Title Mix-Up a Nightmare for Pomona Modular-Home Park

Times Staff Writer

It was advertised in 1984 as Southern California’s first modular-home park: A serene and secure community in which three-bedroom houses sold for as little as $50,000.

But within a year, Las Brisas Estates in Pomona had become a home-buyer’s nightmare, as residents discovered they had no proof that they own the houses they live in.

The problem, according to city and state housing officials, came about when the project’s developer improperly registered the one-story units as mobile homes rather than as the permanent tract dwellings that they are.


Misled and Confused

John Hook, the Orange County developer who built the 43-space housing park, said he was misled by Pomona planners and confused by contradictory mobile-home definitions.

The result was a complicated real estate snarl involving city, county and state agencies that has left residents without certificates of title, thereby prohibiting them from selling or refinancing their own homes.

By this winter, four families, apparently convinced that the units were worthless, had stopped making payments and abandoned their homes, neighbors said.

Another family, unable to refinance their house, filed for bankruptcy.

And one couple, believing they had sold their Las Brisas home, purchased a new house only to discover later that the original sale could not be completed.

‘It’s Been a Nightmare’

“We’re all trapped,” said Christine Catano, who, with her husband, Joe, has been waiting for more than a year to sell their house. “You move here, you might as well die here.”

Today, after several abortive attempts to reclassify the units, Hook said he has already made arrangements to provide residents with the proper documentation for permanent tract dwellings.

“It’s just been a nightmare,” Hook said. “It’s sick. I want to get this thing resolved more than anybody.”

Las Brisas residents, however, frustrated by months of delays, say they are unconvinced that the problem will be untangled.

“Show me,” said Doug Geisler, who, with his wife, Dee, also wants to sell his home. “I still have not got a title in my hand. I cannot turn around and sell my house.”

The confusion at Las Brisas began in 1982 with a dispute between Hook and Pomona officials over whether the 4.8-acre project on West Holt Avenue involved temporary mobile homes or permanently affixed manufactured units.

According to city planning officials, the conditional-use permit granting Hook permission to construct the project stipulated that the dwellings had to be tract-style homes placed on permanent foundations.

Hook, however, said the city had vacillated between the mobile- and tract-home concepts, ultimately leading him to believe that the Las Brisas homes were in fact mobile homes.

“First they were called trailers, then they were mobile homes, now the new name for them is manufactured homes,” Hook said. “They’re still boxes anyway you look at it.”

Although city documents show that the project was eventually approved as permanently affixed tract housing, Hook registered the units as mobile homes with the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

“They are mobile homes,” said John M. Gerro, a Burbank attorney representing Hook. “But, it’s like it got into a no-man’s-land type of thing. It was in limbo.”

State housing officials, who were notified of the discrepancy in late 1985 by the city of Pomona, were less equivocal.

“The homes were reported to us incorrectly,” said Julie Stewart, housing issues manager for the state agency in Sacramento. “They were on permanent foundations. We had to revoke the titles.”

Sought Modification

Once notified that the state had revoked all titles, Hook went back to the city last year in an effort to modify his conditional-use permit, which would have enabled the dwellings to be registered as mobile homes.

The city, however, refused to make any changes.

“We, the city, are getting exactly what we approved,” said William P. Curley III, deputy city attorney and a former Pomona planning official. “There was an expressed condition that they build a tract and not a mobile-home park . . . and as far as the city is concerned, they’re in compliance.”

Meanwhile, unaware of any discrepancy, several residents had decided they were ready to move on and had begun making plans to sell their homes.

Most of the residents were first-time home owners and said they had no reason to believe there was anything unusual about their properties. All believed that the certificates of title on file at the bank were valid.

Joe Catano, 59, and his wife, Christine, 51, found a buyer in late 1985 and, believing that the deal would soon clear escrow, the couple moved out and purchased another home in San Bernardino County.

‘We Just Want Out’

But without a certificate of title, the deal never cleared, and the couple is now stuck with both homes. “We just want out,” said Christine Catano.

Laurie Waltman, 26, also tried to put her house on the market, only to discover that she, too, had no proof of ownership.

“We have been screwed royally,” said Waltman, who, like many of the residents pays about $370 a month for her house and $275 a month in rent on the land. “I can’t even sell my own house.”

Fraught with financial problems and fixed-interest home payments, Pat Christensen, a Las Brisas resident since 1984, attempted to refinance her house last year. Without a certificate of title, the bank turned her down, and Christensen, 31, declared bankruptcy in the fall.

“You can’t sell, you can’t refinance,” said Jerry Hughes, 40, also a resident of the project. “What are you going to do?”

The answer, which entails reissuing grant deeds on the homes, is being worked on right now, Hook said. The only delay, he added, is coming from the residents, who must pay all their property taxes before the titles can be properly recorded with the county.

“It’s just a mess that’s getting cleaned up,” Hook said. “You’d think this would’ve been a fantastic gold mine for me. But instead, it’s been a total liability.” Hook said he has voluntarily spent $750,000 getting the situation resolved.

Residents say they welcome a resolution to the ordeal, but remain doubtful that results will come soon.

“There’s no trust there,” said Geisler. “I’ve had my bellyful of it.”