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When Rachel Orozco moved to the Miramar Imperial Beach Mobile Home and RV Park more than a year ago, she considered herself lucky. Her family lived nearby and the rent was cheap.
The nearly five-acre piece of land, a mere half-mile from the Pacific Ocean, is home to about 100 people, most of whom live in mobile homes. It wasn’t much — a plot of dirt and some concrete — but Orozco, 32, was proud of it. She’d carved out a little space for her and her nine-year-old son.
The park is one of the last affordable housing options for seniors, vets and other low-income folks in the area but it’s also increasingly difficult to hold onto because of an onerous policy.
Orozco is required to pack up her stuff and leave for at least 48 hours every six months. Otherwise she could be evicted, as the park doesn’t consider its residents to be residents worthy of state protections until they’ve been there for nine months straight.
First, Orozco needed to find another place to park her trailer. She spent two nights with her family and two nights in a hotel. She had to take personal time off work in the process. The food in her fridge went bad. She came back to the property to find that the required deposit had gone up $250.
All told, the cost of temporarily vacating the park was about equal to her $740 rent, which undermined her reason for being there in the first place. She browsed apartment listings in the area but quickly concluded that the rest of Imperial Beach was too expensive.
Her last move-out was in March and she’s scheduled for another in September. “It’s just stressful to know that most likely I’m gonna have to do it again,” she told me.
Orozco is by no means the only person in the park who’s facing this dilemma. Other residents have opted to stay put and fight eviction with the aid of a pro-bono attorney while raising awareness of their cause in the halls of government and the court of public opinion.
For years, the park has been a hotbed of political organizing. With the help of the Alliance of California for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, the residents have banded together to withstand the tide of displacement and homelessness.
Though most of the mobile home residents own their shelters, the land under their feet was nearly sold in 2019 to make way for condominiums. The developer backed out after the city made changes to the proposal. The deal fell apart months before the pandemic hit.
“Fortunately we had a roof over our head,” said Juan Nevarez, president of the park’s resident association.
The property changed hands earlier this year, passing from one corporate interest to another and changing names in the process. Siesta RV Park Inc. sold it to Miramar Imperial Beach LLC for a reported $11.3 million. All the residents I spoke to are paying between $700 and $800 a month, including utilities. New tenant rates start at $1,250.
Around the time development plans fell through in 2019, the six-month move-out policy went into effect. New residents didn’t have a choice but some of the old-timers dug in. They continued to live as they’d lived before, paying their rent every month, but because they lease the land beneath their properties, they don’t have total control: if they want to sell their mobile homes, the park has to agree to let the buyer move in.
Reached by phone last week, Erin Ogg, one of the primary owners of the park, who bought the property as part of an investment trust, said the six-month move-out policy was built into the leases that Miramar Imperial Beach LLC inherited. When asked why the new owners didn’t just get rid of the policy, she characterized it as a necessary step to make repairs on site before state protections kick in.
“Otherwise they have resident rights,” she said. “We’re trying to make the park a lot nicer.”
She declined to answer any further questions, citing an emergency water leak at one of the three properties she runs in Oregon, and referred me to Victor Martinez and Associates. The Ontario, California-based property management company didn’t return requests for comment.
Residents aren’t buying it. The six-month move-out policy might make it easier to do repairs but it also opens the door to rent increases. Several weeks ago, the park’s managers added new trash and sewage fees to the invoices.
“They’re pushing people out systematically,” said Nevarez.
A rally in June brought journalists onto the park property. Consuelo Villalpando, vice president of the park’s resident association, spoke at the event knowing it could bring heat back on her. The 68-year-old said she moved to the park four years ago following a divorce and is herself a former property manager living on a fixed income.
Her time there predates the six-month move-out policy, and she has no intention of agreeing to those terms.
Her brother, who lived in and co-owned her mobile home, died in mid-June. Days after the rally, she got a letter from the management arguing that she wasn’t a legal occupant of the property — even though she’s been on the monthly invoices for years — and the park wouldn’t accept payment of rent unless she re-applied for permission to keep living there.
