Category Archives: news

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Residents at Regency Lakes complain of price-gouging

From the Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — Regency Lakes homeowner Bob Thompson is accusing the billionaire owner of the modular-home development of pricing out senior citizens.

A group of homeowners from the Frederick County development, east of Winchester off Berryville Pike (Va. 7), sat around the Thompsons’ dining room table on Thursday to discuss their frustrations and concerns.

Like Thompson and his wife Nirtha, the six women gathered at the table — all seniors — own their homes, but rent the lots on which they are placed. Unlike the Thompsons, all of the women asked that their names not be revealed, saying they feared reprisal.

Nearly two years ago, Hometown America sold the development to Chicago-based Equity Lifestyle Properties (ELS), which bills itself on its website, as “the leading operator of Manufactured Home Communities, RV Resorts and Campgrounds in North America.”

ELS has developments in 32 states and British Columbia, and owns or manages, or has a controlling interest in, more than 141,000 lots in some 380 communities, according to the website.

ELS Chairman Sam Zell was the 106th-richest person in America, worth $4 billion as of March, according to Forbes magazine. He bought the Tribune Co. — which included the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, WGN and numerous other television stations, as well as the Chicago Cubs — in 2007. The company filed for bankruptcy the next year, and later sold the Cubs.

All but 50 of the 450 manufactured homes in Regency Lakes are owned by the residents who live in them — the majority are senior citizens, said Bob Thompson, 78.

About 250 of the homes’ mortgages are handled through ELS, he added.

When he and his wife, 74, moved into the development 10 years ago, their lot rent was $260 per month. Now it’s $465, with a $15 increase scheduled to take effect when the annual lease is up for renewal, he said.

Previously, Thompson said, the annual increases had been $20 to $25 per month, but had been reduced to $8 after he complained.

“We never thought that the rent [would] rise,” he said. “Came in and thought the monthly fee that we’re paying is what we’re going to be paying [forever].”

Some of his neighbors said they did not think their rents would remain frozen, but that the increases are too much and come too often.

They added that their utility payments have increased in recent years while their Social Security checks have remained fixed.

“Affordable living is what it’s really all about,” Thompson said.

The others gathered at his home said senior living communities are sparse, and those around the area are too costly for them.

The Thompsons believe ELS hopes to drive out most of the homeowners, take possession of their homes and rent the lots and homes together for greater profit.

Residents who no longer want to rent a lot have three months to remove their homes — transferring them to another property can cost $12,000-$15,000, Thompson said — and if they don’t comply, the development will take ownership, according to the gathered residents.

And when an owner has found an interested buyer, Regency Lakes management must give final approval, which often isn’t granted, according to the Thompsons and the other residents.

They spoke of paying about $100,000 or more for their manufactured homes, and hearing of neighbors now selling them for as little as $10,000 just to escape the lot payments.

“It’s their bigger scope to make it an all-rental [development],” he said, meaning residents would pay a combined rent for the home and lot. “It’s just not … fair that they can take these homes from us.”

While they are now paying more for their rental spaces, the services and amenities the residents receive haven’t improved, they said.

“They’re ripping people off,” Nirtha Thompson said. “They’re robbing money from these people.”

She added that the development also has young families struggling to make payments.

Thompson, a former moving company owner, and his wife, who worked at Lord & Taylor, moved to Winchester from Sterling. He said many in Regency Lakes came there for the same reasons.

“We had bigger homes and we wanted to downsize because our children moved away,” Thompson said.

The manufactured-home community was attractive because chores such as snow removal and lawn-mowing would be done for them, he said.

Thompson said that because the owners don’t have complete control of their homes when they occupy rental lots, it is difficult to persuade real estate companies to handle sales.

“The whole thing is a blind spot that we all got into,” he said.

Thompson has been keeping the community abreast of the issue, among other happenings in the park through a monthly newsletter, and is in contact with residents in other ELS communities around the country.

“What I think should happen in this particular case here is that they put a stop to or ‘grandfather’ and stop the rent increase,” he said, “because of our age. As we then die off, they do with our home [as they see fit] if they want to.”

He hopes the residents of the hundreds of other manufactured-home and mobile-home parks in Virginia will also mobilize and advocate for themselves.

Residents of a modular home community owned by ELS in San Rafael, Calif., recently won a battle against the company.

