Annette Smock survives on $439 a month in Social Security disability benefits, but like many on fixed incomes at the West Grove Mobile Home Park near the Garden Grove Freeway, it may no longer be enough.
Last September the Mel Mack Co., owner of the mobile home park on Hoover Street, began charging residents fees for water and trash collection, then raised the monthly rent by $30 per mobile home in January. The company owns seven mobile home parks across the county and implemented the charges at every park.
Like about a third of the other senior citizens who live at the park, which houses 97 coaches, Smock, 53, is on a fixed income. Smock said that since her husband died last August she has had to borrow money from friends for living expenses and to help pay her late husband’s medical bills.
“I can’t borrow any more money because I can’t pay them back,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “It’s terrible. It’s just terrible.”
Smock’s current rent is $347.50 a month, but with the additional charges the cost of her rent and utilities fluctuates between $384 to $392 a month. And with other living expenses, she will be spending more than $550 a month.
“My bills don’t even include my food,” she said.
Smock, who worked at Los Alamitos Race Track for 11 years, has not been able to work since 1984 because of back and neck problems. She has spasms in her right arm from nerve damage and suffers from arthritis. She also has a chronic, mild spinal disease.
“I’ve been a worker all my life and I love to work,” she said. “I would if I could. Now, I’ve been saving soda cans and bottles to help (support myself).”
In previous years, Mel Mack has raised the rent at its mobile home parks by $20 a month and never charged for water and trash collection, according to the manager of one Mel Mack-owned mobile park manager who did not wish to give her name. The company owns mobile home parks in Santa Ana, Westminster, Buena Park, Anaheim, Garden Grove and Stanton.
“Orange County is the most expensive place to live,” said the manager, who operates the company’s Santa Ana Gables Mobile Home Park. “Even though these people are complaining, they are getting the best deal around. We never have raised rent more than once a year. We will probably never have one this high again.”
The Mel Mack Co. referred The Times’ inquiries on the issue to its attorney, who failed to respond to repeated telephone calls.
But in a five-page statement sent out to mobile-home owners last week, the Mel Mack Co. told residents to “look at what has happened in Orange County these last few years. . . . We are one of the most popular places to live in the entire United States. Housing costs are going up at a phenomenal rate. . . . Compared to what the typical person has to pay to live in Orange County, you have a great housing value.”
It also said, it is “very common in other parks to separately charge for such things as water, sewer and trash. One reason is so that you can see how outrageous these governmental-approved utility charges have become and realize that we are as helpless as you to do anything about them. If you want to get mad or blame someone, talk to the utility companies and your local governmental representatives.”
Brent Swanson, an attorney who represents Mel Mack Co., said the company has a renters’ assistance program and said “we told the residents last week that there is financial assistance available.”
“No residents have come to us saying that they can no longer afford the rent,” he said. “Our rent increase is the same or comparable with other mobile home parks.”
Smock said she called Mel Mack recently to ask about financial aid.
“At first, the person on the phone didn’t know anything about housing assistance. So, they took my number and called me back with the name and number of someone with the Orange County Housing Authority. I’m still trying to get through,” she said.
Smock said she has been trying to get financial assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development but was told that there was a three-year wait. She said she will make an appointment to see if she qualifies under Social Security for a widow’s pension.
The Housing Authority helps people obtain rental assistance. It is funded through HUD and there is a two- to five-year waiting period before assistance can start, according to a housing authority staff member.
Lois M. Goley, 91, another West Grove resident on a fixed income, said that after 17 years at the park she wants to sell her mobile home and move because she cannot afford the rent.
Goley said her rent was $315, but it increased to $347.50, plus the additional charges. In total, she said, her bills and rent come out to more than $400 a month.
“I can’t afford that kind of rent,” she said.
Some residents, like Goley and Smock, said they would like to move out but are having trouble selling their home because Mel Mack Co. requires that the homes be repaired before they are sold.
In the same statement sent to each home, management said it is “only very rarely that someone who is shopping for a mobile home wants to buy a ‘fixer-upper.’ This is one of the reasons why we ask people who have their homes up for sale to clean and fix them up. Obviously, if they’ll do this, their home will sell much faster and for a higher price.”
But Goley and Smock say they don’t have enough money to make the repairs, and say they could sell their homes quicker without spending the money doing so.
Smock said her mobile home’s roof leaks, there are termites, its furnace is cracked and the paint is peeling.
“In the contract (with Mel Mack Co.), you have to keep the place up,” she said. “I can’t afford to fix things around here.”
Smock called Westminster city officials and asked about the Deferred Loan Program. She said that under that program, city crews will make the necessary repairs on her home.
For low-income people who own their mobile homes, the city will make basic repairs, said Don Dastal, Westminster public works director. The first $2,000 in repairs is funded through a grant and any costs after that are repaid through a no-interest loan when the mobile home is sold, he said.
In the meantime, many residents who say they could barely afford to live in their homes before say they now feel trapped: They can neither afford the rent nor come up with the money to move.
“I just live day to day. There’s not much I can do,” Smock said. “I feel helpless.”
Goley said, “Up until now, the last six months, we’ve never had any problems. I never asked (Mel Mack) for anything. I always pay my rent promptly.”