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Cost of Living: Doma Estates resident Sands Ferguson says she hasn't gotten an offer on her mobile home yet and will probably be one of the last to leave. Plans call for the demolition of the 6.5-acre property in order to build 228 high-density apartments adjacent to the Flora Vista apartments, behind the Walgreens strip mall complex fronting El Camino Real.

Mobile Woes

Developers plan to level Santa Clara's Doma Estates mobile home park, and its mostly elderly residents say they're getting the boot without getting fair market value for their homes

By Genevieve Roja

AS JOYCE SHANDA tells her story, she smokes in an endless stream, one Doral after another. Oddly enough, it doesn't smell smoky or dank inside her mobile home, which looks kind of like a trailer on a movie set--narrow hallways, tweed furniture from the 1960s, a twin bed in the corner covered in green sheets, a 19-inch TV and a circa-1970s Samsung microwave with an oversized knob. Aside from the Ouija board, what's most noticeable from floor to ceiling is the number of boxes marked "kitchen" or "bedroom" that fill up the two bedrooms and closets.

"I've been packed for a year," says Shanda, 73.

She's been parked in this proverbial loading zone ever since she and the residents of Doma Estates received a letter from LMT Properties--the property's owners--saying that they needed to leave by the end of this year. Plans call for the demolition of the 6.5-acre property in order to build 228 high-density apartments adjacent to the Flora Vista apartments, behind the Walgreens strip mall complex fronting El Camino Real.

Those who own their mobile homes face two scenarios. One is that they wait to move until the Santa Clara City Council approves a relocation plan, thereby providing moving costs and ensuring that residents receive 100 percent, fair "in-park" market value for their mobile homes. Or they can decide to sell their mobile home to LMT at whatever LMT is willing to pay. Either way, they have to pay "rent" on their mobile home space in the meantime, or lose out on the entire deal.

Pending the planning commission's recommendation Nov. 14 and the City Council's subsequent action thereafter, things could change. Residents may have a better chance of getting 100 percent market value vs. what LMT and De Anza Properties previously offered, because the council will most likely mandate that De Anza owner John Vidovich pay fairly and accordingly, says Santa Clara's Director of Planning Geoffrey Goodfellow. In fact, Vidovich and company must abide by the decision in order to "proceed with the project," says Goodfellow.

Because residents are being involuntarily displaced by LMT, the city of Santa Clara will not dole out full relocation assistance in accordance with federal or state relocation law. However, they have set aside nearly $133,000 in federal funds and contracted Catholic Charities to administer a relocation program that will find housing for Doma Estate's residents.

Promises, Promises

Shanda works three days a week at Ross Dress For Less, bringing home about $632 a month. Rent on her space is about $550 a month for her two-bedroom, one-bath trailer. She subsists on about $729 a month, but most of that is gone after utilities and the medicine she takes for her ailing legs. Catholic Charities has found her a low-cost apartment, but Shanda, who lives alone, refuses to move until she gets cash for her mobile home. So far, she and LMT are far apart; she has priced it at around $40,000, while Leiland Hurd, LMT's controller, has offered $5,000. Unsatisfied with the offer, she has retained a lawyer to intervene on her behalf.

"If I had a gun, I'd blow my head off," Shanda says. "I really would. I'm losing my head here. I don't know what to do. ... It's a hell of a mess to go to court," Shanda says.

And a hell of a lot of money to pay first month's rent, a security deposit, and the ongoing rent on the mobile home space until Shanda and Hurd agree on the sale price. Other homeowners are also having difficulty negotiating payments. Virginia Smith's mother, Jackie Simpson, sold her mobile home to Hurd for an undisclosed amount before she died Sept. 15 of this year. Smith says LMT promised her the family would be paid by the beginning of October. LMT has not paid anything to date.

"She [Jackie Simpson] began getting very ill at the time she was told she would have to move," says Smith. "And she went downhill, downhill, downhill, all the way through. A lot of the people in the park, that's the problem, where are they going to live? The little bit they can pay goes to rent."

