Paradise tossedFear and anger grip residents as sun sets on De Anza mobile home park
For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. -Oscar Wilde
A former-mayor-turned-radio-loudmouth has labeled them "squatters" who deserve to be tossed out of their homes. Public sentiment seems to agree, perhaps out of envy or disdain for people who have had the opportunity to live on public parkland.
The residents of De Anza Harbor Resort-a boot-shaped spit of land in the northeast corner of Mission Bay Park that holds San Diego's only waterfront mobile-home park-have heard it all.
It's what Ernie Abbit calls the "green-eyed monster," a kind of resentment that has built up probably for 50 years, when people first proposed developing a mobile-home paradise on the pristine new shores of man-made Mission Bay.
"The mayor has talked about villages-hey, we're here!" said Abbit, president of the park's homeowners association. "We were here before he even had the thought. It's not just some trailer park. This is the image, unfortunately, that John Q. Public has of us. They don't see a home, just a trailer with a hitch on the front that you just hook up to a truck and haul out.
"We're not trailer trash. We're a community of people."
But, pending any legal action to the contrary, haul out is just what city officials have told the 1,100 or so De Anza residents that they must do in order to avoid severe legal consequences and eviction.
And while some residents are heeding the city's threats and signing settlement agreements that will allow some to remain until mid-2008, others, like Abbit, are insisting they will stand and fight for their homes, their dignity and for some respect from the city.
"Unfortunately, the city of San Diego only seems to react to legal battles," Abbit lamented.
A retired social worker, Abbit and his wife, Nadine, were full-time recreational-vehicle enthusiasts from the Northwest who came to De Anza five years ago looking for a winter vacation spot. But instead of walking into the RV office, Abbit accidentally ventured into the mobile-home sales office. The rest, as they say, is history.
"My whole point and purpose for coming here was to relax, kick back and enjoy my retirement years," Abbit said. He knew what he was getting into-for decades, the city has grappled with a complex legal web emanating from state law that prohibits permanent residences on dedicated public parkland. "I didn't come here with rose-colored glasses. I knew it might be over in five years."
He said five years because, through the efforts of the city and a state assemblyman, a compromise was worked out 20 years ago that permitted the homes to remain until Nov. 23, 2003. But that day is nearly here, and a place that many consider a unique sliver of paradise is now destined to revert back to public parkland.
While many of the players involved in this legal whirlwind agree that matters could have been handled much better, the bottom line is De Anza residents-many of them seniors-find themselves facing uncertain futures.
The fear is palpable.
"Most of these people are elderly," said Tim Tatro, a Del Mar attorney who, along with partner Peter Zamoyski, was recently hired by the homeowners association to fight the city's eviction process. "A large percentage of them are disabled or care for people who are disabled. They're living on fixed incomes, and they've got nowhere to go."
Tatro said an informal survey of several hundred residents stunned him. Pending legal action prevents him from being specific, he said, but he did note a common theme of despair from respondents. "We saw an alarming number of people who, when asked "What are your plans if evicted?' and sadly many of them wrote "suicide,'" he said. "And that's real."
Earlier this year, an older resident did commit suicide at De Anza, although it's not clear if his medical condition or the onus of relocation was the cause. At least one elderly resident stopped eating for nearly two weeks, but friends say she has since begun taking sustenance.
"Just think of your grandparents," Tatro said. "Think how anxious they get when they run out of medication and they're not sure they can make it to the drugstore until tomorrow. Now imagine they're being told they've got two weeks to make this life-altering decision or they're going to be thrown out.
"You can't possibly overstate the impact this is having on all of them."
Bob Spellman, who has lived at De Anza with his wife, Lyn, for 15 years, was taking a walk recently when he came upon a flyer lying in the road. It was from the Hemlock Society, an organization that promotes alternative means of dying, including suicide.
"People here are terrified," Spellman said.
Although uncertainty has hovered over residents for years, the reality of the park's imminent demise hit home for many in late October, when city officials came to De Anza to deliver a settlement offer to residents. Prior to that meeting, homeowners relied primarily on rumor and innuendo because the city, locked in yet another agreement with the leaseholders-who at one time promoted the idea of building a hotel on the site-was forced to remain silent or face legal action from the park's developer, De Anza Harbor Resort and Golf LLC.
Surreal may best describe that October meeting. The city's director of real-estate assets, Will Griffith, came flanked by four burly police officers, a tactic that drew the derision of many who had packed the park's Bay Club community center to hear the city's offer. Many in the audience sat in wheelchairs or leaned against walkers and canes.
City Councilmember Donna Frye, whose district includes De Anza, was also there. Even before her election in 2000, Frye had come to consider many of the residents friends as she worked to find an equitable solution to the city's dilemma. She has yet to shake the trauma of that night.
"It was probably the hardest meeting I've ever held in my life," Frye told CityBeat, "because they're my friends and I care about them and I know for a lot of them they probably don't believe that. I'm not unsympathetic, but this is something that's been going on for 50 years. Would I have done things differently? Of course I would. But I'm not the only one making this decision."
