This is the second part of a two-part series. Read part one here.
Dozens of homeowners may soon lose their Marin homes. Not to foreclosure or wildfire or rising sea levels.
Residents of the RV Park of San Rafael say they will lose their affordable housing due to the greed of Harmony Communities, a property management company hired last summer by the long-time owner of the park, Donna Chessen, who is in her mid-80s.
Harmony, which owns or manages 33 properties in California and Oregon, is threatening to close the San Rafael park, displacing the homeowners and their families—in total, more than 100 people. Residents recently received an unsigned letter from Harmony, which stated, “The reality is the land is worth much more than operating an RV park for affordable housing.”
Harsh words, especially from a company that touts their dedication to affordable housing. Matthew Davies, founder of Harmony Communities, “is trying to solve one of the most pressing issues of our time: lack of affordable housing,” according to his company’s website.
On Aug. 1, Davies’ company sent eviction letters to one-third of the San Rafael park’s residents.
The basis for Harmony’s mass eviction is related to health and safety code violation letters issued to 15 park residents by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) on July 19 after a June 28 inspection of the park by an HCD employee.
The Pacific Sun obtained copies of the HCD letters, which showed some violations could be addressed by simply removing an awning, while others would require more work, such as moving a structure six feet from a neighboring one. The department gave the residents eight weeks to correct any violations, with the deadline looming this week. The HCD’s goal is park safety, but the agency doesn’t require the eviction of residents for non-compliance.
Yet, a Pacific Sun review of 15 letters Harmony sent to residents with violations, showed the eviction proceedings began more than three weeks prior to the HCD’s correction deadline. What’s the hurry?
The eviction notices included a copy of the HCD violation notice, which could have confused some residents, by making it look like the public agency is endorsing the evictions.
Since Harmony took over the park, residents say they dread opening their mailboxes for fear of receiving another eviction notice, a new set of restrictive park rules or the official park closure letter. Five families recently left their homes behind, defeated by the constant pressure from Harmony, according to other park residents.
Enham Leveille, regional manager for Harmony Communities, disputes the residents’ claim, instead placing the responsibility for the vacancies with the HCD.
“These vacancies are the result of a California state agency (the Department of Housing and Community Development) inspecting the resident-owned structures that were on these lots, and finding serious health and safety violations which could cause injury, illness or death for the structures’ inhabitants or the other residents of the park,” Leveille said. “These lots are now vacant because a public agency enforced the state’s health and safety laws.”
It’s curious that Harmony has left these lots vacant, while at the same time crying poor to justify a recent attempt to raise the rents by 18%.
The park residents are likely being used as pawns in Harmony’s battle with the City of San Rafael. Last year, Harmony raised the monthly rent from $550 to $650—almost seven times higher than allowed by the city’s rent stabilization ordinance. To force Harmony to comply with the ordinance, the city filed a lawsuit and won a preliminary injunction, stopping the $100 a month rent hike per space. The litigation continues.
Harmony’s basic contention in the ongoing legal proceedings is that the RV Park of San Rafael isn’t a mobile home park, since most of the vehicles in the park are RVs, and therefore residents are not subject to the mobile home rent stabilization ordinance.
However, Civil Code Section 798.3(b)(2) defines a trailer or other recreational vehicle as a mobile home if it occupies a mobile home site in a park for nine or more continuous months. The homes in the San Rafael park meet that definition, according to a 2004 Marin Superior Court ruling, before Chessen even bought the property.
While the City of San Rafael is able to fight Harmony on violating the rent stabilization ordinance, the city’s attorneys do not represent the park residents. The RV Park of San Rafael houses low-income families, disabled persons, immigrants and seniors—vulnerable people who are in need of legal representation.
Alex, 70, has lived at the RV Park of San Rafael for 22 years. Although Alex is disabled, he’s the primary caregiver for his 95-year-old mother, who lives with him.
“I’m being harassed by Harmony,” Alex said. “They sent me four letters that I have to be out of here. We don’t have the resources to go anywhere.”
If the park closes, the homes owned by the residents, in most cases, will become virtually worthless. Mobile homes aren’t, in fact, very mobile. They’re expensive to move and are easily damaged in the process. Vacancies in mobile home parks are scarce, leaving mobile homeowners at the whim of park owners, who can ratchet up rents. These are some of the reasons 86 cities, including San Rafael, and nine counties in California have rent stabilization ordinances for mobile home parks.
Some residents have been scraping together small amounts of money to consult with Bruce Stanton, a leading attorney in California mobile home law. Until Harmony or Chessen give official notice about the park closure, the residents are left in legal limbo.
“The park owner has been acrimonious to the city,” Stanton said in an interview. “And the city is going to come down hard. The owner is like a wounded animal, lashing out in every direction.”
In the same letter to residents that threatened the park closure, Harmony condemned the City of San Rafael for failing to work with the company on raising rents. Harmony can request a rate increase higher than allowed by the ordinance but, oddly, hasn’t done so.
“The headline here is that the city’s actions are about to put 45 low-income households into an extremely precarious situation,” Leveille, Harmony’s regional manager, wrote in an email. “The city has driven the park to the brink of insolvency and now 45 San Rafael households are about to be scrambling to find housing.”
Harmony’s letter about the closure didn’t provide a timeframe or process. However, Leveille disclosed some specifics last week to the Pacific Sun.
“The official closure process will be initiated in 7 to 10 days,” Leveille said on Aug. 15. “[Chessen’s] understanding of California state law is that the process will take approximately one year, so we expect the park to close in 2023.” (As of the Pacific Sun’s Aug. 23 print deadline, Harmony had not begun the process.)
Still, the residents aren’t giving up that easily. They are organizing, scheduling informational meetings with experts and meeting with tenants’ rights organizations. We’ll be watching this David versus Goliath story.