KGO-TV, an ABC affiliate in San Francisco, reported this month that a federal appeals court refused to rehear ELS’s case.

Zell had challenged San Rafael’s rent-control laws in federal court, and won, but an appeals court threw out the decision.

KGO reported that five years ago, ELS tried to raise the lot rent at the San Rafael mobile-home park from $700 to $800 a month to nearly $2,000.

A communications officer for Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc., who said she was on vacation, had not responded to questions she had asked to be emailed to her by Friday evening.

— Contact Sally Voth at



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San Rafael rent control case could impact thousands

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) — Residents of a San Rafael mobile home park won a major victory Monday in a case that could affect hundreds of thousands of California mobile home residents. The multi-million dollar legal battle pits a company controlled by one of the richest men in America against the city of San Rafael and the Contempo Marin mobile home park.

At first glance, you might think life at Contempo Marin looks idyllic. But former resident Jacqui Garcia says that’s an illusion. “I get very angry about what’s happened to so many people that have had to walk away,” she said.

Garcia lived at Contempo Marin for 30 years, in a home protected by rent control.

Former San Rafael City Councilman Greg Brockbank says mobile home parks are “one of our best examples of affordable housing.” “It gives us the diversity we need to have a healthy community,” he said. “It provides us with people that work in the community, that retire in the community.”

But things at Contempo Marin changed 13 years ago when the park owner Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS) sued to end rent control. Contempo Marin is like most mobile home communities; residents own their houses but rent the land under them. Despite their name, the homes are actually not very mobile.

About 100 California cities and counties have rent control laws to protect to the homeowners. The San Rafael case could affect them all.

Attorney Michael Von Loewenfeldt is representing the city of San Rafael. “Because (mobile home owners) don’t own the land under their homes, they are really subject to abuses or potential abuses by the landowner,” he said.

In 2008, ELS tried to raise rents from $700-$800 a month to almost $2,000 a month. A judge stopped that, but the legal battle is still going and it’s taken an emotional toll on many residents.

ELS is the biggest mobile home park owner in the country. The chairman of the board is Sam Zell, estimated by Forbes to be worth $4 billion. Last month residents of ELS communities in seven states showed up outside a shareholder meeting in Chicago to accuse the company of excessive rent increases.

“Seniors are actually walking into the manager’s office and turning in the key to their house and walking away, losing everything,” Carla Burr, a mobile home resident from Virginia, said.

Residents at Contempo Marin say that’s happening at their park too. They are caught in legal limbo. Five years ago, a federal judge ruled San Rafael’s rent control law was unconstitutional. Then, last April the appeals court reversed that decision.

But the president of the homeowners association, Keith Meloney, says it’s too soon to celebrate. He told residents, “While there is a time for our victory dance, it is not yet today.”

ELS is fighting the court ruling. For now, if any one moves out of their home, rent control on that space goes away and ELS can raise the rent as high as it wants. That’s already happened on more than 60 of about 400 spaces at the park.

In court papers filed last week, residents claim ELS is trying to drive them out.

Gordon Atkinson is the attorney for Contempo Marin residents. He feels so strongly about the case he is doing it for free. Atkinson says the court documents include statements from residents who say they are being harassed. “They say that the park owner is not taking care of the park, that conditions are deteriorating, that they are selectively enforcing rules against some homeowners, but not other homeowners,” he said.

Residents who want to sell are struggling. Their houses have lost almost all their value because of the uncertainty over future rent. Andrew Perrins has family and health issues and needs to move. Perrins says he bought his house for $160,000. “Just a few years later, due to the legal actions of the owners of the landowner, my house is now worth less than $5,000,” he said.

Jacqui Garcia was so desperate to get out, she’s selling her home for just $300. “There was no peace of mind anymore,” she said. “You lived in constant fear, what are you going to get hit with next?”

In court documents, ELS calls the residents claims of harassment “erroneous assertions.”

No one from Equity LifeStyle Properties would not talk on camera. Instead, they sent the following statement:

We filed a petition for rehearing with the full 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals because we believe that the 3-judge panel’s opinion was in conflict with U.S. Supreme Court rulings. As discussed in our petition, the trial court found after a full trial that the City’s rent control ordinance does not make housing more affordable, a conclusion the 3-judge panel did not dispute. Instead, the ordinance forces new residents to pay more upfront to get into the community than they would have to pay without the ordinance. Our customers are overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality and pricing of the communities and lifestyle we provide. We invest large amounts of money in maintaining and upgrading our communities every year. Last year alone, we invested tens of millions of dollars in property upgrades.

