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Photograph by Kathleen Olson

Trouble in Rio City

Allegations of favoritism and abuse of power rock a Santa Cruz mobile home park.

By Will Mosher

At the end of Pacific Avenue, on the banks of the San Lorenzo River, sits the El Rio Mobile Home Park, a rare patch of low-income housing in an ever-more costly Santa Cruz. Here, the elderly poor pay about $320 a month for a lot on which to park their mobile homes. It's a good deal for people trying to survive on Social Security.

Yet something is rotten at the end of Pacific Avenue. Petty squabbles have mounted into arguments, and the arguments that make homeowners associations notorious for infighting grow even more bitter when residents are too poor to afford lawsuits or even decent legal advice. It's one of the costs people pay for the privilege of waking up at the end of Pacific Avenue in discount housing. The offices of Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff, attorneys at law, may be right next door, but hiring a lawyer remains perpetually out of grasp.

Cynthia Bentley has lived in El Rio for 22 years and has a problem with the park's Architectural Review Committee (ARC). She alleges that by exploiting missing records and a lack of legal representation, the ARC has been able to grab up 15 percent of her lot and her parking spots under the pretext of fire safety. She says that she was ignored when she complained, that the park's board of directors attempted to terminate her park membership in retaliation and that the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) refused to cite the board even though its inspectors found that her lot boundaries had been moved without permit.

She's been trying to find help from the authorities but has been redirected from every agency she's visited. Her case seems to fall under nobody's jurisdiction but the courts'--an option she and her neighbors can ill afford.

"I went to the DA's office and they said, 'Oh no, that's the police; they're in charge of stealing property,'" she says, "and so we did, and they said, 'Oh no, that's the DA.' So we go to the county supervisors, and they say, 'Oh, go to the City Council,' and they say, 'Go to HCD,' and we say, 'We've been going to HCD for years now,' so they say, 'Go to court.'"

The Problem
The root of her complaint lies in the genesis of the El Rio cooperative. In 1988, when residents managed to buy the park and run it on their own, everything seemed fine. But in 1991 the HCD contacted the park and threatened to red-flag it unless it created 3-foot setbacks around trailers in order to comply with state housing law.

Two managers, Tom Payton and Ted Baer, devised a method of marking off lots using nails driven through washers. They marked up the park and the problem seemed solved. Then, a year later, a water company tore up the pavement in order to put in new pipes, and the markers were lost.

So the park contacted the HCD, which sent inspectors to re-establish the boundaries of the lots. The inspectors did their work, but the document they produced, if they produced one at all, never found its way into the hands of board members. So explains Hillary Hamm, one of the few members of the park's board of directors who agreed to talk with Metro Santa Cruz.

"The state verified the whole park's lines in '92" says Hamm. "But the state came in and said, 'OK, this is where the lines are,' and they left. And they didn't leave any record that we could find in Sacramento that proves anything, and as you can see, the park is laid out in very weird angles. Nobody has the same size lot and that, I think, is contentious for people."

Greg Gates is a retired doctor who used to date Cynthia Bentley, and he's immeasurably angry with the ARC for what he says is trailer park nepotism. He says the power that the ARC has to define lot lines gives it carte blanche to rearrange lines however its members want because there are no records to check--and because there's no enforcement of the law. Gates says the ARC uses selective enforcement as a political tool to reward friends with additional parking spaces or yard space or to harass enemies as members see fit.

Board member Eva Brunner says this just isn't so. She and Hamm maintain that the committee doesn't move lot lines; it verifies them.

"Lot lines are not moved. If they are ever moved they have to be approved by HCD," Brunner says. "There has been one instance in this park that I'm aware of where a lot line, an actual line, was actually moved, and it was done with the consent of the two members who were actually affected, and then it was approved by HCD. I know that some people--well, mostly one person thinks that her lot is different than what we think it is, and there's nothing that I or anyone else can really see what that's based on."

Gates isn't buying it. "It's absolutely criminal," he says. "That doesn't begin to explain the rationales behind what they're doing. Their rationales don't hold water."

Crossing Boundaries
One instance of what board members might call a lot line verification took place a year and a half ago on Jim Rollins' lot. When the committee sent him a letter on Oct. 28, 2006, stating that it was going to come onto his property to change his lot lines, Rollins called the police.

