Residents sue mobile home park near Canoga Park
Perched on a hillside near Canoga Park, the residents of Mountain View Mobile Estates have a panoramic view of the western San Fernando Valley. The streets, lined with 156 double-wide and triple-wide homes, are clean and peaceful. Towering rock formations border the park’s north side.
The setting is so attractive that a Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services listing once described Mountain View as a “5-star family mobile home park” with “unparalleled views.”
But looks can be deceiving, some residents say.
For the last two years, 27 homeowners in the park have been pursuing two lawsuits in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Mountain View’s owner, G.J. Park Associates, and management company, M.A. Cirillo & Associates.
The cases are emblematic of the problems faced by thousands of mobile home park residents in California, and raise questions about the effectiveness of state regulators.
Filed in March 2007 and August 2008, the lawsuits contend that the operators poorly maintained the park for years and failed to make timely repairs related to more than 250 notices of code violations issued by state inspectors since 1999. Those include more than 100 notices alleging that the park had a faulty electrical system -- a key safety issue because of the potential for fire and electric shocks.
“It’s like the pretty girl mothers warn their sons about: gorgeous on the outside, rotten on the inside,” said Gary Gibson, 62, a 10-year resident of Mountain View who has spearheaded the lawsuits.
Dale B. Goldfarb, a lawyer who represents the owner and the management company, said his clients corrected problems in a reasonable manner and spent several million dollars to fix Mountain View’s electrical system as well as other park facilities. He contends that the repairs were a major undertaking that required considerable time to complete before the state housing agency approved them.
“Many of Gary Gibson’s claims are unsubstantiated and not terribly significant,” Goldfarb said. Mountain View “is a quality park that is well-run.”
The first case, which involves Gibson, his wife, Deborah, and three other tenants, is headed for a 10-day trial scheduled to begin today. The plaintiffs seek about $100,000 in compensatory damages each for property losses, plus punitive damages and damages for emotional distress.
The other case, which contains similar allegations, seeks $1.9 million in compensatory damages to be split among 22 park residents, as well as punitive damages and damages for emotional distress. It has not been scheduled for trial yet.
Both lawsuits allege that park operators were negligent, engaged in unfair business practices, failed to keep the park in good working order and deliberately committed continuous violations of the state Mobilehome Residency Law, which requires park owners and residents to maintain a clean and safe environment.
Steven H. Haney, a Los Angeles attorney who represents the Mountain View tenants, said he plans to present the court with at least 254 notices of violations that date to 1999. He says the citations show that the park was fraught with problems and that the operators engaged in a pattern of deliberate misconduct for years to avoid making costly repairs.
Residents say they have had to endure about 60 park-wide electrical outages, at least 20 park-wide water shut-offs, unstable soil, sewer backups and flooded streets during rainstorms. The electrical system was so poor, they say, the park was plagued with power surges, dim lights, damaged appliances and so little electrical current that heaters could not be used in winter and air conditioners could not be used to relieve summer heat.
The tenants allege that park operators took more than six years to make improvements to the electrical system although according to their experts, it should have taken only about 18 months. The work was completed in May 2008.
Haney said he planned to present evidence showing that a previous park manager had warned the ownership in mid-2001 about electrical problems in the park, but that owners told him repairs would not be made -- a decision that prompted him to quit.
In several notices of violation, state inspectors wrote that park owners “willfully failed to comply” with orders to make corrections.
Haney said he would also assert that park owners broke a promise to residents in 2001 not to raise rents unless repairs were made to the park.
The owner’s attorney disputed the significance of the violation notices, which he likened to “fix-it tickets” for an automobile. In every instance, Goldfarb said, the violations were either corrected or withdrawn by the state. He further contends that the residents can address only what happened in the park since 2004, which the tenants dispute.
“If these were just fix-it tickets,” Gibson said, “why did they spend about $4 million dollars and take 75 months to comply with those fix-it tickets?”
Though the state is not named as a defendant in either case, the lawsuits question whether the Housing and Community Development Department, which regulates more than 4,800 mobile home parks in California, favors park owners over residents in cases involving serious code violations.
Records obtained for the lawsuit show that during the enforcement process, the agency entered into four agreements with the owners of Mountain View rather than strictly enforce code violations related to the electrical system, the most serious of which inspectors in the field considered immediate threats to health and safety.
Residents contend that the agreements were compromises that eased requirements for park owners and that as a result, repairs took far longer than they should have.
Sal Poidomani, a Housing and Community Development supervisor in Riverside who was involved in the Mountain View inspections, could not be reached for comment despite repeated efforts. In the past, agency officials have said that major enforcement actions can take time to resolve and that the agency may grant extensions and give some leeway to park owners as long as the health and safety of park residents are not compromised.
“My clients worked with the state agency in the process. They complied with all the state’s requests, and the state signed off on the improvements,” Goldfarb said. “It takes a long time to do that kind of work.”
The overhauled electrical system now meets state standards, Goldfarb said, and has “no problem” meeting the electrical demands of tenants, many of whom, he added, are “relatively happy.”
Haney contends that, though improved, Mountain View’s electrical system still doesn’t fully comply with state regulations and that the operators are no more vigilant about code violations today. He noted that soon after the electrical work was finished, the park lost power: A ground squirrel had gone through a large hole in a transformer’s enclosure and caused the equipment to fail. Poorly maintained transformer covers are code violations.
In late February, state inspectors issued violation notices at Mountain View related to 24 streetlights. Because the park has been slow to make repairs, Gibson said, some tenants have taken it upon themselves to install or replace bulbs in some of the lamps so they can light their streets at night.