Monday, the federal appeals court refused to re-hear the case — a major victory for the mobile home owners. However, Equity Lifestyle Properties has 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are an estimated 350,000 mobile homes in communities throughout California.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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Progress Illinois Coverage of Chicago Shareholders Action

Tenants Accuse Residential Community Company Of ‘Unfair Rent Increases’, Abusive Practices

From Progress Illinois

Residents of the nation’s largest corporate owner of manufactured home communities, Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS), say the company is engaging in abusive practices and general disinvestment in its properties.

Wednesday, a group of more than 20 residents from across the country gathered outside ELS’ annual shareholder meeting in Chicago and demanded to be heard by the company’s founder and chairman, Sam Zell.

While a few demonstrators attended the meeting, several protesters rallied outside and urged Zell and other ELS executives to stop “unfair rent increases” that push residents, most of them retirees on fixed incomes, out of their homes and into poverty.

The demonstration was part of an ongoing battle between ELS and residents who want better living and renting conditions.

“My lot rent is more than half of my Social Security,” said Carla Burr, a 59 year-old resident of an ELS property in Chantilly, Virginia.

Burr pays a monthly lot fee of $945 and makes an annual income of $42,000. But, when she turns 65 she stands to lose an employer disability payment that will cut her income almost in half.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay in my house,” she said, noting her lot fee has increased $30 to $40 every year since she moved in, in 2006. “(ELS’) main goal is to win money for their investors at any cost, and they don’t care who they hurt.”

Traded on the New York Stock Exchange, ELS is a real estate investment trust (REIT) with communities in 32 states and British Columbia. According to the website, the company owns or has ownership interest in 380 properties – two of which are in Illinois – with more than 141,000 sites total.

ELS is putting profits over people, according to Ishbel Dickens, executive director of the Seattle-based National Manufactured Home Owners Association (NMHOA).

NMHOA organized the demonstration with Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Community Change and brought residents from eight different states to Wednesday’s shareholder meeting at ELS headquarters in Chicago.

“(ELS’) business model is to return a high profit in a short-term and the only way the company, as a REIT, can do that is by increasing rents or not investing in their properties as a way to give shareholders a higher return,” Dickens said.

Meanwhile, according to TheStreet Wire, ELS has exhibited “solid stock price performance.” During the past fiscal year, ELS increased its bottom line in earnings per share growth to $1.32 from $0.74.

Protesters also argued ELS uses significant amounts of money to support initiatives and ballot measures that directly impact manufactured homeowners, such as challenging rent controlled ordinances in California.

In April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a rent control ordinance for mobile homes in San Rafael, California, was not unconstitutional. The ruling was in connection with ELS’ lawsuit challenging the City of San Rafael’s rent control ordinance.

“We’re concerned with how the company is addressing political advocacy,” said Adam Rust, director of research for Reinvestment Partners, which is an ELS shareholder.

Rust said he’s heard stories of ELS’ general disinvestment in properties, including stories about roads not being maintained, sidewalks being cracked, malfunctioning water systems, pools not being cleaned and poorly maintained landscaping.

Meanwhile, he added, the company spent $6.5 million on the lawsuit against San Rafael’s rent control ordinance.

“(Shareholders) are concerned with expenses on political contributions to pursue an advocacy agenda that we don’t think really represents the interests of residents, and which, to some degree, undermines the ability of the company to continue to generate shareholder equity over the long-term,” Rust said.

Rust presented a shareholder resolution that, if passed, would have required ELS to divulge its expenditures, such as monies spent on political advocacy. Rust said he was curious to see where ELS’ priorities lie.

The resolution was ultimately voted down, but Rust said “it was more about being a witness to something.”

A few of the protesters were also able to attend the meeting, during which they were provided a short question and answer session with Brad Nelson, senior vice president of East Operations, and Ron Bunce, senior vice president of West Operations of ELS.

According to Pam Bournival, 56, a resident of an ELS property in Sarasota, Florida, the open dialogue session indicated protesters are “on their radar.”

Bournival has attended shareholder meetings for the past four years, and said Wednesday’s meeting marked the first instance in which residents were allowed open dialogue with executives. She said she was  “surprised” by the question and answer session and would have preferred notification about the opportunity ahead of time.