As Shanda and I walk down the asphalt-lined path to her friend Sands Ferguson's double-wide motor home--the biggest one in the park--Shanda points at all the vacant motor homes whose owners must continue to pay the rent, until they receive full payments from the sale of the residence.

"I think [a] niece is still paying the rent on that one," says Shanda, pointing to a boxy baby-blue trailer with white trim, whose owner passed away.

The niece plans to keep paying for the home until LMT pays her the past-due amount on the sale of the home. If she gives up trying to bilk money from LMT owed to her by turning over the property to LMT, she forfeits money from the sale. So executors of family member's estates do this in the meantime, paying for a place where they don't live.

Dwindling Dollars

Josephine Smith, 73, considers herself lucky. She recently sold her mobile home of 25 years to Hurd and was given $40,000, though not all at one time. At first, she was given $10,000, then slowly given the $30,000 later. She initially asked for $60,000 based on the location of her mobile home and the size of it.

"I felt like I could have gotten more," says Josephine, who now resides at Valley Village, a retirement center in Santa Clara. "I didn't have time to obtain a lawyer so I had to take what they gave me. I had a two-bedroom mobile home. I felt I was low-balled on it. I really didn't get what I should have had."

Brian Merriman sold his mobile home three months ago and was paid $21,000 by Hurd, and he says he was low-balled too.

"I took what they gave me," says Merriman, who now lives in Sunnyvale. "What choice did I have? It was a forced sell. It was either sell to them or don't take anything at all."

That unfortunately is what's hurting those left behind at Doma Estates--their neighbors are taking the money and running. Some even forego having their properties appraised for the sake of expediency. They've also been through this before. In 1989, part of Doma Estates was razed to make room for the strip mall and apartments behind it. The developers at that time gave residents 85 percent in-park value for their homes.

All's Fair

Ferguson wants fair market value, and isn't getting that, so she has rescinded several of Hurd's offers. She's been living out of her boxes just in case someone barges in and tells her she's gone. Her double-wide trailer, which feels like a typical one-story San Jose suburban dwelling--lots of hallways, three bedrooms, even a front and rear deck--is wall-to-wall cardboard boxes.

"I've lived here for four years," says Ferguson, 52, and the owner of her mobile home. "I can't afford to stay in this valley. It's really stressful; I'm going to have to quit my job [as a merchandiser and buyer]. I don't want to rent."

And no one, it seems, wants to deal with Hurd and Vidovich. According to Shanda, Hurd is taking a 10 percent cut as if he were a licensed Realtor.

"Damn right I don't have a Realtor's license," Hurd says. "I'm a CPA."

As to the 10 percent he's supposedly pocketing, Hurd says, "I won't comment on that."

Ferguson claims that Hurd hired an appraiser to determine each mobile home's worth, but promptly fired him because he made too many typographical errors.

"I won't dispute it," Hurd says of the claim.

Shanda says that Hurd does appraisals himself.

"Leiland doesn't even go inside," Shanda says, adding that residents never see the appraisals, which go directly to LMT. "He offered $20,000 to someone across the street just by looking at it [from outside]."

When asked if he has hired an appraiser or if he is doing appraisals himself, Hurd replies, "Talk to John."

"I'm going to ask you to call the developer [Vidovich]," he said over the phone. "I do not answer questions from the press."

Santa Clara Councilmember Rod Diridon Jr. also refused to answer questions, instructing to "call John" for further inquiries. Councilmember John McLemore, however, went into detail about the city's relocation plan and said it was "an unfortunate tradeoff" that the city would retain and attract residents by closing the park, at the expense of displacing the park's residents.

"I thought this was going to be so easy," Shanda says. "I wanted to get it done--no arguments. But I didn't. I planned on dying here. Now I'm being held hostage."

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From the November 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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