Migrants unite for better trailer park living

Associated Press
** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, OCT. 24 ** Pasquala Beaza looks on while watering her plants in front of home at an unpermitted mobile home park in Thermal, Calif., Monday, Oct. 18, 2010. Squalid housing for migrant farmworkers has for decades been a depressing reality in many places where crops are grown. But the situation in the cresent-shaped Coachella Valley 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles is unique for both its severity and for the hundreds of hidden and largely unplanned trailer parks that fill the need. At one such encampment, where raw sewage runs in the dirt streets and electricty was off for a month as temperatures reached 115 degrees, six farmworkers, with the assistance of legal aid, had the temerity to sue the landlord. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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In the five years Pasquala Beaza has lived in a squalid trailer park for migrant farmworkers, she has endured the stench of sewage overflows, street flooding and blackouts.

When temperatures soared to 115 degrees in the baking Coachella Valley and an electrical fire killed the power for a month, her family couldn't take any more.

Beaza's husband and four other residents sued their landlords in state court.

In doing so, they joined a small but growing minority of trailer dwellers fighting to improve conditions at more than 100 poorly maintained mobile home parks that dot the dusty crescent-shaped valley 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

"We didn't want to go all the way to a lawsuit, but with a situation like this there was no other way. It's a basic necessity and we were forced to," said Beaza, 51, a hotel housekeeper, whose trailer was labeled unsafe by the county because of the power outage. "And the problem that we have is almost nothing compared to the problems at other places."

Once afraid to speak out about deplorable living conditions, residents like the Beazas are taking trailer park owners to court and winning.

A Riverside County judge who restored the power last week at the Beazas' park ordered the landlords Thursday to maintain the sewage and electrical systems and refrain from evicting tenants or raising rent in retaliation. Residents at two other parks — mostly housing low-income farmworkers, many of them undocumented — have also sued and another filed a complaint with the state's Public Utilities Commission over water rates as high as $595 a month.

The recent victory marks the first time an entire park has organized itself and represents a turning point in a decades-long debate about how to address an affordable housing crisis that has plagued the eastern Coachella Valley.

"The model is to have the community be the driving force," said Sergio Carranza, the executive director of the recently formed Pueblo Unido Community Development Corp., one of several nonprofits spurring activism. "We want to give the power to these families."

Wretched living conditions for migrants predate the arrival of Dust Bowl refugees in California's fertile fields, but the situation in the Coachella Valley, known for its table grapes, dates, chili peppers and other crops, is unique for its severity. Dozens of hidden, illegal trailer parks pop up faster than regulators can inspect them in the vast rural county roughly the size of New Jersey.

"It's sort of an epidemic," said Megan Beaman Carlson, an attorney with California Rural Assistance League Inc., which is helping residents with lawsuits. "I think it became too big of an issue for the county to be able to properly monitor."

At one of the more notorious parks, a 4,000-person rural slum taken over by a federal receiver, wild dogs roamed muddy alleys, raw sewage overflowed into the streets during heavy rains and flies swarmed children. Tangled electric wires dangled like spaghetti, sparking a dangerous fire that left 120 people homeless.

At the Hernandez Mobile Home Park where the Beazas live, power surges damaged appliances and occasional septic back-ups spilled human waste into the mobile homes and into dirt yards.

The brothers who own the park say they toiled as farmworkers for years themselves and pooled their money to open their property as a way of helping migrants out.

The situation grew out of their control as families planted their trailers for $200 a month, said Oscar Hernandez. Now the brothers are stuck with a 24-trailer site they can't afford, but can't shut down because of the court order.

"My brothers made this to help people in need. People came saying 'I don't have a place to stay, I need a place to stay' and now they're suing us," he said, as his older brother Miguel listened. "They're trying to make us look like bad people, but everything we have is here."

In the late 1990s, local officials cracked down on unpermitted sites, but that just forced residents to flock to nearby Indian reservations — where the county had no jurisdiction — or become homeless. Advocates won a $21 million settlement against the county for discriminating against low-income Hispanic families by targeting three dozen sites.

Now, the county is targeting the most dangerous locations and working with nonprofits to improve conditions and build affordable housing for the future.

While $59 million was spent to build 5,200 units of affordable housing and 3,200 more units are in some stage of development, an estimated 6,000 people are living in bad conditions, said Emilio Ramirez, the director of the county's economic development agency.

"It's a dilemma that we face. Obviously we would like to rid the community of the substandard housing, but we have to do it in a way that avoids mass homelessness," he said. "You're kind of stuck between two evils."

That leaves much of the current battle up to low-wage farmworkers and the landscapers and housekeepers who commute to nearby Palm Springs and other upscale desert cities to work at country clubs and luxury resorts.

Residents at St. Anthony's Mobile Home Park in Mecca successfully sued over arsenic-tainted well water and now have a fresh supply of water supplied by a station in front of the trailer park. Sewage stench has been reduced by pouring lime near evaporation ponds and the lights now work.

Maria Arredondo, a grape harvester who lived in the park for 17 years before joining the newly formed "Unity is Strength" committee last year, still dumps scented cleaning fluid in an evaporating cooler to quell the stink of the sewage pond a few yards from her front door.

But tremendous changes recently give her hope that with the help of nonprofits, they'll one day build a new, 136-unit site nearby with a grassy space and a community center.

"We have our hopes up and we don't want to give up on it," she said, grinning. "That's what we're fighting for and we have to have the faith."

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