“Things were not overly optimistic, but we’re pleased with some positive steps,” Bournival, who is also secretary of NMHOA, said. “We still want to meet with board decisionmakers.”

Sam Zell was not in attendance and the meeting was closed to the media. An ELS spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

“We’re going to keep on them until they agree to meet with us,” said Burr.

With the rising costs of food and utilities, increasing lot fees are spreading her finances alarmingly thin, Burr added. She said she will most likely have to move when her employer disability payments run out in six years.

“I’m not opposed to ELS making money,” Burr said. “But how they’re doing it is pushing residents out, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.”

Here’s more from Burr:

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Equity LifeStyle shareholders reject proposal on political activities

From Crain’s Chicago Business

Critics of Sam Zell’s mobile home park business tried a new tactic in their campaign against the company at its annual meeting yesterday. It didn’t work.

Durham, N.C.-based Reinvestment Partners, an advocacy group and shareholder in Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc., pushed a proposal at the meeting designed to shed light on the company’s political activities, including efforts to strike down rent-control ordinances on the West Coast.

But shareholders voted to reject the proposal, which called for the Chicago-based real estate investment trust to publish an annual report that would detail “direct, indirect and grassroots political contributions,” such as a $50,000 donation made in 2008 to support California Proposition 98, which sought to phase out rent control in the state.

The proposal is part of a broader push among advocacy groups to force public companies to disclose more about their political activities. So far in 2013, shareholder activists have filed 126 proposals about corporate political activity, according to a recent report from the Sustainable Investments Institute, a Boonsboro, Md.-based non-profit. While that number is the same as all of 2012, it’s notably higher than 105 proposals in 2011 and 67 in 2010, the report said.

Equity LifeStyle, whose chairman is Mr. Zell, is the nation’s largest owner of mobile home parks, with stakes in 383 properties across the U.S. and Canada as of the end of 2012. The company has come under fire from a small but vocal group of residents who accuse it of gouging its tenants on rent. While the REIT’s residents typically own their homes, they rent the land on which they sit from the company.

Adam Rust, director of research at Reinvestment Partners, acknowledged the Equity LifeStyle proposal was unlikely to pass, but said it allowed his organization to make a statement on behalf of residents at the company’s parks.

“For the people who live in the parks, I think to them, it seems like the company is making an effort to spend money on (political issues) when they’re not making an effort to spend money on other things,” such as maintenance at Equity LifeStyle communities, he said. “If the parks go down in quality, then you get a different kind of resident, you get new problems.”

Equity LifeStyle representatives did not return calls. In its proxy statement, the company recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal, calling it “duplicative and unnecessary” and saying it “represents the interests of a small minority.”


Yesterday’s meeting, which was not open to reporters, marked the first time community advocates were able to get such a proposal before Equity LifeStyle shareholders, demonstrators said.

It also marked the first time that Equity LifeStyle directors held a brief Q&A period with the shareholder activists, including several residents of the company’s communities.

“We’re not overly optimistic, but we’re pleased with positive steps it looks like they’re trying to take,” said Pam Bournival, an Equity LifeStyle resident from Sarasota, Fla. She is also secretary of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association, which organized a demonstration outside the company’s headquarters with Washington-based Center for Community Change.

About 20 people from across the country attended the demonstration outside company headquarters at 2 N. Riverside Plaza, demanding better upkeep at Equity LifeStyle communities and lower rents.

Among them was Carla Burr, a retired real estate agent who lives in an Equity LifeStyle property in Chantilly, Va. Ms. Burr, 59, purchased her 1,800-square-foot home for $113,000 in 2006, when her lot rent was $740. Since then, it’s increased more than 25 percent to $945, about half of her monthly Social Security payment.

“I stand to lose everything, and the fact that I can’t get them to do anything to fix the community is just really hard,” she said, adding that older residents have injured themselves on the property’s poorly maintained sidewalks. “They’re making demands to fix certain things on our house . . . but you ask them to fix the roads and they go, ‘It’s not in the budget.’ ”

Ms. Burr added that even if homeowners are able to find a buyer for their homes — a tough sell with higher rents — Equity LifeStyle has been reluctant to sign off on the deals, forcing some to turn over their titles and walk away.

