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Problems Fester at Some Trailer Parks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lack of state oversight and enforcement is cited as the chief reason some Ventura County mobile home parks have fallen into such serious disrepair that one local official has compared them to “Third World conditions.”

Twenty-five state inspectors, split between offices in Sacramento and Riverside, are responsible for answering complaints on the state’s 5,657 mobile home parks.

As a result, blatant violations can go unchecked for years. At some county parks, live electrical wires dangle a precious few feet from homes. The smell of human waste wafts through the air. Backed-up septic tank water gathers in pools on the ground.

“And every time you call the state to complain, you get the same old excuse,” county Supervisor Frank Schillo said. “They say, ‘Well, we haven’t got enough inspectors to go around.’ ” At some point, that’s just not acceptable anymore.”

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Officials with the state Department of Housing and Community Development defended their efforts and said they meet state requirements for inspecting 40% of California’s parks every seven years.

“The other 60%, what’s the likelihood they have any violation?” said Ron Javor, deputy director for the department. “The likelihood is very low. We are quite sure we will get to everyone as we look at that 40%.”

But county officials cite places such as Country Sunshine, a tiny eight-unit park in the unincorporated streets outside Oxnard, as proof of the state’s failure to crack down on owners of deteriorating parks.

Resident Esther Diaz pays $425 a month for the one-bedroom, 10-by-40-foot trailer she shares with her husband and five children.

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Exposed electrical wires pulse just enough energy to power the television and lights. Garbage litters the ground. As she speaks, she keeps watch on her 2-year-old to make sure he doesn’t splash through the sewer water puddles outside.

“Can you smell it?” she asks, referring to the stench from a busted septic tank that has seeped into her tiny living room.

“The conditions here are very bad,” said Diaz, 36, a seasonal strawberry picker who has lived at the rented trailer for 3 1/2 years. “They say they are going to fix them, but they’ve been saying that for a long time.”

State regulators inspected Country Sunshine in November after a resident called Supervisor John Flynn’s office to complain about conditions. But after citing the owner, the inspector gave the site a thumbs-up, saying he has seen worse.

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County officials interceded again, demanding a meeting and another inspection. The subsequent inspection resulted in 101 violations.

Owner Damaso Leanos has until March 27 to make improvements or face fines totaling $50,500.

“This is a mess,” Leanos conceded last week as he hauled away a battered trailer surrounded by garbage. He said he didn’t realize the property was in such bad shape.

“I wasn’t paying that much attention, I guess,” said Leanos, who has owned the property since 1980. “But we’re working on it. I’m not just sitting around.”

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Leanos has replaced a crumbling wood fence, plans to patch up the park’s septic system this week, and today he is meeting with tenants to discuss repairs that are the responsibility of residents.

State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Mobile and Manufactured Housing, said the state is doing a terrible job with oversight and that is the reason why parks such as Country Sunshine flourish.

“The state of affairs is, at best, dismal,” said Dunn, who held a hearing on park conditions late last year. “Many of these parks will go seven or eight years without an inspector passing through. There are heart-wrenching examples throughout the state of terrible conditions at these parks.”

Dunn plans to file legislation that could increase the number of state inspectors and funding for a state mobile home park ombudsman. It also could funnel money into a low-interest loan program for park owners.

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A recent Ventura County study found 10 of 21 parks surveyed were in substandard condition and in some cases posed health risks to residents. Upset by the findings, supervisors last week approved their own plan to force park owners to take action.

“I have some mobile home parks in my district and they are in absolutely Third World conditions,” Flynn said. “You walk in there and you’d say, ‘I can’t believe I’m in the United States of America.’ It’s immoral.”

Under the county plan, officials would apply for federal grant money that could be made available to property owners through low-interest loans. If repairs are not made, local officials would contact state inspectors and request an on-site visit. State officials could then refer uncorrected violations to local law enforcement for prosecution.

It’s a good idea, many park residents say, but years of unresponsive landowners and bureaucracy have taught them to be skeptical about real change.

