The Mobile Rent Control Board tried to explain the limits of its purview.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It wasn't the first time a crowd of irate mobile home owners attended a Mobile Home Rent Control meeting. But Wednesday was surely the first time they had ever demanded a rate increase.
"You're here for the rent control ... Give it to them so we can have a place to live," implored resident David Campbell after the board said it could not act without a formal petition. "We want to live normal like everybody else."
A newly formed tenants cooperative at Wheel Estates is hoping to buy the park for $2.73 million from Morgan Management but has to have its finances in order by March 27. Morgan, which has been shedding real estate holdings in Berkshire County, already has another buyer waiting in the wings.
Wheel Estates residents are worried that will mean another negligent landlord. Rather than see rents go into a corporation's pocket, they want it to go into the detiorating water system, pothole-ridden roads and other neglected infrastructure.
But the tenants' proposal to raise rents $45, to $349 per lot, to qualify for a bank loan and another $1 million for improvement hasn't been able pass the rent board's muster.
City ordinance prevents rent increases to cover "debt service" and the board is the only body that can set rates — no matter what the tenants vote to do.
The board couldn't act all on Wednesday because the tenants had failed to file a petition for a rent increase — and bringing it to the meeting with the filing fee didn't count.
The mistake pointed to the continued difficulties for residents and the nonprofit consultants attempting to facilitate the first tenant ownership in a rent-controlled community and for a board more used to tough negotiations on their behalf with a corporate owner.
Both are after the same result but are having trouble finding a way to walk the same path to get there.
But any doubt that tenants are behind an increase could be dismissed Wednesday. More than 30 people attended the meeting to advocate for the purchase; more than half the 185-unit park has paid the $100 fee to join the cooperative.
Board members Marie Harpin and Joseph Gniadek speak with park resident Ray Bass. Gniadek asked for figures on the park's costs to review.
"The residents want to own it because of their desire to improve it rather than spend the money on rent for nothing," said Jesse Martinez, vice president of the Tenants Association. "We're showing that we can do it as a resident-owned community."
Residents said they had neighbors who weren't happy about the increase but understood it needed to happen.
"We have a chance here to take that money and fix up that park and make it worthwhile," said one man. "Those people who say they can't afford the rent, they can't afford it if somebody buys it."
"I want to buy our community," said a woman. "I like where I live. I don't like how it's fallen apart around us."
Chairman Wayne Wilkinson said he understand their desire but that wasn't the role of the board.
"It is not our job here to determine whether this deal goes through or not. We have no authority to say yes or no," he said. "Our job is to the deal with the rent."
But an angry Ray Bass retorted that the board's decision was crucial to the park's future.
"If you don't approve this increase the sale is not going through and you will have the responsibility," he charged.
Board member Paul Senecal said he thought the increase reasonable and motioned to approve it but did not get a second.
Fellow board member Joseph Gniadek said he was willing to review a petition and crunch the numbers to see if the rate would work and figure out the capital costs.
"I want to help you 100 percent," he said. "I just want to make sure all the ducks are in a row. I need it on paper."
The tenants said they would file the petition in the morning; the next meeting was set for Tuesday, March 19, at 5 p.m.