By Cassandra GaribayORDER REPRINT→
Residents of the Trails End Mobile Home Park voted to become the first mobile home park community in Fresno to implement a rent control committee in more than a decade on Thursday night, using an ordinance the city first implemented in 1988.
Creating a rent control committee is one of the steps the residents are taking to protect themselves against the imminent sale of the mobile home park to Harmony Communities, a property management corporation with a well-documented history of steep rent increases and strict policies that can lead to evictions.
“It’s amazing that residents are going to have this protection,” said California Rural Legal Assistance lawyer Mariah Thompson, who represents some of the residents. “They are going to be looking to the city to help them use this protection.”
Dozens of Trails End residents also signed a petition to stop the sale and for the court to allow them to form a cooperative and purchase the park.
Residents say they want to prevent future mismanagement of the park, which in the past led to two destructive fires in April and June 2021, leaving one person dead and several others displaced, leading to the September appointment of the California Receivership Group.
Now, residents say they are opposed to the sale of the park to Harmony Communities. The judge, however, already approved a working contract with Matt Davies, the president of Harmony Communities, to make repairs to the park. The final decision on the sale will be made by the court on March 30.
Citing past promises by Mayor Jerry Dyer and Councilmember Gary Bredefeld to protect the mobile home park back when the fires took place, a group of the mobile home park’s residents who are represented by California Rural Legal Assistance demanded that the city step in to stop the sale to Harmony Communities.
“The City can ensure that affordable housing is protected in Fresno by ensuring the park buyers have the best interest of the community in mind and will not unreasonably increase rents,” stated Thompson in an email correspondence between CRLA and city officials.
“The City believes it’s best to leave the confirmation of the sale to the sound discretion of the court,” the city’s response to Thompson, written by City Attorney Doug Sloan and Christina Roberson, assistant city attorney, reads. “The City of Fresno has participated in 18 petitions for receivership through discharge of the receiver, and we have never been dissatisfied with the court’s decision.”
Councilmember Gary Bredefeld’s office forwarded the city’s response to Fresnoland without additional comments.
Mark Adams, the president of the California Recievership Group, said Harmony Communities has years of experience and he is “confident” they can do the job well. He also said he will remain on the job for as long as it takes to ensure that price gouging won’t occur.
The City Council is set to discuss the sale in closed session during the March 24 meeting, according to Thompson’s letter to city officials.
Many Trails End residents are concerned about the park being sold to Harmony Communities because of their track record both in and outside of Fresno County.
Harmony Communities is a Stockton-based property management company that owns and operates 55 mobile home parks across three states, often under many different names – though their practices of rent increases are consistent across many of their parks.
In Fresno County, Shady Lakes Mobile Home Park residents are currently in a lawsuit with Harmony Communities because of a 72% rent hike from 2019 to 2021. The increase was so great that for a period of time, County Board Supervisor Brain Pacheco considered proposing a countywide rent control ordinance for mobile home parks.
This experience with Harmony Communities is not unique to the Fresno area.
Harmony Communities did not respond to requests to comment. The California Recivership Group however defended Harmony Communities.
“From my point of view it’s fear mongering by someone that is trying to throw mud at someone that I feel is credible,” Adams said of CRLA.
Also on Thursday evening, three dozen or so residents gathered in a circle of assorted folding and dining room chairs at the center of the mobile home park to discuss the potential of buying the park themselves.
“(Harmony Communities) purchase the community, they tell you that they are going to put in a ton of money to better your community, they’re going to make it a place that you will be proud of,” Thompson said. “Then they raise the rent and raise the rent and raise the rent.”
Thompson told community members that Harmony Communities has told CRLA that the market rate rent for mobile home parks in Fresno is in the high $600 range, but that Harmony Communities has not specified how much they would charge if the sale goes through.
Harmony Communities had implemented rules, including preventing people from having dogs outside, even if they have a fence, Thompson said from experience in other communities.
She then explained that the Trails End residents she represents are hoping to form a cooperative, buy the park, and set the rents themselves.