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They said the laws governing mobile home parks are weak and prosecutions of park owners rare. Most violations are misdemeanor counts, punishable by a $500 fine for each count and up to 30 days in jail. And that is if local authorities pursue prosecution.

Officials in the district attorney’s office could not remember the last time they prosecuted a mobile home owner, though they said cities sometimes pursue cases civilly.

As part of his reform efforts, Dunn has suggested creating incentives for local district attorneys to prosecute more mobile home park code violations.

The law does allow a local jurisdiction to take control of mobile home inspections from the state, if it chooses. That is what Camarillo did in the early 1990s. And for about the past 30 years, Ventura has conducted its own inspections.

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In all, 88 municipalities across the state control oversight of mobile home parks. But most cities and counties prefer to let the state handle that responsibility, Javor said, because the program is too costly. Last year Los Angeles County returned inspection authority to the state for that very reason, he said.

Still, Flynn said he is interested in at least investigating the option of county oversight and enforcement.

“We should do it, absolutely,” Flynn said. “We need to have closer control. The program now is fraught with bureaucracy and it’s the reason we don’t get hold of this problem.”

Flynn said he is interested in helping owners make improvements, not putting them out of business. Country Sunshine is in Flynn’s district and he is now looking for someone to donate a trailer for Esther Diaz and her family.

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But not everyone is happy to see county officials coming to the rescue. Residents are afraid the cost of improvements will only mean higher rents.

Even county representatives acknowledge mobile home parks are among the few affordable housing options for people on the lowest level of the income ladder.

In a county where the average cost for a two-bedroom apartment is $978, a $186 to $518 monthly rental bill for mobile home space is sweet relief.

Diane Besocke lives at Meiners Oaks Trailer Park, another site the county slapped with a low rating. Many of the trailers, including Besocke’s 1962 Traveleze, are older. But she doesn’t want the county exerting its muscle to spruce things up, fearing that would hike her $192-a-month rent, which is about all she can handle on her earnings as a part-time stage worker and writer.

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“There has to be a balance between how pristine and gorgeous your park is and people’s ability to afford it,” Besocke said. “At this point at our income and circumstances we can barely do this.”

Sheila Dey, executive director of the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Assn. in Sacramento, also opposes increased enforcement efforts, saying the state already provides sufficient regulation.

Javor of housing and community development said in addition to routine inspections, his office tries to respond to specific complaints within 45 days.

If the county really wanted to help low-income residents, Dey said, it would find grant money to purchase new mobile homes.

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“Some people are unable to afford new manufactured homes and their homes are substandard when you’ve got an old trailer that wasn’t meant to be around for 50 or 60 years,” she said.

But largely, mobile home residents welcomed news of the county’s efforts.

Dario Melchor is a 47-year-old farm laborer and Country Sunshine resident. He pays $310 a month to live at the complex with his 6-year-old grandson. He is cautiously optimistic about improvements. But watching Anthony run over the garbage scattered on the lot, he says things could stay the same too. And no one will care, he said. No one will get outraged. Residents won’t even move.

“Because we have nowhere else to live,” Melchor said. “We have no place to go.”

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Times staff writers Margaret Talev and Anna Gorman and Times photographer Carlos Chavez contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Mobile Home Park Survey

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A Ventura County study found the following 10 mobile home parks in unincorporated areas in poor condition, with problems ranging from sewage leaks to electrical hazards.

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Location (or closest No. Park Unit Park city) of Units rating rating Casitas Spring MHP Ventura 38 Low Low Country Squire MHP Oxnard 27 Low Low Country Sunshine Oxnard 8 Low Low Country Village MHP Ojai 25 Mod Low Fillmore West Fillmore 33 Low Low Trailer Lodge GlenView MHP Oxnard 26 Low Low Lake Casitas Ojai 37 Low Low MH Estates Lantern Lane Oak View 60 Low Low Mobilelodge Meiner’s Oaks Meiners Oaks 20 Mod Low Trailer Park Navalair MH Court Oxnard 51 Low Low

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*Source: Ventura County chief administrator’s office


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