The rent hikes are small but steady. Escondido's mobilehome rent control ordinance protects seniors and disabled residents from steep monthly increases; not the $10 kind.
However small, a routine bump in space rent can be felt by those who "haven't necessarily seen an increase in their fixed-income for many years," says Wayne Louth, the resident representative for Carefree Ranch senior park. Louth's rent has inched up "every year for over 10 years now." The latest was approved on Jul. 12 for $7.41.
The "short form" hikes began after the city steamlined the ordinance in 1997, allowing parks to apply for an annual increase tied to the consumer price index. Residents can object, and a majority can prompt the city council — which serves as the rent review board — to deny an increase. But since success hinges on showing up at the hearing, seniors and the disabled are at a disadvantage.
A grand jury coordinator has recommended the city make it easier for them to be heard. On Jun. 28, the council discussed changing the mobilehome rent review guidelines "to allow senior or disabled residents to oppose a short-form rent increase application by submitting a signed affidavit" in lieu of attending the hearing.
"There have been many hearings where we know there are seniors that, even if they're not disabled, are not comfortable driving at night," said councilmember Olga Diaz. Meetings can go on for hours. "And that is their challenge."
Louth says night-driving isn't the only problem. Many rent control hearings are set late in the agenda, "making seniors sit through two hours of nonsense just to have fifteen minutes of their say."
A few years ago, Louth says he brought in about twenty-eight written objections to a rent increase at his park and about twenty-eight personal appearances. "That did bring a stir for a few weeks, but simply was not counted," he says. "The guidelines state that there must be must be fifty percent plus one present."
Bruce Sims, another resident of Carefree Ranch Senior Park, isn't subject to short form increases since he's on a lease. "Mine can be higher," he says. But he was one of few who wrote in on the proposal, suggesting for one, a sworn declaration rather than an affidavit, since "many wanting to respond can't afford" the cost of notarization and travel.
Julie Paule, who represents park owners, said the proposal is "ripe for abuse." Their main objection is that it applies to all seniors. That puts park owners at a major disadvantage, she said. "Certainly not all seniors have a hardship to come to meetings."
Since 1997, the board has held hearings on 118 applications for rent hikes, 108 of which were short-form hearings.
The city says the short-form policy has reduced conflicts between park owners, residents and the city, which faced countless lawsuits under the original ordinance. All of that went away with the short-form policy.
Louth says that's because "most of the old timers on rent control have realized it's a lose-lose situation." If they protest and the council denies the increase, park owners can come back with the long-form request, he says. "The rent could then be raised many times over the original request, $100 or $200, whatever the owner feels."
Ever since the city adopted vacancy decontrol — which removes rent control from a space once it's vacant — the number of spaces under rent control has been shrinking. By 2008, about 1603 spaces were under rent control. In 2016, according to Assistant City Manager, Jay Petrek, that number had dropped to 1,503 such spaces.
Carefree Ranch now has 184 spaces with 77 under rent control and lost 43 regulated spaces in the past five years, Louth says. The average rent is now$505.37 for those on rent control. When a rent-controlled coach changes hands, "rent can jump $200 to $300."
But the ordinance also has a clause which states that only 20 percent of a park can be regular rentals, "so I'm not sure what's going to happen in the future," Louth says.
For now, objecting to rent increases won't get easier. City attorney Mike McGuinness said the city isn't obligated to make any changes associated with the grand jury coordinator's request for a review, and the council concluded that the guidelines don't need a fix.
Louth said he would've made use of the signed affidavit, however futile the process. Representing his park at the July 12 rent raise hearing, he said he wasn't opposing the latest increase due to the threat of the dreaded long form.
"I am hoping next year the park owner will have a big heart and not apply for an increase."