Correction: California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation is co-council on the legal action representing the Sunset Inn I residents in additon to Legal Services of Northern California and Western Center on Law And Poverty.
Javier Gomez has lived in Truckee for 19 years. He’s raised a family here, put his children through school, and slowly saved enough to buy a mobile home in Sunset Inn I mobile home park in 2014. Now, that life, his family’s home, and their tight-knit neighborhood is on the verge of being erased from Truckee.
New ownership at the mobile home park, dramatic rent increases, and what he and his neighbors allege is a concerted effort to displace Truckee families from their homes, is close to turning him and his family out into one of the most merciless housing markets in Tahoe/Truckee’s history.
“There is no solution,” said Gomez, speaking in his native Spanish. “Where are we going to go?”
The last hope for Gomez and nine other families who live in Sunset Inn I appears to be a lawsuit that was filed in November in the Nevada County Superior Court, alleging the actions of the new owner are illegal. The suit, and a request for injunction, allege multiple violations of the Mobilehome Residency Law, a collection of state laws that governs the tenant-landlord relationship in mobile home parks. It also alleges the new owners breached contract, are engaged in an unlawful mobile home park conversion, and have committed acts of unfair competition and unlawful, unfair, and fraudulent business acts.
Legal Services of Northern California and Western Center on Law and Poverty are representing the residents, and have said that the owners agreed to suspend the rent increases as they negotiate toward an agreement.
Gomez’s dire housing predicament started last year when the Sunset Inn I mobile home park changed hands. For decades the 19-space park on the east side of Sunset Inn had been an island of affordable housing in an increasingly unaffordable town. Working class families — cooks, golf course groundskeepers, maids, and carpenters — have raised families and put down roots in one of the rare places where a service industry job can still pay the rent, and schools and stores are within easy walking distance.
The previous owners had charged reasonable rent and kept the park clean and well managed, Gomez said. Under their ownership the collection of mobile homes, arranged in rows behind the Sunset Inn sign on Donner Pass Road across from Truckee High School, were a hybrid solution that was half ownership and half rental. Most park residents own their mobile homes, upgrading and investing in them, while renting the rectangle of asphalt on which the mobile home sits from the park owner.
At Sunset Inn I, the mobile homes range in size and age. Some are sided with corrugated metal, and others are travel trailers with free-standing wooden frames constructed around them to keep the heavy snow off the fragile roof. But in a series of interviews with housing advocates, the park is described as a true neighborhood, a place where children play and long-time neighbors know each other well.
“It really is a neighborhood of long-time locals,” said Alexis Ollar, executive director of Mountain Area Preservation and member of the Mountain Housing Council, a group of 25 stakeholders who are addressing the regional housing crisis.
Last year, the delicate housing balance at the park began to shift. New ownership took over Sunset Inn I in January and immediately residents experienced drastic changes.
New owners Coleman and Judith Bowen, Southern California-based mobile home park developers associated with a company called Park Image Solutions (according to the lawsuit), virtually abandoned snow removal on the property. Snow piled up during one of the heaviest winters on record. Then they blocked off one of the entrances to the park. This combination resulted in dangerous traffic patterns. Cars had to reverse out of the narrow driveway onto Donner Pass Road to leave the park, according to the lawsuit.
“Last winter, defendants failed to adequately plow and remove snow from the park’s driveways. When plaintiff Javier Gomez asked Mr. Bowen about the snow removal, Mr. Bowen told Mr. Gomez he could go somewhere where there is no snow,” the lawsuit says.
The situation became such a concern that “the Truckee Fire Protection District inspected the park and had to direct defendants to take ‘corrective action immediately’ in order to protect public safety,” says the lawsuit.
“They let us be submerged in snow,” said Gomez, in an interview with Moonshine Ink.
The new owners’ apparent disinterest in maintaining or managing the mobile home park continued, according to the residents represented in the lawsuit. The landowners only showed up to collect rent or hand out new rental agreements, according to Gomez. They fired the on-site manager without any replacement and did not respond to routine requests from residents, the suit asserts.
At first the owners asked for modest rent increases, but by the fall those rent increases ratcheted up dramatically. For some residents, the price of their space nearly doubled. Some mobile home spaces that were being rented for $560 per month in the summer were increased to $1,000 per month by December, according to the lawsuit. Gomez’s rent went from $560 a month to $850. He was only able to make the increased rent payment by borrowing money.
