When Redwood City resident Bob Mishler moved into his home at the Harbor Village Mobile Home Park at 3015 E. Bayshore Road 25 years ago, he was aiming to find an affordable place where he could live for the rest of his life.

Now at age 70, Mishler counts himself among those at retirement age or in their more advanced working years who chose the park as their home so they could live a more conservative, economic lifestyle in a smaller space. Since they own their homes and rent the space where they stand, Mishler, who serves as president of the park’s homeowners association, acknowledges there are some expenses related to upkeep and utilities, but noted they are not the same as the burden as a regular home.

Mishler is also among the park residents concerned about a proposed jump in their monthly sewer rates, which could go from an annual $850 sewer service charge for each residential unit in the Fair Oaks Sewer Maintenance District to $925 if the rate increase is approved by the San Mateo County Board of Directors at its July 23 meeting. Jim Porter, San Mateo County’s Public Works director, said the rate increase is needed to pay for system upgrades and the district’s share of capital improvements at the Silicon Valley Clean Water treatment plant in Redwood Shores, where sewage from this district and six other sewer districts is treated.

The Fair Oaks Sewer Maintenance District extends from Redwood City and unincorporated San Mateo County properties along the San Francisco Bay to Woodside and includes the Harbor Village Mobile Home Park and parts of Atherton. Sewer service rate increases are also being proposed for the Harbor Industrial Sewer Maintenance District and the Crystal Springs County Sanitation District.

Struggle to pay

Largely reliant on a fixed Social Security income, several seniors living at the mobile home park have struggled to pay for rising sewer service charges and other unexpected costs they may encounter, noted Mishler. Though some may opt to take part-time jobs to be able to make ends meet, many don’t have many ways to come up with the extra funds other than to cut back on other expenses where they can, said Mishler.

“Some people don’t have those extra funds to say, ‘oh, I need an $1,800 water heater,’” he said. “So they do without, maybe save up a little money until something hits them.”

‘Expensive system to operate’

Porter noted a confluence of factors is contributing to the uptick in sewer rates in recent years. With much of the sewer system infrastructure installed 50 to 75 years ago, many system components have reached the end of their useful life, he said. Porter added several of the county’s sewer plants were installed in the 1970s after the Clean Water Act was passed, a time when federal grants were available to fund some of these large-scale projects. But with many of those grants no longer available, an increasingly stringent regulatory environment and rising construction costs across the Bay Area, the expenses associated with maintaining the district’s sewer system are rising and are affecting what ratepayers are expected to pay, explained Porter.

“When you add all that up, it gets to be expensive to operate a sewer system,” said Porter. “We’re at a place where it’s time to really upgrade systems and, unfortunately, that translates to higher rates.”

Porter added rate increases specifically tied to the some $850 million in capital improvements for the Silicon Valley Clean Water treatment plant are expected to continue for the next three to five years.

‘We need to be looked at differently’

With the proposed rate increase, residents of the park would pay some $77 a month for their sewer services, which Kim Sparks, a resident and manager of the park, said marks a big jump from the some $13 a month she remembers paying for sewer services more than 20 years ago. For residents who moved to the park decades ago, the rate increases residents are facing now may be unforeseen expenses they now struggling to manage in their retirement, noted Sparks.

Sparks estimated some 30 of the 300 households in the park are enrolled in a rate assistance program offered by Pacific Gas and Electric. She hoped a similar kind of program could be set up to assist the same group of residents with the new rate, which is more than $6 a month more than what households in the district are currently paying, according to a staff report Porter prepared for the Board of Supervisors’ June 4 meeting.

Sparks said she has spoken with longtime residents who are wondering what else they can cut out of their budgets to be able to pay for the rate increase, noting paying even $10 a month more can be devastating for some given their fixed incomes and high medical costs. Sparks added that the park owner Al Engel’s decision to raise rents by only $30 in the last 10 years has allowed many residents to remain in their homes.

“It seems like a small dollar amount, but in a low-income world, it’s a lot of money and they have to then start making choices that you don’t want to see,” she said. “We’re a unique housing opportunity [and] we need to be looked at differently, separately from regular homeowners.”

County review

Porter said supervisors reviewed the possibility of offering a sewer service subsidy for low-income residents last year, and found a subsidy for those funds cannot come from the district’s sewer fund or the county could risk violating Proposition 218, which he noted stipulates jurisdictions can only charge property owners for their fair share of the services provided. He said supervisors opted not to subsidize its sewer utilities from the county’s General Fund when they discussed an assistance program last year, and said the Public Works Department doesn’t have any other funds at its disposal to subsidize them.

Porter also noted some cities are able to use late fines to subsidize utility assistance programs, but because the sewer service charges are collected with the county’s property tax assessments, the county has a high collection rate for those services and would not have much to distribute in late fees.

Not the same as traditional homes

For Engel, the application of the same sewer services rate for residents of the mobile home park he owns and single-family homes or new developments taking shape in other parts of the district was one of the troubling aspects of the proposed rate increase. Engel said many of the mobile homes in the park date back to 1959 when the park first opened, and felt that to expect residents whose homes are a fraction of the size of some of the newer homes being built today is unfair.

Engel said he hasn’t raised the rents of the park, which range from $450 for residents who moved into the park decades ago to some $1,300 for those who moved in more recently, out of concern for the residents who would be most affected by an increase in expenses. But he said he would have to consider raising the rents of the park if the change is approved to be able to fund necessary upgrades and capital expenditures.

“To me, it was an unfair way of evaluating … them into the same category as someone who has a three-quarter-acre house and a household of four to five people versus one or two individuals on fixed income,” he said.

Porter noted there are older couples who have lived in larger homes for much of their lives who are likely using as much water as those living in mobile homes. He said notification of the rate increases have been sent to all the property owners in the districts where they are being considered and if more than 50% of the property owners protest the change before supervisors review the rates July 23, it cannot be implemented.

Not many options

Martha Dellinger, an 80-year-old resident of the Harbor Village Mobile Home Park, hoped county officials can understand just how damaging the proposed rate increases will be for some members of her community. Having lived in the park for some 40 years, Dellinger said she’s among many residents who feel fortunate to have an understanding park owner and manager as well as a friendly community ready to help each other.

But Dellinger worried about the cumulative effect of the rate increases, noting some have already opted to move away in search of a lower cost of living and others might have too much pride to let others know they need help.

“This was the place that you were you were able to afford, and now it’s getting very expensive for people,” she said. “If I left here, I probably couldn’t afford to come back.”

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