Fresno County supervisors will consider a rent control policy to limit price gouging at the 98 mobile home parks in rural parts of the county — a direct result of organizing by a large family of indigenous farmworkers from Oaxaca who reside at Shady Lakes Mobile Home Park.

Supervisor Brian Pacheco raised the issue at a board meeting last Tuesday, saying there is a “dire need” for protections at all mobile home parks because “once you set your home up there, you’re at mercy of the landlord.” Other supervisors agreed to debate a potential ordinance.

Residents of Shady Lakes face a rent hike in May that would effectively raise their cost of living there by 72% in two years, according to Mariah Thompson, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance who represents the group in an ongoing lawsuit against the park owners.

Rent at Shady Lakes has increased repeatedly since the park was purchased by Stockton-based Harmony Communities in April 2019, from $395 including utilities to $610 not including utilities come next May.

“They’re taking advantage of us,” said a fieldworker who has lived in the park for 14 years. He declined to provide his name out of fear of retaliation and told The Fresno Bee through an interpreter that “the owners are trying to intimidate us.”

Sherrie Johnston, operations manager of Harmony Communities, doesn’t deny that rents increased since the company took over, but insists that rent increases are a normal part of doing business to cover costs to operate the property safely and up to code.

She says the company spent $400,000 in the park to improve the sewer treatment plant, roads and street lighting.

“We are proud of the work we have done and continue to do to build a safe and sanitary community for our residents while still maintaining rents that are among the most affordable in the county,” Johnston told The Fresno Bee by email.

California law limiting rent hikes in buildings over 15 years old does not apply to mobile home parks, where residents lease space. State legislators proposed a bill last year to protect tenants in mobile home parks, but it was not adopted.

Clovis, in 1978, became one of the first in the state to adopt a Mobile Home Rent Review and Stabilization ordinance. Fresno followed in 1988, noting at the time that two-thirds of the residents in parks were elderly and on a fixed income, and it is difficult to relocate a mobile home from one park to another.

The ordinance authorizes the establishment of a review board made up of residents with authority to approve or deny a landlord’s proposed rent increase. But the law hasn’t been used by tenants in years, according to Thompson.

Other cities have ordinances that place percentage limits on annual rent increases.

Farmworkers allege predatory landlords

A majority of the residents in the Shady Lakes park, on Chestnut Avenue just south of Fresno, work in the fields. Some are elderly or disabled.

“It’s very difficult because the wages we make are minimum. We work with contractors and do a lot of hard work, and we make below the poverty level,” the resident told The Bee through interpreter Victoria Santillan, a community worker at CRLA. “Right now, I’m receiving unemployment because there is nothing secure with a job.”

It would be difficult to move, he said, especially for the families with children. A majority of spaces at the mobile home park are occupied by about 125 adults and their children, who are all extended members of the same family from San Miguel Cuevas in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“We’re all related in some way,” the man said. “We’re all cousins.”

Because of a lack of access to resources and fear of deportation, it’s not common for tenants, particularly low-income and migrant workers, to obtain legal assistance.

The family from San Miguel Cuevas has been successful, the resident told The Fresno Bee, because “we’re really used to communicating with each other a lot, and we have a lot of confidence with each other.”

In 2019, Shady Lakes residents retained legal assistance to fight what they believe are unlawful practices, and have since filed an updated complaint alleging owners locked residents out of the laundry facility, threatened to evict for the presence of Christmas lights, failed to provide documents in Spanish, and raised rent after court judgements that favor the tenants.

“We make sure to communicate with our residents timely and in accordance with state laws,” Johnston said.

She said when Harmony Communities took ownership there was no rule enforcement and there were numerous health and safety issues cited by the state, including piles of trash, broken-down cars, mattresses and broken steps. Residents trashed the laundry facilities and the Christmas lights were among a collection of items piled outside a trailer.

The spokesman for the residents said the company goes after tenants to clean up their yards, but fails to maintain public areas.

The lawsuit is ongoing.

Balance of property rights and protections for low-income residents

Pacheco, who is a fourth-generation farmer, told The Bee that when he met with the residents last year “they explained their story to me, and that was the first time I had ever heard this.”

“I am a capitalist. However, there needs to be safeguards in place to make sure people are not taken advantage of,” Pacheco said. “It is my goal, my intent, to protect them.”

Pacheco plans to work with county counsel to bring a proposed ordinance to the board for consideration in March.

That doesn’t mean an ordinance will be adopted. The board leans conservative and generally takes stands against government restrictions on the marketplace, but they might see this situation differently.

“I’m generally not in favor of any kind of rent control because if you don’t like it, you can generally move and go to another domicile,” Pacheco told his colleagues at the Feb. 9 board meeting. “But on a mobile home, you’re pretty much stuck.”

Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who formerly served on the Clovis City Council, said the issue was timely and he was willing to debate it. But, he warned that “with the Clovis ordinance we put forward, there were multiple lawsuits that the city continued to deal with.”

“There is always a fine line that needs to be walked with private property rights,” Magsig said Feb. 9. “But then also individuals — many of which are low-income, on a fixed income — that are being priced out of the marketplace. So there is a fine line and a balance that needs to be walked with all of that.”

“I agree with him,” said Supervisor Buddy Mendes, who said he’d like to work with Pacheco to find a similar ordinance in another rural county to base the rule off of, instead of looking to Fresno for direction.

Ordinance would apply in all unincorporated Fresno County

Shady Lakes residents are hopeful that supervisors will agree with Pacheco, and their efforts will result in protections for more than their family.

“It would help anyone in the parks because rent is increasing so much, and everyone is feeling so much pressure because of the rental increase,” the resident spokesman said. “There is a park in Fowler that’s having the same problem and they’re increasing the rent a lot, and I know it’s difficult for them, too.”

According to the group’s attorney, Thompson, out-of-town companies are increasingly purchasing parks throughout the San Joaquin Valley and are profiting off vulnerable residents with predatory rental increases.

When faced with these urgent problems, she said, residents of Shady Lakes mobile home park illustrate that “the community has power.”

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