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Mobile Homeless

Residents of a soon-to-be-dissolved Capitola mobile home park consider their future.

By Kat Lynch

A COOL coastal breeze flows between the coaches lining the uneven asphalt of the Surf and Sand Mobile Home Park overlooking the Monterey Bay. A community made up largely of retirees, the Capitola park's future is looking dim. While a few residents use the Surf and Sand as the location of a second home, the formerly over-55 park is the only home to many of its residents, and its closure will leave many homeless.

Since owner Ronald Reed inherited the park from his father in 2002, tension has been brewing between residents and their new landlord. Dissatisfied with the rent control governing the Surf and Sand and seeking to increase income from the park, Reed previously offered to sell the property to the residents collectively. Later he changed the offer: he would sell the individual spaces to park residents, creating a housing subdivision and circumventing Capitola's rent control rules. Now he seeks to close and vacate the park.

Reed surprised residents when he announced the decision to clear the park in December of 2008. "I expected to live here for the rest of my life," says Shirley Hill, who recently recovered from a stroke. Already residents have formed three park-buying committees.

"I think the idea is to make a whole lot more money than just selling to another operator or residents," says Sandy Williams, vice president of the Surf and Sand residents association.

Currently representing Reed in his endeavor to clear the family-owned real estate is successful Southern California property rights attorney Mark Alpert. Alpert has represented clients that broke strict rent control agreements at mobile home parks in both Sonoma County and Carson, Calif., near Los Angeles. At the moment Alpert is involved in an effort to turn an Oceanside mobile home rental park into a resident-owned community after the city refused to allow his client to raise rents 70 percent. The move would allow the landowner to set any price he wanted for the spaces and circumvent rent control entirely.

In a 2004 speech before the Property Rights Foundation of America, Alpert revealed one strategy for wearing down his opponents. "Litigation is a strategy that works especially when cities are strapped for money. That often brings them to the table. It has worked for us," he said. "... In essence, what happens is that the cities just get tired of fighting litigation. They can't afford to protect the small group's interest and bust the budget."

Reed is offering residents between $3,000 and $5,000 apiece for relocation expenses, and this worries advocates. "If a park owner can close his or her park and gives homeowners a pittance, that is something that would be quickly copied by other park owners," says Terry Hancock, who represents the low- and moderate-income senior residents of the park through Senior Citizens Legal Services. "This is inadequate for how much people have invested in their homes," he adds.

Sandy Williams notes that some residents have spent upwards of $50,000, and even as much as $400,000, outfitting their coaches with new bathrooms, new countertops, side rooms and skylights. "Many of us have refurbished our homes and added decks. They may have been mobile coming into the park, but they certainly aren't anymore," says Williams. "What are we supposed to do with our homes?"

Alpert does not think of the homes in the kindest light. "I feel bad for residents," he says. "Some people have paid thousands of dollars for their homes." So much for the "glorified tin can[s]," as Alpert referred to them in his Property Rights Foundation of America speech.

Although Reed does not want to get out of the mobile home park business for good--he and his son own another mobile home park together in Spokane County in Washington--he plans to vacate the lot and says he currently has no further plans to develop it. The Surf and Sand residents have until Dec. 31 of this year to vacate the premises, at which point the utilities will be capped.

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