The company has also sparred with rent-control advocates in court. An Equity LifeStyle mobile home park in San Rafael, Calif., was at the center of a lawsuit the company filed against the city in 2000 over San Rafael’s rent-control ordinance. Equity LifeStyle suffered a blow last month when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ordinance was constitutional, overturning a lower court decision from 2009, records show.

“I think the court understood it when they said that you shouldn’t buy rent-controlled communities and then turn around and complain about rent control,” said Keith Meloney, president of the San Rafael park’s homeowners association.

Equity LifeStyle shares were trading at $83.16 this afternoon after closing at an all-time high of $83.98 on Tuesday. Including dividends, the shares have returned 22.6 percent over the past year, vs. a 23.6 percent return for the Bloomberg REIT Manufactured Homes Index.

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Park tenants to confront shareholders

From the Citrus County Chronicle

By Chris Van Ormer

A Homosassa man is taking his fight against rising lot rents for residents of manufactured home parks to Chicago this week to confront park shareholders.

“There are privately held land-lease companies who understand it is better to develop a partnership relationship that works best as a business model,” said Edward Green, the Walden Woods resident who was behind a bill that failed in this year’s state legislative session to stabilize rent increases. “Instead of killing the goose that lays golden eggs, some have realized it’s better to work together and prosper for a long-term relationship.”

Green, who already has started work on moving another bill next year, forms half the Florida delegation from the National Manufactured Home Owners Association attending the May 7 and 8 shareholders meeting in Chicago of Equity Life Style Properties (ELS), the nation’s largest corporate owner of manufactured home communities. Green is accompanied by Pam Bournival of Sarasota, along with representatives from Washington, Oregon, Utah, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, New York and Minnesota.

Association members plan to emphasize how seniors and low-income households need affordable housing. Although corporations must generate a return on investment, aggressive profits are destroying the market, Green said.

The association has said corporations have attempted to seek increases as high as 25 percent from seniors on fixed incomes. It intends to work with management of companies such as ELS and other major leased-land corporations to stabilize rents to more reasonable levels.

Contact Chronicle reporter Chris Van Ormer at 352-564-2916 or

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Seniors gather in protest against mobile home rent raise

LAS VEGAS (KSNV & MyNews3) — A major mobile home company that rents the spaces many seniors call home is under fire tonight. The tenants say their rent is consistently going up.

News 3’s Sandra Gonzalez file a report from outside the Bonanza Village Mobile Home Park.

Advocates for affordable senior housing were in Las Vegas Wednesday. They are critical of a major mobile home company that has communities here in the Las Vegas Valley. Equity Lifestyles oversees the Bonanza Village where many seniors call home.

They say as rent for the land that mobile homes are on, keep rising. But the incomes for seniors are usually fixed.

“I have no income, so basically I only earn $1,200 a month and that’s not enough,” said Janet Nelson, a resident of Cabana Manufactured Home Community, and Equity Lifestyles property.

She says recently some of here services were increased by $8, and while that may seem like lunch money to some, it really cuts into her limited pot of money. She’s waiting to see if Equity Lifestyles will raise the rent on the land her mobile home sits on.

Critics say it’s happening at other Equity properties.

Nelson says seniors don’t have much to pay any more.

“They don’t have enough food money, they don’t have enough to pay the bills, as far as phones, families are paying for cell phones,” Nelson said.

Advocates from across the country were in Las Vegas trying to bring attention to the economics of lots of senior citizens, and what they say they’re facing in many Equity properties nationwide.

This rise in rent comes as seniors are dealing with federal benefits being trimmed to the rising cost of living.

While Janet Nelson hasn’t seen her rent rise yet, Pam Bournvial of the National Manufactured Homeowners Association says it probably will.

“When it comes times to renew there will be a big bump. So it might seem like things are going smoothly for a while but expect the big bump all over the country,” Bournival said.
News 3 has attempted to reach Equity Lifestyles. We’re still waiting to hear from them.

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Rent at Venice mobile home park won’t spike after all

From the Herald-Tribune

By Shannon McFarland

VENICE — A protest planned to take place outside a Saturday auction was canceled after the owners of Bay Indies mobile home park agreed to avoid raising some homeowners’ rents by as much as 22 percent.

Just before 5 p.m. the night before the planned protest, homeowners heard Chicago-based Equity LifeStyle Properties decided to stick with a negotiated 3 percent rent increase for 2013. Homeowners planned to protest outside an auction Saturday as ELS tried to sell 21 vacant homes.

