by Alan Ferdman
If you intend to stay up on decisions that will shape the future of Santa Clarita, you need to visit, or at least watch, our City Council meetings. Also, if you have been reading my columns, you’re aware of my strong belief that “government is at its finest when the people’s business is accomplished in public.” Too many times, important issues are placed on the City Council “Consent Calendar,” meaning they will be passed by one council vote and not even mentioned, unless an item is pulled for a separate discussion. Too many times, members of the public ask questions or comment on an issue, without an answer being subsequently provided by city staff or our council members.
Yet, at the May 9, 2017 City Council meeting, during review of Agenda item 13 (proposed changes to the manufactured home park rent adjustment procedures), we witnessed government and public interaction accomplished in a way our country’s founders wanted it to take place. It was not because some monumental decision was made. It was a review of a city staff proposal, commented on by the public and thoroughly discussed by each council member. In the end, staff was directed to study the issue further and take into consideration comments provided by the public and our council members.
Coming up with an acceptable change proposal will not be a simple task. If you have not been following this issue, allow me to tell you “the short story” and therefore bring you up to date. In 1991, the Santa Clarita City Council passed Santa Clarita Municipal Code 6.02. The purpose was to “protect manufactured home park residents from excessive space rent increases, while at the same time allowing park owners to receive a fair rate of return on their investment.” One key element of this ordinance was allowing space rent to increase per the Consumer Price Index (CPI), or a minimum of 3 percent.
Fast forward to 2014 and park residents were feeling the 3 percent minimum increase was unfair. The economy had tanked and the CPI had stayed below 3 percent for a fair amount of time. Two manufactured park residents, Mr. Doug Fraser and Mr. Ray Henry, became the residents’ spokespersons and brought the issue to the City Council, meeting after meeting, until the council acted.
So, in June of 2015 a revision to the Manufactured Home Rent Panel Adjustment Procedure was brought before the City Council and approved. This ordinance revision still allowed space rent to increase per the CPI, but the minimum increase was reduced to 0 percent. In addition, there were two other major changes, which did not receive the same amount of attention. Provisions were deleted requiring park owners to reduce rents when park services were eliminated, and a requirement for park management to obtain resident consensus when the cost of capital improvement projects were to be added to residents’ space rent.
These changes caused park owners to rethink how to manage park finances. Some parks had not been raising rents by 3 percent, even though it was allowed. Some said they used the 3 percent increases to fund capital improvements rather than identifying them separately. But, it was all about to change.
As you might imagine, 2016 rent increases using the new rules brought a surge of rent protests. Park owners used creative ordinance interpretations and sent lawyers to the panel hearings to further confuse the issues. City staff did not fulfill their responsibilities, per the ordinance, to determine if a rent appeal should be heard. Plus, at one hearing, which I attended, the park owner’s lawyer turned a public hearing into a kangaroo court. After those meetings, city management was asked to take notice and action. Ordinance changes were promised, but were not brought forth in time for the 2017 rent increases and subsequent panel hearings. This time it was the park residents who brought up “letter of the law” issues. Everyone seemed to agree, the rent adjustment process was not working well.
On April 3-4, city staff presented a proposed ordinance change to the public. Key elements included changes to the definition of residents, which would make it even harder (if not impossible) for residents to raise an appeal, as well as a procedural change from having rent appeals heard by an elected panel to now having appeals heard by a hearing officer, who is selected by city staff. There were a lot of community comments, some in favor, but many opposed.
On April 25, an identical proposal was presented to the City Council Development Committee. Comments and suggestions made at the community presentations had been overlooked. Here again, the community commented and offered suggestions. The meeting ended, without one word from either council member present.
At the May 9 City Council meeting, staff presented essentially the same proposal in a different form, thereby disregarding public comments one more time. Yet again, the community rose and provided comments, suggestions and information relating to the safeguards eliminated in 2015.
But this time, the council members listened and offered their opinions. Some feedback included Councilmember Miranda, who told of his passion to be the voice of those who have not been listened to. Councilmember McLean offered her concern about the lack of a requirement, in the current ordinance, for residents to be compensated for reductions in park services. Mayor Pro-Tem Weste related areas she thought residents were being overcharged and told our city attorney that if state law is a problem we should contact our state legislators. Councilmember Kellar indicated, “We are not there yet”; “we have got to do a better job”; and Mayor Smyth expressed his belief it is possible to “take your (residents’) ideas and put them in an ordinance that will work for you (the residents).”
Changing the Manufactured Home Rent Adjustment Procedure Ordinance will not be simple or easy. It needs to address a methodology which is fair to both residents and park owners. Obviously, if rents are too high, residents will not be able to remain living there or even have the ability to sell their homes. But if rents are not realistic, manufactured home parks will become dilapidated and eventually close. The ball is now in our City Council’s court. Let’s hope the City Council has truly “awakened” and will continue to address this, and many other issues, in a public forum.
If you wish to watch this discussion firsthand, go to the city website, under City Council Agendas, then City Council Meeting May 9, 2017, where the video is available, and scroll to Agenda Item 13. Even though this was the first of a series of discussions on the topic, I’m sure you will agree it was a city council meeting which will make you proud you live in Santa Clarita.
**The Views and Opinions expressed in these columns are those of the writer, not necessarily those of Valley Publications/Santa Clarita Gazette.**