That’s led to a standoff. Villalpando showed me a receipt for the money order she gave the park on July 1 as well as a letter from the manager nearly two weeks later saying she had three days to pay rent or quit the site. If not, the park threatened to file legal proceedings.
“Because I’m a troublemaker they’re looking for ways to get me out,” she said. “I just want peace of mind, a quiet environment.”
After the property changed hands earlier this year, the park’s resident association put the property managers on notice that they’re interested in collectively buying the park should it go up for sale again. ACCE has floated the idea of applying for state funds to help create a community land trust.
Mobile homes are relatively cheap to buy, so it’s not surprising that shipments of new manufactured homes more generally have been on the rise as housing costs explode and baby boomers on the low-end of the socioeconomic ladder retire.
Counterintuitively, that’s what makes mobile homes, in the words of one capital advisor, “a darling of private equity.” Blackstone, the New York-based firm that purchased about 5,800 apartment units in San Diego last year, also bought a portfolio of 14 mobile home communities in 2018, following in the footsteps of the sovereign wealth fund of Singapore.
Other investment advisors note that mobile home parks have higher rates of return than apartments because the cost to run them is relatively low. Mobile homes depreciate on a quicker timetable than other types of real estate, meaning the owner can write-off more on their taxes. And because the demand for manufactured homes goes up during a recession, mobile home park investments are relatively resilient.
As one wealth manager explained: “This locked-in tenant base is what enables park owners to enjoy phenomenally stable revenue figures, even in major recessions.” At least two real estate investment trusts — Sun Communities and Equity LifeStyle Properties — are publicly traded. Their shares have exploded over the last decade.
Given all this, it’s not hard to see why investors would look at the “great downsizing” and sound giddy about its prospects.
“They’ve turned housing into a commodity,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, ACCE’s legal director. “People are making untold money by doing nothing.”
Housing, in other words, is not a matter of supply and demand these days. It’s a matter of financialization.
The fact that mobile home parks are relatively cheap to run doesn’t just make them a vehicle for speculation. The structures are also difficult to move and maintain. That’s why California’s Mobile Home Residency Law, first passed in 1978, states upfront that mobile home residents deserve special protections.
Under state law, mobile home leases can only be terminated for one of seven reasons, including a drug or prostitution conviction and failure to pay rent. But these justifications only apply if the tenant is at fault and there’s an opportunity to correct the problem.
One of the obstacles working against the residents is that California doesn’t consider an RV owner a resident worthy of protections until they’ve occupied a lot for nine months. Another obstacle is that AB 1482, the state’s renter protection law passed in 2019, which capped rent increases annually, does not apply to mobile home parks.
In the meantime, residents have started attending meetings at the Imperial Beach library with Alysson Snow, who runs a housing rights clinic at the University of San Diego Law School, to consider their options. Snow is defending several of the residents in unlawful detainer cases. But as she acknowledged, even the threat of eviction is a powerful tool against a resident because the dispute becomes a matter of public record that the next landlord can see.
“It doesn’t matter if you prevail,” she told me. “Just the fact someone filed a proceeding against you makes it difficult to go somewhere else.”
Going forward, Snow recommended that Imperial Beach take its own steps to extend state rent caps inside the park and make the six-month move-out policy illegal.
I ran this by Mayor Serge Dedina, who said he was horrified to hear of the treatment inside the park after residents and organizers testified at a public hearing in May. In response, the City Council directed the city manager to look it. The problem, Dedina said, is that the regulatory structure of mobile home parks falls under state jurisdiction.
ACCE has also suggested that if the residents can’t find the money to buy the park themselves, the city find it instead.
“If we had funding, absolutely I would support that in a second,” Dedina said. “Overall, for me, one of the learning experiences as mayor is the shocking condition of people living in trailer parks and the shocking lack of concern by the state of California.”
A solution of some sort is in the works, though the details are still unclear. In an email, Imperial Beach city manager Andy Hall told me that he’s working on proposals that would stabilize rent and address the park’s move-out policy. “We hope to present them to the City Council as early as September,” he said.