WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Where Life Is Prefab-ulous : Residents Say Mobile Home Parks in Malibu and Pacific Palisades Are the Best-Kept Secret in L.A.; They Offer Housing on Prime Real Estate at Affordable Prices

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The day kick-starts with a rousing game of tennis on a Malibu hilltop court skirted by sinus-clearing Eucalyptus trees and Australian pines.

Lunch is a turkey sandwich--sans the fat--and herb tea. At 2 p.m. and at 6 p.m., a bucolic quarter-mile walk takes you to a private beach where you engage in a bracing half-mile swim in the Pacific Ocean.

To thaw, you slow cook in a hot tub with a perfect, sweating Manhattan cocktail nearby for the quaffing.

Summer dinners are beachside, where retirees, academic administrators and entertainment executives--generations apart in age--rub elbows, trade jokes and nosh on a potluck food fest.

"It's just absolutely a beautiful life. . . . Paradise Cove is just what it is named--Paradise," said Joe Hecht, 74, who has been living this life for the last 14 years.

Witness life in a slice of rustic Bohemia high atop towering ocean bluffs overlooking the pricey Malibu coastline. But this is no multimillion-dollar mansion compound. It is a mobile home park, one of five--two in Malibu, three in Pacific Palisades--situated on prime real estate near the Pacific Ocean.

"It's a sort of hedonistic vacation, ongoing," said Hecht, whose monthly space rent at Paradise Cove mobile home park is $385. "We all love the ocean, the sand, the people . . . it's lots of love."

At the coastal mobile home parks, the quality of life spans the spectrum from the luxurious--complete with lavish landscaping and a carwash--to the spartan, an asphalt-paved tract with a run-down clubhouse.

And beneath the surface of this seeming utopia, where an inadvertent reference to trailer parks sets off angry responses from residents who abhor that seedy image, anxieties lurk.

Some pensioners worry about rent increases. Some fear they will be ousted to make way for a hotel and marina. Others complain about noisy children. And the few who want to leave are worried that they will not be able to sell their residences because banks do not readily finance loans on pre-1976 mobile homes.

Still, the Shangri-La lifestyle goes on in the land of prefabricated homes, known more informally as coaches, single, double and triple-wide.

Mortgage payments are low or nonexistent for those who buy theirs outright. A 10- to 15-m.p.h. speed limit throttles noise pollution. Gardens are optional. Crime is rare. Neighbors are close and the sense of community is palpable.

In Malibu, the more elaborate of the two mobile home parks is Point Dume (pronounced Du-May) Club, a gated park that feels more like a country club than a prefabricated-housing facility.

Situated above Point Dume state beach, the 297-space park, built in 1968 by the Adamson Cos., a major Malibu landholder, is arguably one of the most luxurious mobile home sites in the nation.

Governed by an exhaustive list of rules and antiseptically clean, it is guarded by security gates behind which there is an Olympic-size pool, a clubhouse, a library, a carwash, a state-of-the-art septic facility and a helipad for medical emergencies. Visitors to the park are told they cannot walk through unescorted.

One resident recently joked: "My only complaint is that I can't get a chicken salad sandwich and a slow-gin fizz after my morning swim."

The amenities help make the park's monthly space rents some of the most expensive on the coast, ranging from $600 to $1,500, depending on ocean views.

Coach owners are an eclectic mix, ranging from the well-to-do to struggling schoolteachers, salespeople, senior citizens and single parents with children.

Allan Edwards moved from New York to the park with his wife in 1974 and has never looked back.

"It's a tranquil life," he said as he sat on his porch with a Michael Crichton book in his lap.

"The sense of community is the main thing. When something is wrong, you have family. People come and sit with my wife when she is sick and bring her food. It is part of our life now."

Down the way, Wendy Pietzak, 31, who runs the Malibu Community Center, walked her dog into the hills, where an expansive view of the ocean opens up.

"It's a real mix of people," she said. "A younger crowd is moving in. Pepperdine students lease here now."

According to Thomas D. Curtis, an economics professor at Southern Florida University who has studied mobile home parks since 1979, seaside mobile home park tenants buck the stereotype of the retired, bingo-playing resident.

"The type of people living in mobile home parks by the ocean, with the exception of the elderly, are well-educated and working," said Curtis, who is familiar with the Westside parks. "It's a landlubber's version of living on a boat. And it's the best buy, given their incomes."

That is certainly the case at Malibu's Paradise Cove mobile home park, where newly arrived families, young executives and academics live alongside senior citizens who have been there for decades.

The rustic park, located just off Pacific Coast Highway, is as different from the Point Dume Club as a run-down country house is from a trim suburban tract home.

There are few rules here, where spaces rent from $190 to $1,000 a month. Park maintenance is minimal. Indigenous and exotic vegetation grows with all the flourish of an unrestrained English garden. There is no swimming pool and the clubhouse gets little use.

At the bottom of the park lies a partially washed-out pier and a private beach, where non-residents must pay $15 to park unless they are dining at one of Malibu's institutions, the Sandcastle restaurant. Scenes from the 1970s television series "The Rockford Files" were filmed there.

Joe Buchwald, a professor of finance and investment at Cal State Northridge, lives in a mobile home, that, like most, is immobile because of remodeling. The project left the coach ensconced in redwood siding with a wraparound deck, hot tub and awning, with a matching set of Adirondack chairs angled for sunset-watching.

There is a broad ocean vista from nearly every room. And Buchwald's bed, situated on a loft beneath a skylight, has the best view in the house, all for a mere $250,000 plus a monthly $526 in space rent.

