When A. W. Faber and his wife, Irene, moved into the Dana Point Marina Mobile Home Estates last summer, the elderly couple thought that they could live out their remaining years in peace, just a short walk from the ocean.
Instead they have found nothing but trouble.
After plunking down the bulk of their life's savings to buy a $30,000 mobile home, then signing a lease to pay $425 a month for park trailer space, the Fabers--both 79--were hit with a nasty surprise: a $350-a-month rent increase, effective April 1.
They protested the 82% increase by refusing to pay it--as did the majority of other, mostly elderly people in the 90-resident park who also were hit with $350-a-month rent increases. The landlord had them served with eviction notices and now is preparing to take the residents to court next month to have them ordered out.
The Fabers are caught in a tangled legal battle that pits residents against the park management, and the park management against an oil company that owns the 10-acre tract near the ocean off Del Obispo Street near Coast Highway.
Cloud of Uncertainty
Faber, a retired contractor, said he and his wife, who is stricken with terminal colon cancer, now live under a cloud of uncertainty. Their retirement income is $850 a month.
"She is worried, as am I, because we cannot possibly pay this increase," Faber said. "My wife cries about it all the time."
The controversy started when the landowner, Unocal Inc., notified leaseholders Jarold Raff and his son, David, that effective in March, they would have to begin paying $33,000 a month in rent rather than the $3,200 they had been paying.
Unocal officials said they took the action after the first phase of a 55-year lease with the Raffs expired this year. The original lease agreement, signed 25 years ago, authorized Unocal to raise the rent after the first phase expired to reflect the true market value of the property.
The Raffs, vehemently disputing the new valuation, have refused to pay the increase. In February, they filed suit in Orange County Superior Court seeking to rescind Unocal's new rent. Unocal, in turn, filed a countersuit alleging breach of contract, among other things. Both actions are pending in court. No hearing dates have been scheduled.
In the event that a court might order them to pay the higher amount, the Raffs notified park tenants to start paying $350 more per month in April. The money was to be refunded if the Raffs win their case in court. The Raffs told tenants about the Unocal battle when they first notified them of the rent hikes, residents said.
The 70 tenants who began the rent strike in April formed a corporation. The corporation, in turn, declared bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in San Diego so the Raffs could not seize homes from the residents for nonpayment or have them evicted from their homes.
By pooling members' assets, the tenants' corporation also plans to offer to buy the mobile home park property, which Unocal values at $4.8 million. Jim Mahacek, attorney for the Raffs, disputed that value as too high but declined to say how much he thinks the land is worth.
Both Unocal and the Raffs have expressed interest in selling their property rights. But Barry Lane, a Unocal spokesman, said a transaction cannot be made until the legal fight is cleared up between his company and the Raffs.
Lane said Unocal has taken no position in the dispute between the Raffs and the tenants because the oil company is simply leasing the land.
"We cannot interject ourselves in that," Lane said.
Lane added that Unocal has no plan to change the property from its current use.
Worry About the Future
While the attorneys prepare to argue their cases in court, park residents worry about the future and hope that they have taken the right course. Many live on fixed incomes and say they could not move anywhere else if they had to.
"I've got no place on Earth," said 77-year-old Sally Pearson, a Social Security recipient who lives alone with her dog, Angel. "If I get thrown out of here, I'd have to go to the beach and live in a tent--if I could get one."
"I'm 78 years old, and this is my home," added Clorita Teel, who shares a trailer with her husband, Morton. "I have no place to go."
Some younger residents also are involved in the battle. Kathryn Haley, 29, and her boyfriend, Michael Nilson, 34, for example, last year bought a $30,000 trailer that they moved to the Dana Point park. It was their first house.
"This was our dream home," said Haley, a department store sales clerk.
"We just want to be able to live here comfortably for the rest of our lives," added Nilson, a hotel bartender.
The Raffs referred all inquiries to their attorney, Mahacek. He said the tenants were trying to get sympathy by exaggerating their financial woes. He said that if they are in truly dire straits, they would not have had the money to form a corporation, hire a lawyer and put up a multimillion-dollar proposal to buy the park.
Grayce Crabb, a 21-year park resident, said the tenants are able to afford the fight because they are paying an average of $50 per month each in legal fees. Crabb said some of the poorer residents are paying only token amounts, such as $5 per month.
Gerald Gibbs, attorney for the tenants, added that tenants would be buying the park by simply converting their monthly rents into mortgage payments. Consequently, he said, they would not have to pay any more than they have been paying. Gibbs added that the down payment would be made in part by the trailer owners refinancing their homes and by using part of their savings.
"There are people in that park who, if they were required to pay another $50 a month, would be hard-pressed to buy food," Gibbs said.
"I just couldn't pay it if I was gonna get shot,"said Pearson, one of the tenants on a tight budget.
Attorney Mahacek said the Raffs were simply caught in the middle between Unocal and park residents.
He said the Raffs sought to protect the tenants from the huge increase by taking Unocal to court and holding the tenants' rent money in a special account, to be refunded if the Raffs win their case against Unocal.
Gibbs acknowledged that the Raffs first tried to negotiate higher rents with the tenants before serving them with eviction notices. But he added that the Raffs ultimately ended the negotiations and began tacking up eviction notices on trailers all over the park.
Gibbs also disputed Mahacek's version of who is caught in the middle.
"Certainly, the person in between is the person who is being charged with all of it," Gibbs said. "We have two big giants here battling in a corner, and it's the little people who have to work for a living or who live on Social Security who are being disadvantaged by it."