"The day arrived, they were there, and a police officer was there," he says. "They didn't come into my lot. They staged a big dramatic thing out in front of my lot, putting my marker in. I called in neighbors. The neighbors were out there watching. It was very theatrical."

Angered, Rollins called the HCD, which agreed to send an inspector. Dennis Dougan arrived several months later, on Feb. 5, 2007, and determined that Rollins' "previous lot size is correct." At that point the John Stewart Co., which acts as property manager for the El Rio, got involved. On Feb. 26, property management director Walter Reed wrote a letter to Dougan's boss, Ron Kingsford, complaining that the board had not been made aware of an HCD inspection or even "asked for any information regarding this dispute." Reed requested a second inspection.

Dougan and Kingsford returned and arrived at the same conclusion Dougan had: that the lot lines had been changed without permit.

Still the matter remained unsettled. A month later, Kingsford's supervisor, Bruce McKarley, came to the park. McKarley looked at the lot and gave up. He came to no conclusion about the lot line, but wrote that "this is truly a CIVIL DISPUTE, [sic] that should be settled through mediation or a civil court decision."

Reed wrote back to McKarley thanking him for his activity report and stated, "The El Rio MHP Board and Management will continue on the assumption that you accept the current lot line marker location." Paul Stover, a former board member and current member of the ARC, says he doesn't put any stock in the reports by HCD inspectors. He says the conclusions they reach depend heavily on who's on duty and writing the report.

Get in Line
Bentley has photographs in a transparent binder labeled "The Amazing Shrinking Lot Line," and she's squeezing through the cramped alley behind her trailer. She's pointing out where her lot has been altered by jabbing at her neighbor's fence with a chunk of lumber. She says the shallow depressions represent where the ARC has changed her lot lines on several occasions, purportedly to comply with fire code.

All these things are petty; a few feet isn't that much. But a few feet means that people like Bentley, who are on social security, lose their space while paying the same amount every month in rent.

Bentley, too, had Dennis Dougan visit her lot. In his report of Feb. 5, 2007, he concluded that Bentley's "lot corners have been relocated without permit."

Stover says this report, like the one on Collins' lot, is illegitimate.

Bentley, Rollins and others in the park have been trying to get their space back by writing fliers and running for the board, but their latest campaign has failed.

Recently there was an election in the park. Six people, including Bentley, created a "reform party" and ran on the promise of dissolving the ARC and "bringing fairness to the park," but only managed to get one person elected.

El Rio wasn't always like this. Bentley talks about what the trailer park was like two decades ago.

"There were very few fences, and everything was marked," she says. "There were boxes lined up. You could look down from backyard to backyard, but slowly people have become more privacy conscious and wind conscious, and they built their little places."

Lloyd Ellis is another angry resident. He's sitting with Rollins, flapping a copy of a letter that he sent to the City Council in one hand. The letter is titled "Tyranny by the River?" and it's threatening the board with a lawsuit."

Yes. As it says in this letter to the City Council--" He begins to shout, but Rollins tells him to lower his voice and he continues in a milder tone.

"There are five plaintiffs who are prepared to file a civil suit, and we have found a financial benefactor prepared to assist in this effort. However, we are pressing the board to have an alternative dispute hearing before it goes that far. The board has not set policy on how to mediate these disputes. That is a problem when it drags on for months, and this is a form of harassment."

Greg Gates confirms over the phone that he is that benefactor and says he is in fact going to sue the board. He seems absolutely confident he will succeed.

"I've given this a hell of a lot of consideration. I have looked at over 200 documents over the last three years, I've talked to probably about 40 people in that park, and I've attended maybe up to 10 board meetings and I've spoken at board meetings and I've seen how this place goes," says Gates. "So what I'm saying I'm really betting my farm on."

Brunner says she hopes Gates won't help residents sue the park, because if he fights the park and the park needs to hire lawyers, the residents will shoulder the fees.

"If he were to sue the park, that would be extremely unfortunate, because basically he's suing the members of the park. Every single member in this park will pay for, whether he prevails or does not prevail, any cost from that."

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