In recent weeks, fears mounted among low-income seniors who live at Flamingo Mobile Home Park — the senior trailer park tucked into Santa Barbara’s Eastside — as news of an impending sale spread.
Five months ago, after tenants found out that the property went on the market for $10 million, rumors abounded that the park’s 72 units would be removed and replaced with condominiums. An emergency meeting was convened at the park’s poolside, where little was done to quell the tenants’ worries.
“It weighs on you when you are in jeopardy of losing everything you have,” said 68-year-old JoAnn Garrett, who moved to the trailer park at age 14 before it was exclusively for seniors.
But the park’s owner, Elizabeth Keeter, pledged this week that she would never sell the property to a developer. “I grew up in this area,” she said. “I used to catch tadpoles in the creek. I used to swim in that pool in the ’70s.” Now she lives just down the street.
“We were only [putting it on the market] because someone wanted to buy it for investment purposes,” Keeter explained. She said past deals fell through, and currently there is no purchase contract in place. That contradicts reports from sources who claimed a deal is underway and that a new owner would take over by August. Under that contract, sources said, the mobile home park would remain as it is. The management company — Lynx Property Management — has a lease through 2030.
In 2013, Keeter inherited the property from her grandfather. “You cannot develop the property because it’s rent controlled,” she said. “Even if it wasn’t, I don’t want 200 condominiums 200 feet from my driveway.”
Yet Keeter said she “became a total outcast” among the residents after she missed the February meeting because she was told the wrong time. After that, she said, she was unreachable because she spent two months in Maryland helping a close friend cope with an unexpected death in the family.
In the City of Santa Barbara, mobile home parks — of which there are 15 — are protected by rent control. Garrett, for instance, pays about $400 a month for rent while newer tenants pay $725. Most residents own their units. That law is silent, however, on tenant protections should the property change hands.
“If you own the trailer and they kick you out, you’d be forced to move the trailer,” explained City Councilmember Jason Dominguez. “There are generally no openings in the region.” Dominguez said options that exist to maintain a mobile home park include condemning the park under eminent domain or establishing a co-op model in which the residents collectively purchase the property.
City and state laws do not prohibit buyers from developing mobile home parks, but the city’s mobile home ordinance is rather onerous, and no Santa Barbara parks have been developed in at least the last 20 years. The state regulates mobile home parks, but city laws come into play if the landlord tries to change its use. The ordinance requires an owner to obtain a conversion permit, which requires relocation assistance, proper noticing, and a public hearing, among other things.
According to zoning codes, the Flamingo property could potentially be converted to a 45-foot-tall building with 15-27 units. The property, located on Cacique Street, hugs Sycamore Creek, which would pose development constraints. In addition, a new owner must consider adequate emergency access, which could prove difficult because Cacique Street to the west dead-ends at a bridge that does not accommodate vehicles.
Next door, the fate of Tropical Garden also remains the subject of growing speculation. According to city planning czar George Buell, the Tropical Garden site is zoned to allow 27-48 residential units. One well-placed source indicates the park is poised to change hands and that the 50-trailer property is now under contract. And unlike the Flamingo, according to this source, major changes in use and development are in store for the Tropical Garden.
Efforts to contact Don Donaldson, who has owned the property for 30 years, proved unsuccessful by deadline. Park general manager Gregory Barnes dismissed reports of the sale as “false rumors.” Darin Packard, a park resident and maintenance worker, called Tropical Garden “a hidden gem” that provides affordable housing to working people who keep “the city’s wheels greased.” He added that the park’s close proximity to the beach is an amenity that even affluent mountain dwellers do not enjoy. None of the Tropical Garden residents own their trailers; they rent from Donaldson reportedly on a month-to-month basis. In that scenario, tenants would have little protection should a new owner seek to make big changes.
With undeveloped land at a premium, real estate operators are casting a keener eye at mobile home parks for opportunities. Although City Hall is actively promoting higher-density housing in hopes of achieving some affordability, it remains questionable whether any new development can match the two mobile home parks for either density or affordability.
Nick Welsh and Héctor Sánchez Castañeda contributed to this report.