.San Rafael legal settlement keeps residents in their homes—for now

A settlement reached last month between the City of San Rafael and a mobile home park owner requires the park to remain open for the next decade, ending 16 months of litigation.

But residents, who own their homes and rent the lot underneath, remain fearful of becoming homeless. At first blush, their fears seem unfounded.

After all, the RV Park of San Rafael, home to about 90 primarily low-income residents, won’t be closing in October, as previously stated by the owners.

“The city has a continuing interest in affordable housing,” said attorney Michael von Loewenfeldt of Wagstaffe, von Loewenfeldt, Busch & Radwick, a firm representing the City of San Rafael. “A bargain was struck that provides the residents with a longer-term certainty than they might have had even if we won the lawsuit. The park could have closed this year or next.”

San Rafael negotiated other important tenant protections, too. A rent hike cap stays in place for current residents, limiting the annual increase to 75% of the local Consumer Price Index.

Residents who paid a contested rent increase of $100 per month from November 2021 through June 2022 will receive a refund.

The park must withdraw pending notices of termination, considered the first step in the eviction process. And all notices to fix violations of park rules are reset, giving affected residents a new 30 day-period to correct the cited problems with their homes.

So, why are the tenants of the RV Park of San Rafael still quaking in their boots?

Residents say they’ve been harassed and intimidated since Harmony Communities, a controversial company that owns and manages dozens of mobile home parks, took over the park in July 2021.

The company has also been involved in litigation with residents in other parks. A Fresno attorney grew so frustrated with Harmony’s tactics that she tweeted about founder Matt Davies’ criminal convictions for drugs and felony assault with a deadly weapon. As a result, Davies did time and agreed to surrender his real estate license.

Harmony’s actions against the San Rafael residents have run the gamut—from name-calling to a mass tenant eviction in February—according to residents and attorneys. Others included hiking rents far more than the max allowed by local law and issuing more than 70 violation notices for minor problems with homes, such as protruding awnings.

Adding insult to injury, Harmony reported the residents’ inconsequential violations to a state agency governing mobile home parks, triggering inspection after inspection.

While the San Rafael settlement agreement remedies most of these issues, at least for the time being, residents understand it can’t stop Davies from continuing an aggressive strategy. And Davies isn’t just managing the RV Park of San Rafael anymore. In February, he and other Harmony principals purchased the park, according to testimony Davies provided in a Marin courtroom last month.

“Harmony and Matt Davies have given the tenants every reason to be terrified,” said Josh Sullivan, managing attorney for Legal Aid of Marin, which is representing some residents. “It’s not like Blair Witch Project terror—Matt Davies is real.”

Last month, Sullivan won a case on behalf of a couple that Harmony was trying to evict. The couple, who has lived in their modular home at the RV Park of San Rafael for more than two decades, was up to date on their rent. Years ago, they hired a contractor to install a kitchen, but failed at the time to get the necessary sign offs from the state agency governing mobile homes.

The judge ruled against Harmony in the eviction.

However, that’s likely not the end of the couple’s troubles. Although the state has now signed off on the kitchen, the park refuses to provide its approval, which is also required to be in complete compliance.

“Matt Davies has repeatedly made it known that the park is not going to cooperate,” Sullivan said. “In every contract, there’s an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. My clients are on a lease. Harmony is breaching that covenant by refusing to sign off when the state and the tenant agree they’ve remedied.”

Another park resident, Alex Vernimmen, 70, finds himself in a similar situation. Vernimmen, who lives with his 96-year-old mother, was also the defendant in an eviction lawsuit brought by Harmony.

In a settlement reached with the park in April, Vernimmen agreed to pay back rent and get state approval for a cabana he had built 18 years ago. Done and done. But the park has not signed off, causing Vernimmen to miss the deadline to file the legal paperwork.

Vernimmen, who is out of money and can’t afford to pay his private attorney for another legal battle, says he’s suffering from depression because of his experience.

The end game seems to be forcing out the current tenants, who benefit from rent control. Several long-term tenants left the park—and the homes that they owned—before the city and Harmony reached the settlement.

“Some did self-evict,” Sullivan said. “They had vulnerabilities, like immigration status. Landlords that are aggressive know that and are rewarded for their aggressiveness. Harmony is trying to chip away at the close-knit community.”

Sherrie Johnston, Harmony’s chief operating officer, declined to answer any detailed questions from the Pacific Sun. Instead, she sent an email criticizing the paper for its previous coverage of the park and a statement declaring victory in the lawsuit with the City of San Rafael.

At the heart of the lawsuit was the question over whether the RV Park of San Rafael is a mobile home park or an RV park. Legally, it’s an important distinction because mobile home park residents are offered more protections than those living in RV parks.

Mobile homes aren’t actually very mobile. It’s extremely expensive to move them and damage often occurs. Many parks don’t even accept used homes. These factors leave mobile home owners exposed to the whims of park management, prompting laws that allow owners to sell their homes in place and capping rent increases.

The state classifies the RV Park of San Rafael as a mobile home park, regardless of its name. And the city’s settlement agreement doesn’t change this fact, nor did it try.

“In this settlement, the city has agreed that the RV Park of San Rafael is in fact an RV park and is in fact exempt from the rent control ordinance,” Johnston wrote.

However, the city does not agree.

“I do not read those provisions [in the settlement] as agreeing that the Park is an RV Park in any way—although they [both parties] do agree that RVs are not subject to rent control under the City’s ordinance,” said von Loewenfeldt, San Rafael’s outside counsel.

It might be easy to laugh at the Harmony team for their misinterpretations and child-like stubbornness—if they weren’t in control of the homes of thousands of low-income people across California, Oregon and Nevada.

Still, Davies, who sports a man bun in his photo on the company website, doesn’t mind making a mockery of his leadership role. In documents obtained by the Pacific Sun, Davies’ email signature includes his title: “The Dude/El Duderino/His Dudeness.” Multiple news outlets have also reported on the company’s practice of responding to inquiries using a prank name with a sexual reference—”Heywood Jablóm.” 

All of this seems to justify the concerns of the residents at the RV Park of San Rafael.

“Harmony will continue to harass us one by one,” Vernimmen, the park resident, said. “Your fence is too high. Your cabana is not legal.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

4 COMMENTS

  1. Read this article, and the links! As Marin County commits to affordable housing, we should all be aware of those landlords and owners who claim to champion affordable housing, but instead do immense harm to tenants. Nikki Silverstein quotes Marin Legal Aid attorney Josh Sullivan about the company Harmony Communities, ” Landlords that are aggressive know that and are rewarded for their aggressiveness. Harmony is trying to chip away at the close-knit community.”
    A must read! Kris Brown, Inverness

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  2. Owning a mobile home is as close as some will get to real home ownership. But this article shows how what a fallacy that is. You’re still at the mercy of dirtbags like this guy, not owning the land your home is “parked” on and subject to all kinds of idiotic rules and harassment by the likes of Davies and his man bun. I hope Legal Aid goes after him guns blazing.

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  3. What a disgusting human being. And yes, I’ve met the guy. Felt like I needed a shower after interacting with he and his father.

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