Pay to play?

Pub date April 8, 2009
WriterTim Redmond

Fiona Ma, the California Assembly Member from the west side of San Francisco, has introduced a bill that would limit rent controls on trailer parks — something of a stretch for a district that has no mobile homes and for a politician who has never shown any past interest in the issue.

But several months before she introduced the bill, Ma received $6,200 in campaign contributions from one of the leading mobile home landlord groups.

Assembly Bill 481, introduced Feb. 24, would make it easier for the owners of mobile home parks to raise rents on units that are either sublet or not occupied year-round. It’s one of two major bills the park owners are pushing this year. The other, AB 761, by Assembly Member Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), would eliminate vacancy control in parks and allow rents to rise every time a space becomes empty.

Rent control in California mobile home parks is unusual. Trailer residents typically own their units but must pay rent to the park owner for the land beneath them. So mobile home owners — many of them seniors and low-income people — are actually tenants.

Under current law, local rent control ordinances apply to those trailer parks, keeping the cost of living there relatively low. However, the law allows park owners to raise the rent on trailers that function as vacation homes — that are not a principal residence for the owner and aren’t rented to somebody else.

Ma’s bill would make it easier to define a mobile home as a second residence and would eliminate the provision that protects sublets.

Advocates for mobile home residents have vowed to fight the bill. "In mobile home parks, the park owners have hugely disparate power over residents, most of whom are low income and over 60," David Grabill, an affordable housing advocate and attorney for the Coalition of Mobile Homeowners-California, told us. "Park owners also look for any hook or crook way to get a space out from under rent control or squeeze more rent out of the residents. Residents can’t move their homes, can’t afford to move themselves, and can’t afford lawyers to protect their rights.

"This bill would give park owners a whole new way to threaten and intimidate residents."

Ma insists that her only goal is to promote affordable housing. She told us that mobile homes in Malibu sell for millions of dollars, and that some are used entirely as second residences for wealthy people. "Rent control is supposed to be for low-income people," she said, arguing that if rich mobile homeowners lost their rent control protection, those units would be available for less wealthy people.

As for sublet homes, she said: "If the owners don’t need to live there, then they can afford to live somewhere else — and they don’t need rent control protection."

Ma at first said she took up the bill because she was on the Assembly Housing Committee and was looking for measures that would promote low-income housing. Calvin Welch, a San Francisco activist who has been working on affordable housing issues for decades, finds that a bit odd.

When Ma was a San Francisco supervisor, Welch told us, "she was missing in action on every significant affordable housing measure. Much of the time, she was on the other side."

When we pressed her, Ma acknowledged that the Western Manufactured Housing Committee, which represents park owners, spoke to her about the bill. The group’s Web site goes further, claiming that WMHC sponsored the Ma bill. And campaign finance records show that the WMHC political action committee gave Ma $4,200 on Oct. 27, 2008 and another $2,000 the next day.

Tim Sheahan, president of the Golden Gate Manufactured Home Owners League, which represents mobile home park tenants, told us Ma’s comments about million dollar homes are off the mark. "Sure, there are a few sensational anomalies. But that is no reflection on how most mobile homeowners live," he said.

And even if wealthier residents are forced to sell their homes, he noted, "the new residents will have to pay much higher rent. So there’s no way this adds to affordable housing."