Hundreds of mostly elderly mobile home owners, some using walkers and canes, jammed the City Council chambers and parking lot at City Hall Tuesday night to ask the council for a law to control rents at the city's four mobile home parks.
"We come to you with our hat in our hand," Ernest Rettino Sr., spokesman for the mobile home park residents, told the council. Because of fast-rising rents, he said, older people on fixed incomes, constituting the vast majority of residents of the 1,238 mobile homes in the city, are having difficulty making ends meet.
"Some say they are trying to get by after (paying) rent on $100 a month," he said.
Earlier in the day, the mobile home owners presented to the city clerk a petition with 950 signatures in support of an ordinance that would roll back space rents to Jan. 1, 1985, levels and give the City Council authority to vote on park owners' requests for future rent hikes.
While the residents have been working on the proposed ordinance for months, information about it surfaced only late last week and the group's decision to take its plea to the City Council on Tuesday came as something of a surprise to both the mobile park operators and elected officials.
Since the issue was not on the regular council agenda, representatives of the park residents were able to address the council, but the council could take no action on their demands.
"They caught me off guard," Mayor Helen Wilson said later.
In his presentation, Rettino asked that a committee of council members be appointed to decide whether rent control is warranted. Ron Hanson, one of the mobile park owners who was in the audience, later said he liked Rettino's idea.
However, Wilson said she is not convinced that there is a need for government intervention and believes that the park tenants and landlords can resolve the problems among themselves if they meet.
"I do not support rent control," she said. "I do support open dialogue."
But park tenants said they had given up negotiating with the park owners. Lois Sturm, who has spearheaded the push for rent control, said: "All the homeowner associations have negotiated through the years with park owners, and we find they won't negotiate on rents."
Sturm and Rettino added that the park owners sharply raise the rents of new mobile home buyers, which they say has made it nearly impossible for longtime tenants to sell their homes if they can't afford to stay.
In Orange County only one city, San Juan Capistrano, has enacted a rent control law. That law governs rents charged at San Juan Capistrano's seven mobile home parks, which house most of the city's senior population.
Separate attempts last year to enact rent control for mobile homes in Anaheim and Laguna Beach failed at the polls--an outcome that proponents blamed on massive spending by park interests to defeat the proposals.
Rent control advocates have argued that owners of mobile homes are in special need of protection because, unlike apartment dwellers, their investments in their homes make it very difficult for them to move. Most vulnerable to rent increases, they contend, are the elderly on fixed incomes who may have spent their life savings to buy their mobile homes.
However, opponents of rent control for mobile home parks have warned against government interference in the marketplace that could spread to include all rentals.
Vickie Talley, executive director of Manufactured Housing Education Trust, a nonprofit trade association of Orange County park owners, said she believes that there are already sufficient rent subsidy programs offered by the federal government and the mobile home industry to assist mobile home owners who no longer can afford the space rents where they live.
Those favoring the proposed ordinance in Lake Forest, however, contend that rent increases have put inordinate pressure on the city's three senior citizen parks--El Toro Mobile Estates, Prothero Mobile Estates and Forest Gardens--prompting "distress" sales of scores of mobile homes.
Also joining in the call for rent control are residents of Kimberly Gardens, Lake Forest's only family park, who have been negotiating to buy the park's lease and manage it themselves with the intention of getting a handle on rents.
The surge of support for rent control at Lake Forest's mobile home parks was spurred by a citywide coalition of park homeowner associations, called the Lake Forest Mobile Home Owners Council, that formed in February to address common problems.
"We discovered that the main problem we all shared was escalating space rent and loss of affordability," said Rettino, who became chairman of a committee that drafted the rent control ordinance.
After the council meeting, Rettino said he was gratified by the turnout of rent control support and believes that some council members are sympathetic to their cause.
"We have put the pressure on and we are not taking it off," he said. Next, he said, the mobile home park residents will launch a telephone and letter writing drive to persuade the City Council to put the rent control issue on its agenda for further discussion and study.
"If they don't, we will be back," he promised.