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The Issue: Should Rent Control Laws That Protect Mobile Home Owners be Eliminated?

Editor’s note: On Dec. 22, 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, echoing arguments in AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief, upheld the Goleta, Calif., ordinance protecting mobile home owners from excessive rate hikes and fees for rental of the land on which their homes are placed. The court reasoned that the owners of Rancho Mobile Home Estates, Daniel and Susan Guggenheim, suffered no injury in the enactment of the ordinance since they purchased the land knowing of the restriction. The court also stated that “The people who really do have investment-backed expectations that might be upset by changes in the rent control system are tenants who bought their mobile homes after rent control went into effect. Ending rent control would be a windfall to the Guggenheims, and a disaster for [those] tenants.”

R. Keith Traphagen, 61, pays $370 a month in lot rental fees at his Goleta, Calif., mobile home park. That’s enough, he says.

But those fees could skyrocket if the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ends rent control for Goleta’s mobile home parks. The owners of the 150-unit Rancho Mobile Home Estates, Daniel and Susan Guggenheim, are seeking to overturn the rent control ordinance. Their argument: It amounts to a “regulatory taking” of their property and unfairly suppresses its market value. Court records indicate the Guggenheims would increase fees to $1,000 if regulations are lifted.

But Traphagen, who was disabled by a neck injury and stopped working at an electronics manufacturing plant in 1980, says he doesn’t know what he’ll do if rents or fees go up. “I simply can’t pay more,” he said. Traphagen receives Social Security and worker’s compensation, and has lived at the park since 1977. He bought his current mobile home in 2002 for $64,000.

“The decision in this case will have a significant national, regional and local effect on individuals living in mobile home parks,” said Susan Ann Silverstein, senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation, which has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of rent control. “If the investments of mobile home owners are not protected from abuse by park owners, mobile home parks will no longer be a viable, affordable housing option.”

More than 3 million mobile home households include someone over 50 (about half of them over 65). Their median income is $22,000, compared with $44,000 for age 50-plus single-family households. In California alone, there are more than 370,000 mobile homes.

The ordinance currently in place caps annual increases in mobile home lot fees at 75 percent of the consumer price index or 5 percent, whichever is less, and it allows a “discretionary increase” covering extra capital expenses. Most recently, Traphagen’s bill rose $25.18 for rent plus the extra discretionary charge of $5.62.

What it means to you

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Emily Sachar is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn, N.Y.