COLDREN FAIL: El Nido Mobile Home Tenants Clink their Glasses to a Victory!

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vulture dead

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, October 26.  Hey!  That’s not nice!  What with all the sound of mobile home tenant jubilation over here, I didn’t notice somebody posting a picture of a dead vulture (above.)  Yeah, I get it – it’s obviously supposed to represent today’s epic failure on the part of Robert Coldren, tireless legal warrior for avaricious park owners and 2015 honoree in the OC Weekly’s “Scariest People.”

Savoring victory in a bolo tie:  El Nido lead organizer Tom Perrin.

Savoring victory in a bolo tie: El Nido lead organizer Tom Perrin.

But comparing Coldren to a vulture – not a bird of prey but a carrion bird – suggests that his victims, nearly always elderly and/or low-income, are as good as dead … when in fact the senior residents of SJC’s El Nido Mobile Estates mounted a heroic and successful defense against the roving predator.

The council chambers were so overpacked, mainly with endangered tenants, that OC sheriffs directed most of us to an overflow room which was similarly standing-room-only.  This was the third leg of the drama, where the Council itself would decide whether or not to back its Housing Advisory Committee, in ITS agreement with the finding of late August’s Hearing Officer, that not only is park owner Richard Worley‘s over-100%, $641 rent increase WAY over what SJC’s 1979 rent-control ordinance allows, but the traditional $37, tied-to-CPI increase does give Worley the “just, fair and reasonable return on his property” that the statute allows for.

As this process dragged on through late summer and fall, strapped residents have been forced to pay the inflated rents for both September and October, and almost November now, pending the council’s final decision.  Many had been forced to borrow from friends and family, and often from each other, in an admirable but unsustainable show of solidarity.

derek reeveTwo councilmembers – Sam Allevato and Kerry Ferguson – had been forced to recuse themselves today because of their outspoken comments (which Coldren absurdly called “inflammable comments”) in favor of the tenants, combined with their role in creating the Advisory Committee.    So the council was whittled down to three members, led by new Mayor Derek Reeve (left), a personable wheelchair-bound tea partier like so many South County councilmen, who led the meeting expertly with wit, patience and fairness.

Generally sporting a white suit and hat and dripping with sarcasm, Robert Coldren jets up and down the Golden Coast arguing hard and successfully for the rights of mobile home park owners to jack up their rents bigtime.  I only learned recently, from an excellent Weekly story by Courtney Hamilton, that he is also an investor himself in many of these properties, through his Pacific Current Partners.  He must make millions in his chosen line of piracy – in the courtroom he’s always throwing out lines like “I’d hate for my client to have to spend another hundred thousand on me.”

coldrenBut today Coldren was sweating desperation bullets.  Having apparently read the writing on the wall, he threw everything he could find at that selfsame wall… none of which would stick!

  • He complained nonstop about his lack of time to make all the arguments he’d like to, sounding like Jim Webb at the Democratic debate – wasting time complaining about no time, and then toward the end of his time repeating himself or hemming and hawing.
  • He insulted Mayor Reeve (wrongly) as unprepared and not having read his filings;  and then later blew smoke up his ass “I know you are a Constitutional scholar, sir (euphemism for Tea Partier) so you must see why this is so…”
  • He threatened repeatedly to sue the City if he didn’t get his way!  “I hate to see the good hardworking taxpayers of San Juan Capistrano have to pay for this foolish decision.”  And he threatened to come back EVERY YEAR on behalf of Worley with the same losing arguments!
  • He strawman beat upconjured up STRAWMEN out of thin air, and then BEAT THE STUFFING OUT OF THEM!  Examples.  “I assume this rent control is the city’s attempt to create affordable housing.”  Which nobody had ever said.  “Well, some of these tenants have been selling their homes and spaces for half a million – how is THAT affordable housing?”  Also:  “Supposedly many of these tenants have a HARDSHIP paying the new rents.”  (The tenants were not using any “hardship” argument, in spite of their hardships, because that would have been legally irrelevant.)  “Well, if they would just each come meet with my client, he has promised to work something out with each of them.”  Riiiight, wolf.
  • He tried whatever heartless fallacy THIS is:  The fact that tenants had already managed to pay their doubled rents for September and October (as I said, by scrimping and saving, robbing Peter to pay Paul, and borrowing from friends family and each other) shows that they could EASILY keep that up into eternity.  And by the way, this hearing REALLY needs to be CONTINUED to some date in the future.  And have I mentioned, the rent bills for NOVEMBER have already been sent out?
  • He tried to censor the vast crowd.  “Since this is a quasi-adjudicative hearing, and all the evidence has already been presented, I demand that these people not be allowed to speak!”  (City staff responded that, while he did have about half a point there, the Brown Act’s protection of citizen speech at public meetings outweighed his half a point.)
  • He tried his hand at standup comedy, both dark humor and slapstick.  Examples.  “This RUSH TO JUDGMENT is BEYOND THE PALE,” he declaimed to the bitter laughter of tenants who’ve had to pay nearly three months of doubled rents due to his delaying tactics.  He drew jollier laughter when he begged the Mayor for thirty extra seconds, then when he got them bitched some more about not having enough time, then suddenly asked, “My thirty seconds haven’t already started, have they?” and when Reeve answered “About twenty seconds ago,” stormed angrily back to his seat.

