Mayor: Seniors are being terrorized

 

Declaring that the mainly senior residents of the Vista Diablo Mobile Home Park are being terrorized by the park owners, the City Council has passed a ban on mobile home parks converting from seniors-only to all ages.

For the past year the Vista Diablo residents have sought help from city officials to prevent the park owners and managers from imposing annual 6 percent rent increases and opening up the park to all ages. For much of that time, city officials have sought to intervene on the residents' behalf, engaging in negotiations with the park owners.

Both sides appeared to have reached an agreement five or six months ago. But, according to city officials, delays and reneging by the park owners have prevented reaching a final agreement.

Meanwhile, the mobile home park's high rents - in the area of $1,100 per month - and threats of ending the 55-and-over residency age requirement have caused the park's mobile homes to be sold for less than market value or remain vacant as the mobile homeowners move on or pass on.

The residents, who once again packed the council chambers at the May 22 meeting, told council members that many of them are on a fixed income and are afraid of losing their homes as rents continue to rise. And they fear losing their peace, quiet and security if the park is opened to all age groups.

The council members expressed their outrage at what's been going on.

"It's elder abuse, it's terrorizing senior citizens - and it's got to stop," said Mayor Don Freitas. "It just simply has to stop. I'm hopeful that the owners will truly sit down in good faith - because I think it's only been bad faith - and truly negotiate with us."

Councilman Arne Simonsen said, "When you look at the rents that are being charged (for just the land under the mobile home) this is obscene what they are doing. You're paying a little less than what I pay for a mortgage on land with a house. That's wrong, that's totally wrong. I'm very mad at these folks. I think it's wrong. It gives free enterprise a completely bad name."

Councilman Jim Davis said, "I wanted to voice my total disdain to this management company for their insistence upon, in my mind, wreaking total havoc and discontent from the owners of the individual coaches in the park."

Councilman Reggie Moore said, "I find this very troubling. I believe strongly in corporate responsibility."

Neither the Vista Diablo owners, a company called Kort and Scott, nor the managers, Sierra Corporate Management represented by Abe Arrigotti, were in attendance at the meeting.

But a letter from the park's lawyer Terry Dowdall sent to the city last July argued that federal law does not allow the city to force the park to be restricted to those 55 and older.

One of the repercussions of keeping the park as senior-only is that it "severely impacts upon Hispanic housing seekers, … (which) would constitute a violation of the 'race' and 'national origin' component of the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act." Dowdall argued that Hispanics are hurt because they tend to have larger families than Caucasian families in Antioch.

A letter from Arrigotti to the park residents in December states that the negotiations on the rent, age and other issues with the city "had made what was thought to be tremendous strides on both sides of the table; unfortunately, both parties could not come to a final agreement."

Because city officials are threatening to retaliate by imposing rent control, "we are left with little choice but to act accordingly to protect our interests in the property" by opening up the park to all ages, his letter states. He also pointed out that rent control would not be in effect for those who have signed long-term leases.

"While it was our true intention (and we are sure that of the city) to avoid this unnecessary act (i.e., the enactment of rent control), any government regulation to fix prices in our business must be met with actions that protect our investment in the property for the future," Arrigotti's letter to the residents states, adding his best wishes during the holiday season.

City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland stated that passing a 45-day ban on converting mobile home parks to all ages would allow time to research the park's contention that doing so violates federal fair housing laws.

Freitas acknowledged that the city might be opening itself to litigation with its actions, but he said "enough is enough." He instructed Nerland to send the park owners the agreement they tentatively reached last winter and give them a deadline for signing it. If they don't, Freitas said he'll support an ordinance imposing rent control on mobile home parks in Antioch.

"We have all tried to be extraordinarily patient. We have tried to be reasonable, be balanced and, frankly, to have the citizens that live in the mobile home park derive a benefit," said Freitas. "We thought we did come to a resolution in January after some robust discussions between me and the city staff and Abe Arrigotti and the Sierra Management, as well as the two owners.

"Clearly, the only time they engage is when there's a possible action by the City Council that has some perceived or realized consequences to them. It's almost as if the owners and the management company are terrorizing some of the seniors. And that's what I find most unacceptable. There's really no reason for it.

"It's not just about the money. There are people behind these figures. Some of you fought in our wars, some of you were police officers, some of you were teachers. You paid your price. You're not asking to live there for free. You're asking to live there for the rest of your life in peace and harmony, and you're willing to pay a fair price, an equitable price.

"Unfortunately, the owners and Sierra Management Corporation, that's not their intent. It's to squeeze every single penny out from you. Terrorism can take a lot of different methods. One is certainly physical. But the worst is to have to deal with financial uncertainty.

"I think that we have been more than reasonable. I think our approach has been more than fair. I think we as a city have negotiated in good faith. I know I'm an elected official but my word is my bond. And I expect the same from anyone sitting across the table from me and negotiating. So I'm not interested in renegotiating or negotiating against myself."

Freitas said city officials might look into sponsoring legislation in Sacramento making it a crime to do to senior citizens what has been done to the Vista Diablo residents.

The council unanimously passed the 45-day ban on opening mobile home parks to all ages. If an agreement with the park owners is not reached in that time, the moratorium is expected to be extended for another 10½ months.

The park residents applauded after the council vote.

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