The “Age Wave” is upon us. It is estimated that every eight seconds another American turns 65. As is already clear to many, elder care is the crisis we have no plan for. Add housing to the mix of existing concerns about care, health and retirement security and you have a disaster looming—which is why it’s crazy to threaten the largest source of unsubsidized housing still affordable for the middle class—especially when those middle-class retirees are your clients.
At least that’s what a group of retirees had it in mind to tell billionaire property baron (and Romney supporter) Sam Zell when they flew into Chicago from around the country to attend the annual shareholder meeting of one of Zell’s companies, Equity Life Style Properties (ELS), last week.
“This was our one chance in the year to tell Zell and his board how the company’s policies are affecting real people,” said Ishbel Dickens of the Manufactured Home Owners Association of America (MHOAA), who helped organize the residents’ action May 8. But she and most of the residents were excluded from the meeting, and Sam Zell himself stayed away.
“I bought a share so I could tell Sam Zell that that we need to have a conversation regarding the company’s treatment of its own clients,” Pam Bournival of Florida told the press afterwards. “I came all the way from Sarasota Florida, to attend and have a voice…. but I’ll be back next year.”
ELS owns hundreds of manufactured home communities that cater to senior citizens. The seniors who live in ELS communities have bought their homes, but they rent the plot on which their houses stand. Since Zell started buying up manufactured home communities, he has made millions by cutting services and raising rent. For retirees like Bournival, or Helen Honeycutt, who came to Chicago from an ELS community in Los Osos, California, acquisition by Zell has turned what she thought was a well-planned retirement in a rent-controlled community into an insecure experience that threatens her nest-egg home.
“When we paid $85,000 for a manufactured home fourteen years ago, we were looking to have no mortgage, low overhead and a lifestyle we could afford,” Honeycutt told me in Chicago. When ELS bought the property ten years ago, they started hiking rents and pressuring the county to eliminate rent control.
“Now I live in constant fear that the county will give up the fight against Sam Zell’s deep-pocket lawsuits and we’ll be priced out,” explains Honeycutt. ELS says their tenants can move if they don’t like it. “But my home is a 1,900-square-foot triple-wide. It’s old. I can’t move it two feet.”
Honeycutt has good cause to be concerned. In Santa Cruz, ELS sued so many times to rescind the prevailing rent control ordinance that the city finally gave way even after prevailing in court, reportedly to avoid further litigation costs. Now, “fair market rents” established by ELS for the local DeAnza Home Park are up from $400–$600 to $1,700, even $5,000 per month for ocean-front properties. Bob Lamonica, a DeAnza resident, can’t move his $300,000 home and he fears he’d never be able to sell it. “Potential buyers won’t buy when they realize they will have to pay $60,000 a year rent on top of the house itself,” Lamonica explained.