.San Rafael residents fight to keep their affordable homes

In tony Marin County, where the median home price hit $1.5 million in July, Beverly Mason and David Potts recently bought a new home for just $110,000. That’s not a typo.

Mason and Potts made it to mecca, Marin style—they found affordable housing. Or so they thought.

For the last two decades, Mason has lived in the RV Park of San Rafael, a mobile home community with 45 spaces, which was established in 1952. Her partner, Potts, moved in with her five years ago.

After a fire destroyed their first manufactured home, Mason and Potts didn’t think twice about purchasing a new mobile home and moving it right into the same affordable park, where they enjoy living in the tight-knit neighborhood with seniors, working folks and young families.

However, since last year, the couple’s dream of living peacefully in their community has turned into a horror film, complete with hostilities, threats, name-calling and even intimidating “thugs,” hired by the park’s management company, according to some residents.

In July 2021, Harmony Communities, a company that owns and manages mobile home parks across the country, was hired to manage the RV Park of San Rafael, owned by Donna Chessen. Harmony scheduled a meeting with residents, just days before taking over the park, to discuss improvements and new rules.

Melissa Lawley, a regional property manager for Harmony, arrived at the meeting and began going over the new rules and policies, which had been sent to residents previously.

Mason, who had read through the packet before the meeting, said she asked Lawley questions about proposed changes that might affect the current residents. Lawley indicated that no rent increases were planned, and most residents would be “grandfathered in,” meaning changes wouldn’t apply to them.

Still, the residents felt the meeting was somewhat hostile. Lawley was overheard asking another resident, “Who is that bitch?” as she gestured to Mason, several residents who attended the meeting said. 

While some residents felt relieved after the meeting that they could remain in the park, their optimism came to an end a few days later when Harmony hit all the residents with an 18 percent increase in their monthly rental fees, equating to another $100 per month for most people.

In Mason’s case, Harmony attempted to increase her rent by $600 a month, which she believes was in retaliation to the questions she posed to Lawley at the meeting. It was later reduced to $100 a month.

A letter from Harmony explained that the park was operating at a deficit and the rental increases would “staunch the bleeding.” The residents reluctantly began paying the increased rent.

People unfamiliar with mobile home parks might suggest Mason, Potts and their neighbors simply move their homes to another park. Unfortunately, they can’t for a variety of reasons. 

With affordable housing in short supply, mobile home parks rarely have vacancies. And the name mobile home is somewhat of a misnomer because the homes aren’t actually very mobile and it’s an extremely pricey proposition to move them. Damage may easily occur if the home is moved after it’s been installed at a location. The final nail in the coffin is that many mobile home parks don’t accept used homes.

That leaves a mobile homeowner in a bit of a pickle. Enter the government. States across the country have passed laws to protect mobile homeowners. In 1978, California enacted the Mobilehome Residency Law, which allows a mobile homeowner to sell their home to a qualified buyer. The MRL also allows for cities to enact rent control ordinances, which San Rafael did years ago.

The San Rafael Mobilehome Rent Stabilization Ordinance gives park owners the right to raise rents by 75 percent of the local Consumer Price Index each year. In this case, the RV Park of San Rafael could increase the monthly rent by $15—not $100 as they attempted to do. However, if the park’s owners aren’t making a “fair and reasonable return,” they are permitted to file a request with the city to increase the rent beyond what is provided for in the ordinance.

For some reason, neither Harmony Communities, nor Donna Chessen, who has owned the park since 2006, have gone through the proper process to ask for a rent hike.

Harmony Communities threatens to close a San Rafael mobile home park on West Francisco Blvd., displacing 45 families.

With the RV Park of San Rafael refusing to back down from the rent increase, the City of San Rafael’s attorney, Robert Epstein, wrote a letter to Harmony Communities on Aug. 9, 2021, to explain the city’s law. Epstein also included an informative 2004 ruling from a Marin County Superior Court judge which states the RV Park of San Rafael is subject to the City of San Rafael’s rent control ordinance for mobile home parks.

In fact, in the 2004 case, it was the same question, same court, even the same mobile home park. Yet, Harmony and Chessen believe the ruling shouldn’t apply to the RV Park of San Rafael.

While it’s true that most of the homes in the RV Park of San Rafael are technically RVs, and RV parks are subject to different ordinances than mobile home parks, the RV Park of San Rafael is a mobile home park under the city’s law. The RVs are mostly immobile and can’t relocate. Some have been in the same place for decades. Then, there’s California’s pesky MRL that states a park is a mobile home park when a home occupies a space for nine consecutive months or longer—whether that home is an RV or a mobile home.

Of note is that all the current residents of the RV Park of San Rafael have lived there from five to 40 years, which is obviously more than nine months. But who’s counting? Certainly not Harmony and Chessen.

Both the City of San Rafael and Chessen filed lawsuits last December regarding the identical issue from the 2004 suit. A federal court judge dismissed Chessen’s case. A Marin Superior Court judge so far has agreed with San Rafael and stopped the $100-per-month increases for now. The litigation is continuing.

Harmony’s responses haven’t really surprised anyone. The company has begun to send residents multiple eviction notices and an “informal” letter stating they intend to close the park at an unspecified date in the future because “the reality is the land is worth much more than operating an RV Park for affordable housing.” Park residents who are able to read the letters try to translate for their neighbors who aren’t fluent in English and don’t understand the demands and threats.

“Harmony refuses to translate the letters into Spanish and Vietnamese,” Potts said. “They said it’s too much trouble. Some people have just packed up and left the homes they owned.”

Mason said that in her 20 years at the park, she’s never seen vacancies before. There are currently five.

If Harmony acts upon its threat to close the park, it must go through a process that will include compensating residents. By evicting people or simply making life stressful, the park could empty through attrition. But if folks stay, Harmony has a plan.

And so do the residents.

Pick up next week’s Pacific Sun to read part 2.

Nikki Silverstein
Got a Hero or a Zero? Please send submissions to [email protected] Toss roses, hurl stones with more Heroes and Zeroes at pacificsun.com.

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