"Where else could I be, in this spot, one of the prime spots in the world that is close to my work," said Buchwald, 61. "If you look up two bluffs, it's Johnny Carson, and the other way is Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews and behind is (Barbra) Streisand's old place. I just want to stay here another 100 years."

At the bottom of the park, referred to by one resident as "the ghetto section," lives Bill Kish, a 29-year fixture in a tiny trailer he shares with his ailing cat Tuffy.

Trimming his fruiting tomato plants, Kish, 71, who pays about $190 a month for his space rent, reflected: "Once in a great while I fish off the pier; the fish are still good there. It used to be better before the pier washed out (in a 1983 storm). The temperature is nice . . . it's remote, rural and away from the big-city folks. And some of us older folks, we check on each other to make sure we're still alive."

The park property, part of an 80-acre plot that sits on Chumash Indian burial grounds, was purchased by Dorothy and Harry Kissel in 1964. The Kissels let the trailers that had been there for decades remain in the lower park and expanded the bluffs into a mobile home park with a million-dollar view.

East of Malibu in Pacific Palisades, three mobile home parks sit above Pacific Coast Highway between Temescal Canyon Road and Sunset Boulevard.

The least luxurious is the Palisades Bowl, established in the 1890s as a Methodist camp at the base of steep sea bluffs and home to 173 mobile homes that range from streamlined Airstream trailers to double- and triple-wide coaches that are as big as some suburban homes.

To the north of Palisades Bowl, tucked high in the cliffs above Will Rogers State Beach, is Malibu Village, inhabited by youngish residents who describe themselves as "thirtysomething yuppies."

Just past Temescal Canyon Road lies the luxurious Tahitian Terrace, where 158 coaches stretch up and down a terraced hillside high above Will Rogers State Beach. The majority of the residents are retirees, a number of whom informally gather in morning poolside kaffee klatsches, polystyrene cups of java in hand.

Inside a massive A-frame clubhouse featuring leather couches and a panoramic ocean view, two groups of women convened recently for a spirited game of bridge. The bets were modest, a dollar apiece, and only one woman was from the park.

"When I first came here, I thought, 'Who wants to live in a mobile home park? They're all a bunch of drunks,' " said Sylvia Berke, a retiree who abandoned a Santa Monica apartment to live in Tahitian Terrace, where the space rents range from $300 to $925. "I got that impression from trailer parks. But if you sit up here (in the garden), it is like you are in the Sequoias. I would never live any other way."

But many residents fear that their idyllic days may be numbered.

In Malibu, mobile home tenants are facing rent increases that may be retroactive. Some say that would force them out of the parks.

The city's rent-control law, which rolled rates back to 1984 levels and mandated a two-year freeze, was recently struck down by a federal court ruling. A final judgment, due in a few weeks, will detail how much rents can be increased and if back rent can be collected. Still, park owners will be able to increase future space rents by no more than 3% a year or 75% of the consumer price index, whichever is higher. When a space is vacated or a coach is sold to a new owner, space rents can be increased 10%.

Although Paradise Cove residents fear that the park may be turned into a hotel and marina, a representative of the Kissel Co. said there are no plans for such a development, which would have difficulty getting zoning approval from the state Coastal Commission and the city of Malibu.

Tenants say they want to buy the park, and the company has expressed a willingness to sell. The question, not surprisingly, is the price. In the past, real estate appraisers estimated the land's worth at between $70 million to $130 million, but the last asking price in 1989 was $46 million.

Further complicating matters is a chill on the sale of the seaside coaches. According to a real estate agent who specializes in selling Malibu mobile homes, they can go for $80,000 to $200,000, with a handful of tonier models priced at $400,000 and up, depending on location and improvements.

But because most banks have stringent loan restrictions for the purchase of mobile homes built before 1976, about 75% of coaches in the Westside parks, few purchasers can get financing. In Point Dume Club, where about 40 coaches are for sale, an additional deterrent is the higher rents.

"There is an economic problem because these houses really aren't mobile. Once you're in a park, you really are a captive audience," said Curtis, who calls himself a mobile home park economist.

"Park owners raise rents, which increase the value of the parks . . . but homeowners who have $30,000 homes can only sell them to people who can pay the high rents, which means they usually have to lower the (asking) price if they want to sell it."

Yet another distraction from the perfect life, according to some residents, is children.

Several Point Dume Club tenants complained about the entry of families to its premises in 1989 after a federal law was amended to prohibit the exclusion of residents based on familial status.

"This is the story. . . . This park used to be for seniors and now it's not, and we have no place else to go," groused one woman, who broke from a game of poker in the clubhouse to lodge a complaint with a visitor. She declined to be identified.

Although such concerns weigh heavy on the minds of some, others are undiminished in their enthusiasm.

"I think it is the best-kept secret in L.A.," said Jim O'Malley, an actor and three-year resident of Palisades Bowl, where he pays a combined mortgage and space rent of $900 a month. "I look out the window and if there are waves, I surf. I have 2,500 square feet of land with an ocean view. l couldn't get something like this anywhere in L.A."

For one family, it is the realization of the American dream, complete with the requisite hours of sweaty labor necessary to give a deteriorated coach a face lift.

"I always dreamed of living here in Malibu and I got that dream," said Herb Dorszynski, who bought his "fixer-upper coach" for about $100,000 and pays about $1,000 a month for his space at Point Dume Club.

"I don't have a million-dollar estate, but I am struggling to keep it, believe me," said Dorszynski, whose daughter Sylvia was busy digging up the front yard to plant flower seeds. "It's quiet and at night you can see a million stars. It's a great way to live."

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