Real Estate News

Seniors on edge as South Sacramento mobile home park opens to all

On a bright summer morning, the streets of the Capital Estates mobile home park in south Sacramento are quiet – just the way the residents like it. The early risers who work out in the neatly kept clubhouse have been and gone, and it’s not quite time yet for the park’s ongoing slate of potlucks and senior-oriented activities, including a “Chat & Sew” women’s group, bingo games and bunco. The pool is a rectangle of gleaming aquamarine. A few streets over, the shuffleboard courts are silent.

“This is an oasis,” said Dick Fenkner, 74, a retired postal worker who has lived in the park with his wife, Mary, for 11 years. “Everyone here was led to believe that this would always be a seniors community.”

That’s about to change. Although for decades it has been designated as housing for people aged 55 and older, Capital Estates is converting to an all-ages community in August. Residents – who bought homes here seeking a senior lifestyle, thinking it was the perfect place to grow old – have tried to fight the conversion, but to no avail.

“The owners are good people, and they’ve tried to keep the park high quality,” said homeowners’ association president Barbara Garnier, 70, a six-year resident of Capital Estates. “But it’s a business. They made the decision, and we’re not part of the decision.”

Now she and other residents find themselves caught in the midst of a tough, unexpected trend: Capital Estates is the latest in a series of mobile home communities up and down California to shift away from serving only seniors, leaving longtime older residents with little choice but to adapt or go elsewhere.

“We have seniors who’ve been here a long time,” said Garnier. “Where would they go? They’ve run out of money. My neighbor is quite ill and can’t drive. It’s a feeling of helplessness. We don’t think this is right.

“There are some things that are legally right, but they’re still morally wrong.”

Traditionally, seniors’ mobile home parks have been an affordable option for older adults on limited fixed incomes who want senior community amenities and safe, comfortable neighborhoods. The parks fill a niche for people who are too financially strapped to buy into a Sun City development yet too financially stable to qualify for federally subsidized senior apartments.

With 78 million baby boomers edging into older age, these parks could be a growing source of housing for seniors – but the industry, unable to overcome entrenched negative stereotypes of trailer parks, is shrinking because of declining demand. Most cities, including Sacramento, haven’t seen the opening of new mobile home parks for 15 years or more.

About a half-million of the country’s 8.6 million mobile home residences are located in California, according to the U.S. census, and almost 21,000 of those occupied units are in the Sacramento region. Their residents are older and poorer than the average Sacramentan: In the region’s almost 200 mobile home parks, the median age is 67; the median annual income is a modest $26,200, almost $30,000 below the median Sacramento County income.

It’s hard to pinpoint specific statistics on California’s seniors-only mobile home parks – or manufactured housing communities, which is the preferred term since most of the housing units have no wheels and are far from mobile. But the role these parks have played in seniors’ lives is clear.

“The manufactured housing park meets a lot of seniors’ needs,” said Carl Leivo, a Sonoma County-based expert on manufactured housing communities. “It’s low maintenance, yet it provides the independence of owning your own home. It preserves their financial assets. It’s affordable. It allows them to live independently with people their own age in an ideal neighborhood environment.

“The seniors have community resources there supporting them, so they’re not a burden on the resources of the broader community.”

Seniors-only mobile home parks are exempt from federal age restriction laws under the Housing for Older Persons Act, passed in 1995, as long as they maintain an 80 percent older adult occupancy rate. But should that rate drop – because, for example, younger family members have moved in to take care of elderly relatives – the property owners can legally abandon the seniors-only designation.

That’s been happening from Napa and Sacramento to San Jose and Orange County. For mobile home park owners, it’s a decision to broaden the customer base: It’s easier to fill empty mobile homes if potential residents aren’t segmented by age and limited by fixed incomes in what they can pay.

“This is happening around the state,” said Leivo. “The park owners believe that by opening the parks up to all ages, that increases the number of people who would lease spaces and occupy homes.

“If the park is having trouble filling spaces, that kind of situation is not uncommon.”

A close-knit neighborhood

That’s the situation playing out in Capital Estates, an attractive, 256-lot gated community veiled from 65th Street Expressway and the Little Saigon neighborhood by high walls and towering hedges of pink and white oleanders. In February, after the senior occupancy rate fell to 70 percent, representatives for the site’s owner, two Southern California family trusts, notified residents that the community rules were being changed to include families.

It’s been a close-knit neighborhood, a place of Mother’s Day community brunches and Fourth of July potlucks. Every Sept. 11, a group of Capital Estates neighbors takes cookies and cake to a nearby fire station to thank first responders for coming so often to the aid of the elderly at the park who’ve had medical emergencies.

People here watch out for one another, and they feel safe. They leave their doors open at night to catch the Delta breeze.

“It’s a community that will support me if I need something,” said Garnier. “That’s not typical in many neighborhoods.”

These days, she and other residents are bracing themselves for the change they hoped never to see.

According to the letter residents received, the change was intended as a way “to reach a broader market, which, in turn, may increase mobile home values.” After a community meeting, residents were given six months’ notice that the park is opening its gates to people of all ages. The sequence met the requirements of California’s mobile home residency law, which mandates written notice of park rule changes, a meeting on the change and a six-month waiting period before the new rule goes into effect.