And more, much more.  I may sandwich some more of Coldren’s bullshit into [his opponent] Stanton’s rebuttal.  But right around noon something very disturbing happened:  Mayor Reeve announced he was going to take “one of my infamous Mayoral potty breaks, and then, pursuant to the Brown Act, we will have public comments.”  As I observed to the others in the Overflow Room, “One should never say ‘potty break’ and ‘Brown Act’ in the same sentence.”  This is a good rule of thumb, for all elected officials to etch permanently into their memories.

mr hankey

Bruce Stanton, the plainspoken San Jose-based counsel for the tenants, apparently having read the same writing on the wall, was much more relaxed and good-humored, and able to pick at Coldren’s spewed-forth bits of carrion meat at leisure.bruce stanton  Reportedly charging less than half what the aristocratic Coldren charges, Stanton has been fighting for the little guy – California’s mobile home tenants – nearly as long as Coldren’s been fighting against them.  (Thirty years, vs.  “MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS.”)

Some points he made against Coldren were subtle ones a non-lawyer (like myself) may have had a hard time noticing or grasping.  Apparently Coldren, through the months-long proceedings, had attempted to “create a record in his client’s favor” based in the fallacy that Mr. Worley “had a VESTED INTEREST as soon as he announced his (arbitrary) rent increase.”  Stanton called bullshit on that.  As well as the notion snuck in by Coldren that the “burden of proof” that the rent increase was illegal was ON THE TENANTS since they had filed the petition with City Council.  NO.  Whichever party files the petition, the burden is on the landlord to prove his increase is necessary for a “just, fair and reasonable return” on his property.

Representing 154 El Nido space-holders – all but 16 of them – Stanton called the case, accurately, a “no-brainer” – “the ordinance speaks for itself.”  The landlord’s side never even attempted to show that his EXPENSES justified this rent hike – the only argument that may have worked – obviously because they didn’t.  Instead Coldren’s arguments focused on outrage that SOME tenants had sold their rent-controlled homes for big profits, and fairness may arguably dictate that the landlord should share some of that profit.  This is an argument known in “the industry” as “premium transfer theory,” one heard often, but VERY SELDOM the SOLE argument.  If SJC voters (or council?) feel it’s unfair for tenants to make beaucoup bucks on their rent-control fortunateness, they could always enact what’s called “vacancy de-control” – the space rent can go up to whatever when the home changes owners.  But that ain’t the law now.

As Stanton said, Coldren wanted to make this a “referendum on rent control,” but that’s not what it is, it is a “FACIAL CHALLENGE to an existing statute.”  (Does that make sense lawyers?  Did I get that right?)

And then, I hope you didn’t blink, because right when we were expecting hours’ worth of passionate public comments, the council suddenly decided to take their vote.  And guess what.  Even without the loose-lipped Allevato and Ferguson, the council was unanimous.  No-brainer.  Coldren slapped down.  The tenants should each be getting back their $1282 of extra September and October rent some time this month.  And the people rejoiced.

happy crowd cartoon

Now word on the street is that Coldren’s gonna take his grievances to the Superior Court in Santa Ana this week some time (watch this space.)  This time it’ll be him and Worley against the City of San Juan Capistrano, and Perrin and his crew are expected to show up and try to stymie them somehow. 

But you know what?  It’s really up to park owner Richard Worley if he wants to continue throwing money at this lost cause.  Many observers believe this was all Coldren’s idea, and the nonagenarian Korean War vet is being taken for a ride, a hundred thousand dollars at a time.  This would make Richard Worley Coldren’s biggest victim.  Can Worley, will Worley put his foot down and say enough is enough?

One thing’s for sure – there is going to be some Senior-Citizen Party-Heartying in old El Nido Mobile Home Estates tonight, I tell you what!

old people partying

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.