Pat Butler: New park owner strikes fear in residents
December 8, 2005
It can’t be easy facing a group of people who are worried about losing their homes, even if you’re the one who might force them out of those homes.
But that’s where Ken Waterhouse of Roseville was sitting on Tuesday night. The new owner of the Grass Valley Mobile Home Park was trying to calm his tenants while at the same time explaining two rent-increase options.
Waterhouse, who boasted several times during the discussion that he owns 60-plus mobile home parks, is proposing that he immediately raise the rent by at least $50 a month for each lot, many of which are used by residents who rely on Social Security or disability payments for their income.
In fact, many of them live on less than $25,000 a year, according to a survey done by their mobile home association. Of that group, more than half live on less than $13,000 annually.
But the president of Waterhouse Management Corporation wasn’t asking about their incomes, he was explaining how much more it would cost them to live there now that he is their landlord.
Those who sign a five-year lease, he explained, will see their rent rise by a total of $125 per month over two years ($50 the first year and $75 the second year). It would then stay at that level for the next three years.
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Those who don’t sign the lease will see their rent increase by a total of $100 per month over two years ($50 the first year and another $50 the following year) with no increase in the third year. Beyond those timelines, the sharply dressed entrepreneur was offering no guarantees.
Waterhouse, who appeared to be in his late 30s or early 40s and was accompanied by two employees, also made it clear that he’s not afraid of a courtroom. In an apparent attempt to discourage the pursuit of a rent-control ordinance that has been suggested by some residents, he shared a tale of how he spent $1.2 million in a 22-month court battle that he ultimately won.
“Rent control is not fun for the residents, and it’s not that bad for us,” he told the 40 or 50 people seated in the small clubhouse nestled among the pines.
He also broke some news at the meeting. Another developer has offered him more than the reported $5.5 to $6 million he paid for the park that is near the Happy Frog Nursery along Highway 49. Waterhouse seemed to suggest that this developer might have plans to redevelop the mobile home park.
He also mentioned that a nonprofit had inquired about purchasing the property, which probably buoyed the spirits of at least some of the beleaguered residents, who now pay $350 a month in rent.
Among those in attendance was 81-year-old Freda Beckett, who lives mostly off an income of $1,257 a month. The 19-year park resident owns her 1971 modular home but still pays $457.77 in rent and other fees a month to occupy a small plot at the park. This does not include electric and natural gas bills, which she said have been as high as $180 per month. She also pays $244 each month for health insurance.
When you add a $50 rent increase that would take effect on Jan. 10, her basic living expenses rise to $751.77 per month, which leaves her with $506 to pay for her utilities, food and other expenses. After next year’s proposed increase, that will drop to less than $500 a month.
“If they raise the rent another $100 and then another $100 on top of what we’re paying now, that’s scary,” Freda said in the living room of her tidy home. “It seems like everything we’ve worked for our whole lives, he wants to take away.”
One of the unique concerns for many of the park residents is that their homes are too old to be moved, according to Skip Ingalls, who lives in lot 87 with his wife, Norma, the president of a mobile home owners’ group. Many parks, he said, can’t accept homes made before 1976 because they don’t meet current codes.
So, in other words, if you can’t pay the rent and then get evicted, you may have to leave without your home, unless you’re lucky enough to find a buyer.
Larry White, a 63-year-old disabled park resident, has most of his assets tied up in his small mobile home. White and his wife, Flo, bought their house for $8,000 and have since spent between $12,000 and $15,000 to install new cabinets, hardwood floors, and to make other upgrades, he said before Tuesday’s meeting.
He collects $1,076 from Social Security, and his wife earns around $400 per month working part time at a nearby market. The couple has less than a $1,000 in the bank, according to Larry. Any large increase in rent would be devastating, he said.
“A $100 increase would kill us,” he said. When asked what the future holds if he can no longer afford the rent, he replied: “I have no idea what I would do. I have no idea.”
But those concerns were mere flickers on the horizon Tuesday night. Waterhouse, who originally proposed raising the rents by $100 a month, is a man to be reckoned with and knows how to leverage his assets.
The threats of litigation or of selling the property to an even more ambitious businessman achieved their purpose. Late in the meeting, a younger woman who was wearing sunglasses and said she didn’t expect to live a long life pleaded with Waterhouse to be merciful toward the least fortunate at the park.
While she understood his desire to seek a return on his investment, she told him that some residents are living on the fringes.
“There’s some of us who don’t have families, who don’t have other options,” she said. “They’re afraid of being homeless.”
Waterhouse said his company would try to work with those people but made no commitments as to how he might help them.
Then late Friday, the park residents received a letter from the Waterhouse corporation. According to Norma Ingalls and another tenant, the letter includes a form that declares the renters will not pursue any form of rent control. If every resident does not sign the letter, the rent will jump $100 per month on Jan. 10.
What an odd demand from a man who has said in the past that rent control has made him rich.
Norma describes this latest act as coercion. It sounds like a form of economic terrorism to me.
So where does this leave the Grass Valley Mobile Home Park residents? Many of them are clinging to this last bastion of truly affordable housing in our county.
A rent control or stabilization ordinance seems unlikely unless the county is willing to be sued by Waterhouse, who has made it clear that he’s not afraid to spend a million or more dollars in legal fees. The residents also now have an apparent gun to their heads on the issue of rent control.
In the meantime, many of the park’s residents can’t afford to move and leave their homes. So they’re at the mercy of their new master, a person who doesn’t live here and apparently has a heart of stone. He certainly is displaying little of the Christmas spirit. Instead, these people are getting Scrooged.
I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to Waterhouse after Tuesday’s meeting. He mentioned a couple of times that he needed to rush home to tuck his 10-year-old in. I called his office two other times, but his staff said he was unavailable to comment. I then left messages, but my calls were not returned. Residents of the park have had a similar experience when they call Waterhouse Inc.
This entire unseemly episode sends yet another dire signal about the status of affordable housing here. We continue to have less and less of it and more cold-blooded speculators like Waterhouse.
Never has the bumper sticker that says “Don’t Roseville Grass Valley” been more appropriate.
Pat Butler is the editor of The Union. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4235.
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