Standing on a small bridge spanning a verdant creek in her Capitola mobile home park, Sheryl Coulston’s pride is evident as she points to the native plants recently added along the riparian corridor in ongoing beautification efforts.
Residents have similar restoration work planned at nine more areas along the creek, says Coulston. Coulston serves as board president at the resident-owned Brookvale Terrace Mobile Home Park, where she has lived since 1995.
“We love it,” Coulston says. “We bought our home here, and we care about taking care of it.”
Park residents celebrated the park’s 50th anniversary with a communal potluck on April 15.
“It’s a community, for sure,” Dolores Linville, a resident since 1999, says. “Looking out for neighbors, extending friendship, kindness, thoughtfulness between people.”
If someone is sick or recently had surgery, it’s common for neighbors to check in and bring them a meal. The small community resonates with that kind of care between neighbors, many of whom have lived there for decades.
But arguably the best aspect of life in Brookvale: as a resident-owned park, residents don’t pay rent.
Instead, they own and pay property tax on the land under their manufactured homes. Monthly homeowners’ fee goes towards groundskeeping, such as maintenance of the roads, clubhouse, swimming pool and other community-owned property.
“Even though we each own our land, I take great pride in the community grounds too,” Coulston says. “I care deeply because that makes our home a paradise.”
There are 23 resident-owned parks in Santa Cruz County, including Homestead Mobile Home Park on Brommer Street, which Brookvale Board Director Jerry Bowles says was the first in California.
On the other side of this coin are investor-owned parks, where residents own their homes but pay rent to the property owners.
One is Cabrillo Mobile Home Estates, a four-minute walk west of Brookvale. The small community of young families and seniors is in many respects similar to its neighbor, with one important distinction. Residents there face a 57% increase in their monthly rent—from $635 to $1000—when a 12-year rent cap negotiated by the city of Capitola expires on May 31.
A resident who asked to remain anonymous because they fear reprisals from the property owner—Santa Clara-based Vieira Enterprises, Inc.—says they are concerned the increase could force some residents out, many of whom are seniors on a fixed income.
The company has also implemented several onerous rules, such as considering a home abandoned if it sits unoccupied for four weeks. That’s a problem for seniors who might need to stay in the hospital for extended periods.
Vieira Enterprises did not respond to a request for comment.
Residents are now considering seeking rental assistance from organizations such as Families in Transition or the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
They will meet with Vieira next week, when they will express their concerns and get further information on the upcoming changes.
A patchwork of rental ordinances throughout Santa Cruz County help protect mobile home residents in some cases, but these vary by jurisdiction.
Santa Cruz County and the cities of Watsonville and Scotts Valley have their versions, says Henry Cleveland, who sits on the Santa Cruz County Manufactured Mobile Homes Commission.
The cities of Capitola and Santa Cruz abandoned their ordinances after legal challenges.
Santa Cruz’s fell in 2003 when Chicago-based Equity Lifestyles Properties—one of the largest owners of mobile home parks in the nation—sued.
Equity Lifestyles owns De Anza Santa Cruz Mobile Home Park, where residents under the previous agreement pay $700 monthly. New ones, however, are over $3,300.
At the time, residents were allowed to accept a 35-year lease under which their rent could only go up based on the Consumer Price Index.
But that offer did not apply to new owners. That means that selling an existing home comes with the disincentive of higher-than average rent and future increases.
In some cases, residents faced with rent increases give up and walk away from their homes. In these cases, the property owners buy the houses for little to nothing, allowing them to rent out the space and home without being burdened by rent control rules, Cleveland explains.
“What happens when there is no rent control and the investor-owned park owner raises the rent, it siphons money out of the local economy to the corporation or owner,” Cleveland says. “The money goes out of the county.”
Like Santa Cruz, Capitola abandoned its efforts to fight for rent control ordinances when property owners repeatedly sued.
“They said it violated their right to charge whatever rent they want,” Cleveland says.
The increase at Cabrillo Mobile Home Estates, then, is “entirely legal.”
In Watsonville, where roughly 10% of the population lives in mobile home parks, a voter-approved rent control ordinance protects residents. That ordinance was strengthened in 2018 when voters agreed to raise their monthly rent.
“For the residents of Watsonville, rent control is such an important issue that they increased taxes on themselves to defend it,” Cleveland says.
Residents of Pinto Lake Mobile Home Park in Watsonville successfully fended off a $150 increase in 2021 thanks to the voter-approved rental increase.
Protecting homeowners does more than help residents meet their living expenses.
With 80% of property value coming from homeowners, when rent is increased, it takes a bite out of overall property value.
But even in the jurisdictions that have instituted rent control—there are about 200 statewide—property owners can still petition in court to increase rent if they can prove they are no longer making a fair return on their investment.
They can also argue that, because of rent control limitations, they can no longer pay maintenance and operations expenses.
“In mobile home parks that don’t have rent stabilization systems, there are no restraints on how high rents can go,” Cleveland adds.
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend says the county boasts some of the most robust protections for mobile and manufactured home communities in the state. These have served as a model for other jurisdictions and helped shape state discussions around additional protections, he says.
“This type of housing is one of the most important affordable housing tools we have and it provides protections for seniors and others in essential ways,” he says.
In December 2022, Santa Cruz County Supervisors approved an ordinance that ties future rent increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than allowing annual 10% increases as was previously allowed under County Code.
The ordinance also requires a neutral third-party mediator to handle rent increase disputes.
Mobile home protections are gaining traction at the state level as well.
Senate Bill 940, authored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, allows local rent protection ordinances to apply to new construction.
Assembly Bill 1035—the Mobile Home Affordability Act—would prohibit park management from increasing rent by more than 3%, plus cost-of-living, in one year and no more than two increments.
It would also place restrictions on rent increases for new tenants.
But that bill, which would have taken effect in January 2024, has stalled for one year while a similar bill faces legal challenges.
Locally, the focus is on safeguarding current rental protections, Friend says.
“But these protections are constantly challenged, directly or indirectly, by some park owners that are focused less on ensuring people have a stable and affordable housing situation and more on profits,” he says. “The county is always willing to defend these protections and ideally we would see additional protections at the state level.”
BACK TO BROOKVALE
Initially inhabited by the Ohlone native people, the land under Brookvale Terrace was given to Maria Matina Castro Lodge in 1833 by the Mexican government as part of the Rancho Soquel land grant, according to “The History of Noble Gulch and Brookvale Terrace Mobile Home Park” by resident Stephanie Kirby.
Bowles says the park went through several owners before Abraham Keh purchased it.
Believing they could do a better job of taking care of the place—and not wanting to continue battling rent increases—the homeowners banded together and, in 1993, purchased it for $6.8 million with the help of a bond established by Capitola.
At the same time, they established the Brookvale Terrace Property Owners Association.
“The people here really love living here,” Linville says. “It’s friendly, the community is great, the location is wonderful, and you can’t beat the setting.”