Eleanore Warren, a homeowner who was facing a 19-percent rent increase, from $687 to $820 a month, said although they got the news at the last minute, they were delighted with the agreement.

Families who bought homes there last spring expected to see the 3 percent rent increase next year, but were outraged when they discovered steep increases for 67 new homeowners.

Feeling they were falsely informed about the negotiated increase, residents rallied neighbors who live in the 1,300 homes at Bay Indies, as well as residents of six other ELS-owned mobile home parks in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

“The 67 people felt quite unjustified that this happened to them,” Warren said. “We’re happy for another year.”

At Bay Indies, lot rents cover cable television and lawn, street and recreation maintenance, which may all vary depending on the location or lake views. Residents pay their own insurance and utilities.

Warren said her husband, Allan, was still at the Saturday auction at the clubhouse, but instead of protesting, he was keeping the peace and spreading the word to anyone who had not heard about the agreement.

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Affordable Housing for Seniors in the Cross Hairs in Chicago

from the Nation

by Laura Flanders

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.

According to the Center for Community Change (CCC), one of the groups that brought the retirees to Chicago, “In the past eight years more than 25 families have lost all their equity.… A few have sold for $25,000. Others, after not being able to sell, have had to walk away from their home after signing over their home to ELS for $1.00.”

It’s bad news for the family, for the local community and for the country as a whole. According to MHOAA, about 2.9 million households own their own home and rent land in 56,000 manufactured-home communities. For seniors, the properties are particularly attractive and the communities are typically close-knit and caring; some even have healthcare assistants living on site. Replacing year-round middle-class tenants with affluent vacation homeowners breaks up the communities, changes their atmosphere and throws more seniors into crisis, onto their families or even onto the state.

“The managing arm of ELS evicts; the sales arm sells at a profit. Profiting is one thing. Racketeering is another,” said LaMonica. “Sam Zell should be beyond this.”

Sam Zell’s not famous for his moral compass. To the contrary, he’s most well known for his involvement in bankrupting the Tribune Media Company and sacrificing the pensions of Tribune workers along the way. He’s a master at the big-dollar deal that doesn’t involve too much of his own cash. According to Forbes magazine, Zell is also the sixty-eighth wealthiest man in America, worth $4.9 billion. ELS made over $300 million profit last year.

In addition to suing cities over rent-control measures in California and other states, he has funded a statewide ballot to end rent control entirely. He has backed Eric Cantor, contributed $70,000 to the Restore Our Future Super PAC, which is supporting Mitt Romney, and he has given $100,000 to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super PAC.

“He’s spending money on right-wing candidates who think Social Security should not exist in America. How is that good for your customer base?” said Kevin Borden of CCC.

That’s another thing the retirees wanted to ask Sam Zell. But perhaps even for the man who’s called himself “Grave Dancer,” “Granny-Gouger” was one moniker too many.

“He can run, but he can’t hide,” said Bill Dempsy, of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The UFCW members’ pension fund has hundreds of shares in ELS. “We have a simple message for the Zells of the world who are used to doing whatever they want behind close doors. Zell was hiding today from his shareholders, but he can’t hide anymore.”

Last week’s action in Chicago was part of the same “99 Power” campaign of shareholder actions that brought thousands of protestors to the Charlotte, North Carolina, meeting of Bank of America on May 10.

“The idea is, these boards are up in their towers looking at ledgers, not realizing there are names attached,” said Lamonica. “Coming here today is to remind them, that there are human beings involved.”

ELS corporate relations officer Martina Lenders didn’t respond to a reporter’s request for a comment from ELS or Sam Zell.



Zell’s Equity LifeStyle faces protest at annual meeting

From Crain’s

Best known as the Grave Dancer, Sam Zell was accused Tuesday of being something else: a grandma gouger.

A gaggle of about 20 protestors gathered outside the West Loop building housing the headquarters of Equity LifeStyle Properties, the nation’s largest mobile-home park owner, led by the billionaire financier.

With the company’s annual meeting going on inside, the group urged ELS executives and directors —including Mr. Zell, the chairman — to stop “unreasonable rent increases” that they say have left residents of ELS-owned housing communities — many of whom are retirees — with nothing.

