Lawyers Battle 30% Rent Hike at Trailer Park : Oxnard: A legal aid group says the increase was made in response to tenants’ complaints about squalid conditions.
In an effort to control rents and improve conditions at a squalid mobile-home park south of Oxnard, lawyers on Friday requested a court order to block a 30% increase at the park and enlisted the help of a county supervisor to impose permanent rent limits on small parks throughout the county.
While rents at parks with more than 15 homes in county jurisdiction are subject to a 5% limit on annual increases, five small trailer parks are unregulated.
That means “the residents are subject to unbridled rent increases without any recourse,” said Lee Pliscou, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance in Oxnard.
On March 1, park owner Damaso Leanos hiked rents at the Country Sunshine Park from $270 to $350 a month. Countywide, rents range from about $115 to $500.
Nearly 20 adults, most of them low-income field workers and manual laborers, and 30 children live in the eight mobile homes at the Country Sunshine Park, which is next to a large produce plant on the Pacific Coast Highway midway between Oxnard and the Point Mugu Naval Air Station.
Friday afternoon, the Channel Counties Legal Services Assn. requested that the county block the increase, arguing that it was made in retaliation to complaints about exposed sewage, frequent power outages, dirty water and other problems at the park. Hearings on the request could begin as early as Monday, lawyers said.
“The residents are just plain stuck,” Pliscou said. “The (trailers) are physically incapable of being moved, and if they were able to, there aren’t any vacancies anywhere else and no other park would accept them.”
County Supervisor John Flynn supported the rent-control effort, and said he plans to ask the board to consider changing the ordinance to include small parks.
Owners of the county’s four other small parks, said rent increases are already less than 5% annually. “Most of my tenants are on a fixed income,” said Mary Lou Leaf, owner of El Ranchito Trailer Home in Santa Paula. “I always keep the rents reasonable and my tenants happy.”
At Country Sunshine Park, many unhappy tenants are not waiting for a court order or county ordinance to protest rents they say are unreasonable. They are refusing to pay the additional $80 a month.
“It is just too much,” said Gerardo Mercado, a field worker who lives in the park with his wife and four children. “Things are so bad and nothing has changed. Why should we pay more?”
On a recent cool day, a fecal stench hung over the park. “You can imagine what it’s like when it’s hot,” Mercado said.
Rainwater and excrement from a backed-up septic system stagnated in a drainage ditch that runs alongside Mercado’s trailer. As he watched, a young girl ventured into the murky water, littered with broken toys and trash, to retrieve a ball.
Responding to complaints from tenants, agents from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which regulates conditions at trailer parks, made several inspections of the site, said agency spokesman Jack Kerin.
As owner of the park, Leanos is responsible for maintaining services for the residents including sewage, water, trash and electricity, Kerin said.
In late February, inspectors found 135 violations of state health and safety codes, Kerin said. Violations included inadequate septic tank maintenance, faulty electrical wiring, leaking water lines, insufficient sanitation, improper drainage systems and combustible debris that posed a fire hazard, according to the inspector’s report.
According to the agency’s guidelines, the violations must be remedied within a month. Recommendations made after the agency’s first visit in December included an order to immediately remove all sewage from the drainage ditch. Although the agency’s follow-up reports show that the ditch was cleaned out once, the sewage problem has since returned.
“Sometimes the sewage comes back up in the sink and toilet,” said Leona Ayella, who shares a trailer with her husband and five children. “You can’t wash anything,” she said. “It smells so bad you can’t eat.”
Power outages are common, several residents said.
“Sometimes the refrigerator doesn’t work for two days,” said Georgina Garcia, who lives in a trailer with her husband and six children. “The electricity goes out and we have to throw all the food away.”
Water is frequently undrinkable and pressure is often low, residents said. “The water is so dirty that sometimes it’s yellow,” said Pedro Torres, who has lived at the park since 1979. “Lately things have gotten much worse.”
Property owner Leanos has been in violation of county water regulations since 1990 for failing to submit water samples to be tested for safety, county records show.
But Leanos said that about half of the violations are the responsibility of the families who own and live in the trailers.
“They bring it on themselves,” he said. “They create the problems by doing all kinds of things they aren’t supposed to be doing. They dump their trash everywhere. They waste water on purpose.”
Leanos said he is aware that tenants are anxious to have unsanitary conditions in the park remedied. “I’m taking care of it,” he said. “If they (the residents) don’t like it they can get out.”
Residents recently met with Flynn to discuss their concerns. Flynn said he would seek to include the park in countywide rent restrictions, adding, “my more immediate concern right now is the sewage problem. With all those kids living there that’s unexcusable.”
Inspectors from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, who returned to the park Friday, said they may ask the district attorney to file charges in the case.
However, Pliscou, the California Rural Legal Assistance lawyer, said, “Some might criticize the HCD for not being tougher, but the more they pressure the owner, the more likely residents are going to get rent increases.
“At some point, if conditions are bad enough, the park will be condemned,” he said. “Then you have to ask, is it worse to have them living in these god-awful conditions, or out in the street?”