Today, Sunset Inn I has the highest rents of any mobile home park in town, higher than those with more facilities and amenities, according to the lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs now face imminent displacement from their homes due to defendants’ actions to raise their rents by more than 50 percent for most plaintiffs and as much as 78 percent for some in less than six months,” the lawsuit argues, on behalf of the 10 families that reside at the mobile home park.
Repeated attempts to contact Sunset Inn Mobile Home Park owner Coleman Bowen by phone, email, and through his attorney were unsuccessful.
The residents and housing advocates believe these rent increases are a direct effort to displace the families currently living at the park so the owners can bring in new units and charge higher rent.
The dynamic at Sunset Inn I brings into sharp focus the vulnerability of mobile home park residents. Unlike homeowners, who own both their home and the lot it sits on, mobile home owners are at the mercy of the landowner. If rents rise dramatically for their spaces they have no good options. Mobile homes are expensive to move and, depending on their age and construction, often cannot be moved intact. Even if they could be towed away, there are no mobile home vacancies in Truckee, according to the Truckee Family Resource Center.
“It seems like an intentional effort to displace these families,” Ollar said. “How do we insure that this doesn’t continue to happen in this community?” he asked.
For most families, the situation is even more dire than displacement. Those who have scrimped and saved to purchase a mobile home now may have to walk away with nothing to show for their investment.
“The worst case, the thing I would not want to see, is people walking away from their life savings,” said Teresa Crimmens, executive director of the Truckee Family Resource Center.
Crimmens, other individuals, and community groups are trying their best to help, hoping for a positive outcome for both the Sunset Inn I mobile home park and its families. She said that mobile home parks are a vital source of affordable housing in Truckee because they allow low-income families to build equity and ownership in town.
“We would like to see them protected in some way,” Crimmens said. “This is a way that people who do work in our community can actually stay.”
What is happening at Sunset Inn I stands in stark contrast to the neighboring parcel, recently purchased by Tahoe Dave’s Skis & Boards owner Dave Wilderotter. Wilderotter renamed the property Old 40 Village, but has maintained it as a housing option that is affordable to both his ski shop workforce and long-time residents of the park. All the while he has invested in improving and enhancing the park.
“My goal is not a profit center,” said Wilderotter. “If I can break even I am golden.”
But the Park Image Solutions business model appears to be much different. The lawsuit reveals the owners purchased a mobile home park in South Lake Tahoe, replacing the mobile homes with new model park RVs, and selling the park to another new owner.
Whatever the business plan is for Sunset Inn I, for some residents any legal victory or protection would already be too late. Six of the families have already moved out since the new ownership took over, according to the lawsuit.
“Long-time residents have never seen such a high rate of turnover,” said the request for injunction.
Meanwhile, residents like Gomez wait, worry, and engage in the desperate task of searching for new housing for his family. At other rental offices in the region, he has been told that 200 or 300 people are ahead of him on waiting lists.
While much of the housing crisis is debated and dissected in numbers, studies, policy and reports, Gomez represents the human toll of a housing market increasingly out of reach of Truckee’s working class. One ownership change — one rent increase can plunge a long-time local family into turmoil, wrenching a student away from school, a parent away from a job, and a family away from its community.
“The frustration is how long everything takes,” Ollar said. “While we’ve been talking about these things we’re losing the fabric of our community.”
The Town of Truckee did write policy that addressed the exact issue that is occurring at Sunset Inn I.
The Town’s Housing Element, a state-mandated planning document, specifically notes that the high land value of some mobile home parks put them in risk of sale and the displacement of residents.
“This Housing Element directs the Town to require the replacement of these affordable units if a park is converted to non-affordable housing or other uses that would remove affordable manufactured housing units,” Truckee’s Housing Element reads.
But Truckee Town Manager Jeff Loux said the town has reviewed the Sunset Inn I case and does not believe that the changes occurring at the park constitute a change of use, since the parcel remains a mobile home park.
Stacy Caldwell, CEO of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, says that the Sunset Inn issue has sparked what she believes will be a long-term effort to address these difficult housing problems. Caldwell, like Ollar, is also a member of the Mountain Housing Council, which has begun to discuss solutions.
“What it has done is it has launched a working group on the mobile home parks, inventorying them and assessing the quality, the improvements, and ownership, and making sure residents know their rights,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said the number of community members engaged in the search for solutions for the region’s numerous housing problems is a hopeful sign for the long term, even though she admits that “it is never fast enough.”