“(The demonstration) is the first step we see in a campaign to help the directors of ELS understand that there are other ways to do business than gouging grandma,” said Ishbel Dickens, executive director of Seattle-based Manufactured Home Owners Association of America, which organized the demonstration with Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Community Change. “We hope to start a dialogue.”

As of Dec. 31, ELS owned or had an ownership interest in 381 properties in 32 states — including four in Illinois — the majority of which are in retirement-friendly locations like Florida, California and Arizona, according to the company’s annual report. The portfolio includes more than 140,000 lots that are leased to tenants who live there in factory-built homes, cabins and RVs.

The protesters argue that Equity LifeStyle has fought rent-control ordinances in some communities it owns, driving up their housing costs and depressing the value of their homes.

Bob Lamonica, a 61-year-old resident of an Equity LifeStyle park in Santa Cruz, Calif., said that shortly after he and his wife moved into the community in 2002, the company sued the city, challenging its rent-control ordinance. Ultimately the city decided to avoid a lengthy court battle, a move that “threw 230 families under the bus,” according to Mr. Lamonica. As a result, he said he and his wife were forced into a non-transferable 34-year lease that, despite keeping rent for the lot at an affordable level, essentially trapped them in their home and made it all but impossible to sell.

“They win by overburdening the communities with endless litigation,” he said, adding that he and his wife have put about $200,000 into their home. “People walk away — people who have invested $200,000 to $300,000 walk away for $1 because their rents get jacked up three, four, five times what they were under rent control” and they can no longer afford to live there.

When that happens, the company often converts the homes to vacation rentals, which further devalues surrounding homes in the communities, Ms. Dickens said.

Yet Equity LifeStyle’s performance hasn’t disappointed investors, who have seen the value of their shares rise nearly 20 percent over the past year, vs. a 1.8 percent gain for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

Security guards at 2 North Riverside Plaza, where the real estate investment trust is based and held its annual shareholders meeting Tuesday, did not allow a reporter past the front desk.

An Equity LifeStyle spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Mr. Zell, who founded Equity LifeStyle but wasn’t at the annual meeting, declines to comment.

Most people pick up and move if they think they are being overcharged by their landlord. But Mr. Lamonica said moving the resident-owned homes off Equity LifeStyle lots is so difficult that many residents feel stuck.

“There’s a misnomer about calling these things mobile homes,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere.”

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Seniors to Sam Zell: Stop bankrupting us.

From Public Campaign

On Tuesday, more than a dozen senior citizens will travel from Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and other states to Chicago to attend the shareholder meeting of Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS), which owns their manufactured home lots. These seniors are going to confront the company’s chair, billionaire Sam Zell, who has refused to hear their concerns over practices driving them into hardship. They’re going because, as the Center for Community Change points out:

“ELS is the country’s largest corporate owner of manufactured housing communities. Most of these communities are marketed to senior citizens. ELS has been increasing the lot rents that families have to pay (the amount of money that people pay per month to rent the land their home resides on) at an alarming rate, and the company’s ‘highly touted’ customer service has lost what Pam called their ‘sense of respect’ for the homeowners that reside there.”

But ELS isn’t just bankrupting senior citizens at home, Sam Zell (who also bankrupted the Chicago Tribune), is also spending big money to elect candidates that will cut vital programs for senior citizens and create policies that benefit the top one percent—something that will do even more harm to these folks. For example:

  • Zell has given $100,000 to American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s super PAC that will run attack ads to elect candidates that support legislation like the Paul Ryan plan that ends Medicare as we know it and those that want to privatize or cut Social Security.
  • He has also given $70,000 to Restore Our Future, the super PAC working to elect Mitt Romney and $2,500 to Romney’s campaign. Romney, like Zell, is often seen as out-of-touch with regular Americans—he hired a lobbyist for his vacation home, has said that “corporations are people,” and talks about having friends that own NASCAR and football teams.
  • He has donated money to House Republican leaders John Boehner ($20,000), Eric Cantor ($20,000) and Paul Ryan himself ($5,000), who would rather cut vital programs for middle class families than require the wealthy to pay their fair share in taxes.
  • Overall, Zell has donated at least $327,800 to federal candidates and committees this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It’s an example of the growing divide between billionaires and regular Americans. They’re gouging everyday people while raking in record profits, and then using that money to buy off politicians who’ll craft and support policy that makes them richer.

On Tuesday, this courageous group of people will confront Zell and we can’t wait to hear what he has to say.