low to moderate incomes. “I’m still looking at other potential options in the future, whether it’s private-public partnerships to build workforce housing, mixed family or mixed income housing—it’s really all on the table,” she explained.
Luckily, California is a hotbed for affordable housing advocacy. In 2020, state legislators introduced AB 2405, which would establish a “right to housing” mandate for families and children at risk of falling into homelessness. And while the Housing is a Human Right Act, which would amend the state constitution to “ensure access to adequate housing for all Californians,” did not initially move far in the legislature, the possibility of a constitutional amendment is still on the table for 2022. At the local level, groups like Oakland-based Moms4Housing, a group of homeless women and children who took over a vacant home in West Oakland to protest rampant real estate speculation leaving properties empty amid a housing crisis, have taken direct action to claim their human right to housing.
There is hope that the city of Santa Ana can serve as a model for the rest of the state. Vuong hopes that others will look towards Santa Ana and say, “They decided that kicking the can down the road is no longer acceptable. And they can try something bold and are going to do something different.”
Going forward, there is still much work to be done in the realm of affordable housing in Santa Ana. If there is anything that the rent control and just cause eviction campaign in Santa Ana has taught us, it is that cities and local organizers must take action when state and federal governments do not.
“Having a roof is a right,” Pizano declared at the end of our interview. “I don’t like the way things are turning in the country. So many people have no place to live. They’re living in tents. And if this landlord continues exploiting us, we will join these people.”
Isabelle Rhee is a writer and storyteller from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Rhee is a senior at Yale University and was involved in affordable housing advocacy in Santa Ana as the California Community Organizer with Manufactured Housing Action.
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