Here comes the neighborhood

As West Sac moves up, mobile-home residents forced out

Joe Freeman is the last holdout at the West Sacramento Trailer Park.

Joe Freeman is the last holdout at the West Sacramento Trailer Park.

Photo By S. Howard Bransford

Not so long ago, West Sacramento mobile-home parks like the Welcome Grove and Glide In were low-rent refuges for those who couldn’t afford mortgages or pricey apartments.

That’s changing now, as city officials and entrepreneurs try to shed West Sacramento’s hardscrabble image and turn it into a shining sister to Sacramento’s burgeoning Midtown.

The cleanup campaign has made the mobile-home parks into disputed territories that are no longer immune to expensive leases and the designs of developers.

Park owners, residents and local officials are at odds over whether the city should impose rent control to stem the rising cost of a coach space.

“This is a war between big money and little money,” says retired boilermaker Michael Breda, a 65-year-old mobile-home park resident who is leading a local drive to enact rent control.

On the “little money” side are people like Joe Freeman, a 52-year-old veteran who walks with a cane and suffers from a litany of health problems—including heart disease, asthma and diabetes.

He’s the only resident left in the West Sacramento Trailer Park, a place in the Broderick community where the emblems of mobile-home living are now in ruins.

On his slow journeys to the manager’s office for his mail, Freeman passes scrap piles and broken water hookups. The concrete slabs of empty coach spaces look like unmarked graves. And next to the front gate, there’s a pile of tree branches covered with a tarp. A sign says the firewood is for sale.

“I don’t believe it’s acceptable being a disabled veteran and living in the ghetto,” Freeman said.

Despite the condition of the place, Freeman’s rent will jump to $700 on April 1, a sharp spike from the $600 he started paying on the first of the year.

Park owner John Jensen told SN&R that he wants to sell the park rather than make expensive repairs on decaying infrastructure. He’s been trying to move tenants out for the past two years and has been in talks with several developers.

Jensen, who inherited the park from his brothers, says he’s offered to buy Freeman’s coach at a fair price, has looked for a new place for Freeman to live and has even reduced the rent for a time.

But the veteran is hanging on, and Jensen says now a rent increase is the only way to convince him to move.

“I don’t want to push him out, but I’ve got to do something,” Jensen said by phone. “I’ve got to get that place shut down.”

Freeman, who says his health can’t handle a move, sees no fairness in Jensen’s actions.

“I can take a lot of stuff,” Freeman said. “But how much can you get stomped in the face and accept it?”

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon says the city is doing what it can to help people like Freeman.

In 2006, the city commissioned a 125-page study on West Sacramento’s 17 mobile parks, studying demographics and the concerns of the city’s 2,500-plus park residents.

Among other things, the report showed that a majority of the residents surveyed lived on fixed incomes and that 43 percent had at least one person with a disability.

Most residents surveyed earned less than $35,000 a year. Thirty-seven percent fell into the U.S. Census Bureau’s “extremely low” income category, earning less than $13,000 annually.

Linda Kramer says she’s being squeezed out of West Sacramento.

Photo By S. Howard Bransford

The city also formed an advisory committee to address rent increases and other complaints, such as neglected maintenance and unfair park management rules that target the elderly and the disabled.

“We’re doing a heck of a lot more than most other jurisdictions in the region and in the state,” Cabaldon told SN&R in a phone interview. But he views rent control as a reckless “cowboy” measure that could upset fragile balances in the local housing market.

“We’re dealing with an issue that is not just about a few greedy owners,” Cabaldon said. “It is also about the fundamentals of the economy, the price of the land and the competing uses of mobile-home park communities.”

Indeed, one park manager said that rent-control measures would change the way he does business in West Sacramento.

Dean Moser, who manages mobile-home parks throughout the West Coast for HCA Management, a Bay Area-based company, called rent control “the biggest black hole in my business.”

If city officials adopt rent control locally, he said, park owners might withhold money for improvements or sell their land to developers.

“If they want to denigrate the whole housing stock, the way to do it is institute rent control,” Moser said.

As an alternative to rent stabilization, the city is endorsing a system of five-year leases that would prevent drastic price hikes like the one that Freeman will face this year.

They’re also looking at a set of voluntary guidelines that would address park maintenance issues. If funding is available, park owners that improve their facilities may be eligible for grants and other financial incentives, said Richard Toft, with the city’s Housing and Community Investment department.

Many park residents oppose the city’s solution. At a February 6 city council meeting, several people turned out to voice their distaste of the plan, calling it a soft-handed approach that favors park owners over residents.

José Rivera, a landscaper who lives in a mobile-home park on West Capitol Avenue, scoffed at the notion that park owners will maintain fair rents without strict enforcement. He claimed to have watched rents rise at his park even though maintenance work was not improving. He feared more rent increases would push some neighbors into homelessness.

“Where are we going to live?” Rivera asked council members. “Down on Richards Boulevard, under the bridge? At The Salvation Army? If we have rent control, maybe we’ll have a place to stay.”

Yolo County Supervisor Mariko Yamada, who is running against Cabaldon for State Assembly in the upcoming primary election, said that many mobile-home parks in West Sacramento are owned by corporate entities that have grown distant to the concerns of residents.

“Things change when corporate interests become involved, and that’s why I think it’s very important for local leaders to be aware of how that affects park residents,” Yamada explained. She supports an eight-month moratorium on rent increases.

After the February 6 meeting, some residents doubted the city will respond to their fears of rents rising beyond affordable levels. Paul Rohrer, 65, said the city is “abdicating its responsibilities for its most marginalized citizens.”

“They’re so concerned about development that the marginalized aren’t going to be heard from,” Rohrer said.

And Breda, whose mobile-home park sits just down the road from West Sacramento’s new Ikea store, also feels the city has become too close to developers who see mobile home parks as obstacles.

“It’s outgrowing us,” Breda said. “It’s leaving us behind and reaching out for somebody else to move in. And we’re being left in the dust.”

Educational aid Linda Kramer also wants to fight rent increases, saying she feels for elderly residents, immigrants and others who are easily exploited. But she’s already plotting a move out of town, looking at deals on foreclosed houses in the area and thinking of selling her mobile home.

Owners and city officials, she said, have too much of a say in her fate. “We own these places, but we don’t feel like we do, because they have control over our lives.”

Freeman, meanwhile, is bracing himself for the months ahead. Aware that eventually he’ll have to move, Freeman imagines settling down in a mobile home in the mountains, a place where the dry air might soothe his aching lungs. But if West Sacramento’s any indication, he says, that may take a miracle.

“I can’t move twice,” Freeman said. “It’s going to kill me.”