“We just want the judge and the city to give our clients even just the opportunity to explore it (community ownership), not to just buy the park tomorrow,” Thompson said, adding that the tenant group would work with Resident Owned Communities USA, which has helped about 300 communities purchase and manage their mobile home parks.
The park residents at the meeting also conducted a show-of-hands vote to implement a rent control committee – which seven residents immediately volunteered to sit on.
“Everybody deserves a safe place and a roof over our head. That’s the bare minimum that we deserve at a rate we can all afford,” said one woman, who requested anonymity because she moved to Trails End after fleeing a domestic violence situation. “We obviously live in a trailer park for a reason.”
The woman is one of the community members who volunteered for the committee. She said she has lived at the park for two years, currently rents her mobile home, but is in the process of trying to buy the mobile home from her landlord. She is invested in the community, and beyond the rent control committee hopes that the mobile home park residents are able to purchase the park themselves, she said.
“I feel like Matt Davies (Harmony Communities’ president) is trying to come in and destroy what little these people have, just to make a profit,” she said.
Under Fresno’s rent control ordinance, residents at mobile home parks can create a rent review committee to review or deny a landlord’s rent increases if the property owner tries to increase rent beyond 75% of the annual change in the area’s consumer price index.
While that number changes annually, mobile home park rents would not be able to increase more than 5.7% in Fresno as of January 2022 without review when a mobile home park has a rent control committee in place.
If the sale goes through, Trails End residents could draw upon this ordinance, which is a protection that was not afforded to Shady Lake residents.
However, the ordinance hasn’t been enacted in years, and the City Council appointed a person to sit on the Mobile Home Park Commission board for the first time in more than a decade only one week ago.
Thompson said that given Harmony Communities’ past history of suing El Monte over their rent control ordinance, the city should prepare for the same to take place in Fresno.
According to Addams however, Davies has no intent to challenge Fresno’s rent control oridnance.
While the Trails End Mobile Home Park has been the subject of media attention and the driving force behind mobile home park code enforcement changes in Fresno, many residents say they feel they’ve been left in the dark about what is happening.
“There’s never a moment’s rest,” said Crystal Plascencia,who takes care of her uncle who lives at the park. “There’s so many things flying around over there at the trailer park; nobody knows what’s right, what’s wrong. Nobody explains anything.”
Plascencia said she is concerned for her uncle who lives below the poverty line. Her uncle lost his trailer to the June 2021 fire and has been unable to get answers on whether he will be reimbursed in any way.
“He lost everything, everything,” Plasencia said. “He just wants his house.”
He has been staying at another mobile home at what Plascencia referred to as “Devil’s End,” but is unsure if he will be able to afford it once a new owner takes over, she said.
Kim Sands lives in one of the two trailers sandwiched between where the 2021 fires took place. She hasn’t had gas in her trailer since then and has been told by the receiver for months that they are working on restoring gas. For now, she goes over to her uncle’s mobile home for hot water or to boil water on the electric stove.
“I thought by Christmas I’d have hot water,” Sand said.
Another resident, Franquez, who asked that only her last name be used for fear of retaliation from the potential new owners, said she has owned her home at the park for the past 19 years. She, too, she said, has heard concerns about Harmony Communities, specifically regarding their policies on what people are allowed to have outside their homes and rent increases.
“We don’t know what to do now,” Franquez said in Spanish. “It feels like our hands are tied.”
Several residents have already received seven-day notices to correct violations or face eviction.
The woman who volunteered for the rent control committee said she received a notice of violation for having wind chimes, potted plants, and tools in her front yard.
Jonathan Chin, another resident, received a seven-day notice to fix violations or be evicted. He said he rents his home from a landlord who also lives at the park and is concerned that his landlord will not come into compliance before the seven days.
“I just feel like the people here in the park are still not heard,” Chin said. “I really don’t feel like the city is here to help.”
This article has beeen updated with comments from the president of the California Recievership Group, Mark Adams.
This story was originally publishedMarch 18, 2022 1:50 PM.