Avram Salkin, a Beverly Hills attorney and trustee for the Salkin Family Trust, declined to comment on the decision.

“This is a privately owned entity,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss it with the public.”

In an exchange of letters and emails with Garnier, the homeowners’ association president, he’s stood firm by the decision to convert the park. Not surprisingly, many residents are unhappy with the absentee park owners.

Said Mary Fenkner: “We call them ‘The Beverly Hillbullies.’ ”

Through her tiny garden lush with succulents and greenery, up a few steps to the side entrance, a handful of residents came to Garnier’s spacious, tidy double-wide to talk about their sense of betrayal. They’re stuck and they’re frustrated.

When Diane Ward and her husband retired, they moved to Capital Estates from their home near Pocket Road. It was 2006. They paid $140,000 for their three-bedroom, double-wide unit, and then the recession came crashing through Sacramento. Housing prices in the park plummeted, and foreclosures swept through the neighborhood outside the gates.

“We’d be lucky to sell for $60,000 now,” said Ward, 69, a retired secretary. “We can’t afford to move.”

With fees to transport the manufactured homes ranging as high as $20,000, most owners can’t afford to move their unit, either.

They’re caught in a financial bind. Residents of manufactured housing parks own or pay a mortgage on their residence but not the real estate: They pay a monthly fee to rent the narrow lot the unit occupies. The fee generally includes basic utilities, such as water and gas. At Capital Estates, space rent has been a reasonable $530. But the park is dotted with empty lots, and some of the mobile homes are unoccupied.

Facing the coming change to their community, residents’ fears abound.

Mary Fenkner described a recent situation involving a grandparent whose adult daughter and teenaged grandchildren had moved in with her. There was an argument, then doors slamming, then choice words echoing loudly into the quiet street.

“I thought, ‘Why should we go through that? It’s not what we signed up for,’ ” said Fenkner. “Down by the shuffleboard courts, another woman’s small grandchild had a tantrum. I thought, ‘This is the way we’re going to be here.’ ”

As Barbara Woolen, a 74-year-old retired state worker and 11-year park resident, said: “I raised three children myself. It’s not that I dislike children, but I don’t want them screaming around my door. I’m upset about this.”

And there’s this concern: In a neighborhood without sidewalks, children will play in the streets. What if an older driver hits a child? Or a teenaged driver hits older residents out for an evening stroll? Will the pool be noisy with unruly teens? Will the clubhouse be so overrun with young people that the cherished slate of senior activities and get-togethers goes by the wayside?

And will crime come in the gates along with younger residents, turning their haven into a magnet for drug deals and violence? Right now, Capital Estates residents feel sheltered from the crimes occurring in rougher areas just outside their gates. Within walking distance on nearby Stockton Boulevard, for example, law enforcement this year has responded to reports of vandalism, burglary, prostitution and robbery.

“I would say many of their fears are realistic,” said Leivo. “This can lead to a disruption of the quality of lifestyle the senior wanted.”

‘A private matter’

Garnier and other homeowners’ association members worked throughout the spring to put a halt to the change. In a community meeting, they expressed their concerns to a representative of the park owners, then followed up with an extensive letter-writing campaign to Salkin.

They asked for help from advisers from the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League, which monitors regulations affecting residents of parks such as Capital Estates. They spoke out in City Council meetings and lobbied for a zoning change that would preserve Capital Estates’ seniors-only status.

A similar tactic worked last year in Huntington Beach, where the City Council passed a temporary moratorium on converting 55-and-older mobile home communities while the city designs a plan for affordable senior housing.

But Sacramento officials say policies are already in place here that promote a range of senior housing across the city and across many income levels: Older adults in Sacramento have options. So rezoning Capital Estates for seniors-only occupancy isn’t possible.

“I really feel for residents and understand their quality of life concerns,” said Planning Director David Kwong, who met with homeowners’ group representatives. “At the same time, we look at the city code and city policies. We don’t create a zoning code for isolated situations.”

The city also denied Barbara Garnier’s request for a moratorium on the park conversion, which would require an official finding that the change poses an immediate impact to residents’ health and safety.

“I feel residents’ frustration,” said Councilman Kevin McCarty, whose district includes Capital Estates. “But this is a private matter between a private property owner and private residents.”

Garnier, who ran a pottery business in Arizona before moving to Capital Estates, even suggested to park owners that residents be allowed to purchase the park themselves and run the site as a cooperative.

“I thought if we could have a voice, we could come to some mutual agreement,” she said. “But the owners don’t have to.”

Now time is running out. Signs in front of the park already say it’s open to families of all ages. By mid-August, the change will be official.

“What the residents can do is encourage seniors to buy those houses that become available,” said David Thompson, a Davis consultant who has advised other mobile home parks on how to become cooperatives.

“That’s what I’d have them doing. I’d get a senior to buy every available unit that comes onto the market.”

Capital Estates residents are trying to do exactly that, even while they resign themselves to the inevitability of young families and teenagers and noisy residents moving into their midst.

“What’s going to happen here is, it’s going to be a family park,” said Diane Ward. “At the discretion of the managers, we’ll have families here.”