Continuing threats of legal action have also impaired Frye's usual ability to say what's on her mind, but the tone of her voice suggests that she had little backing by her council colleagues to come up with a more palatable plan to relocate the De Anza residents.
As it is, the residents face a Dec. 1 deadline-extended from Nov. 21 by the city this week--to submit paperwork to delay their departure. The proposal includes a cash offer of between $4,000 and $8,000, with the maximum amount reserved for homeowners who agree to leave by June of 2005. The monetary incentive gradually drops to $4,000 for those who sign up for latest departure date, which occurs in mid-2008.
Under the plan, as many as 40 mobile homes per quarter will be removed between mid-2005 and mid-2008. Departure dates are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. By signing, however, residents also give up any rights to challenge the city's efforts in court.
At press time, it was not clear how many residents had signed the offer. But an executive with Laguna Beach-based Hawkeye Asset Management, the firm tapped by the city to handle the transition, is said to have told one resident that at least 150 of the park's 510 homeowners have agreed to take the offer. The final two quarters of move-out timeline have already been booked, the resident was told.
Not everyone is displeased by the offer. Frye said one woman approached her after the acrimonious October meeting to thank her. "She said, "I'm gonna go home and unpack my stuff and celebrate the holidays,'" Frye recounted. "She said she thought she would have to leave at the end of November."
Jim Darr, a retired motel owner and a neighbor of Abbit's on Shoreline Drive, the Park Avenue equivalent at De Anza, said he's unsure what he and his wife will do. "I'm still going around and around in circles going, "Well, what should we do?' Frankly, the people I've talked with who are not in the park think it's a hell of a deal," Darr said as he strolled along De Anza's palm-tree-lined western shore.
"Yeah, but that's because they're not in the park," Abbit retorted.
Darr understood the remark. "I realize that, hey, we want to stay here forever. And we know we're not going to be able to. And yet I feel undoubtedly that we could delay things by fighting legal battles. But legal battles have never turned me on."
He also understands the city's predicament, which perhaps includes picking the legal threat of least resistance, in this case park residents over the park developer, a deep-pocketed company based in Beverly Hills that owns numerous high-end mobile-home parks nationwide.
"Giving us what we wanted, they probably felt that they'd be sued by everybody," Darr said. "This way, they'll probably be sued by us. But we're relatively unimportant."
"They won't think so when there's 260 lawsuits," Abbit replied.
"You think there are going to be that many?" Darr asked.
"Yep," Abbit said.
The attorneys for the homeowners association are formulating a strategy, but at press time they weren't comfortable getting into details.
A press release they issued, however, does give some hint at the bumpy legal road ahead.
Calling the city's move-out proposal "neither appropriate, fair, nor legal," the attorneys say residents feel betrayed. Despite the well-known Nov. 23 expiration date of the park's lease, many elderly residents "were told for years by the city and De Anza that the lease would likely be extended," the release stated. "Others were told that, in the unlikely event that the lease was not extended, the city and/or De Anza would buy back their mobile homes at fair market value, plus pay to help the residents find and buy a new home."
The homeowners' attorneys also contend that the city is in violation of state law for failing to come up with a reasonable relocation and compensation plan.
"The law," the statement continued, "requires the city to draft a tenant impact report that includes measures designed to minimize the harm to the more than 1,100 residents who will be displaced when the park closes."
The attorneys claim the city has known about the law since its adoption in 1988, one of many laws passed at that time to safeguard the treatment of mobile-home park dwellers. According to so-called manufactured-home experts, not one mobile-home park has been built in California in 20 years.
"Over the years, the city effectively ignored the problem, each new administration inheriting this political time-bomb from the last, while the availability of affordable housing continued to evaporate," Tatro said. "This "bury-your-head-in-the-sand' approach only made things worse because now, at the 11th hour, there is no time for the city to come up with a reasonable relocation plan before the end of the lease.
"That's why the city is pushing the residents to signs its proposed settlement agreement under threat of eviction."
The park's Beverly Hills leaseholder, led by Michael D. Gelfand, is blamed by many as having a significant hand in causing the delay in adequate planning. From 1999 until May of this year, the city had been handcuffed into exclusive negotiations with Gelfand, who had obtained a memorandum of understanding (MOU) from a previous city council during the Susan Golding era.
Golding, the mayor who frequently gets blamed for the city's ticket-guarantee mess with the San Diego Chargers, and then-councilman Byron Wear were supportive of Gelfand's plan to tear out the park and replace it with a hotel. An inability to gain financing-hotel construction was dropping even before Sept. 11-hammered the final nail into the coffin of those plans. But until the MOU expired last May, the city was prevented from talking even to residents about an amenable relocation plan, said Frye.
"Because of the legal issues that it caused, I couldn't go out and say, "Does anyone have some better ideas of what we could do here?'" Frye explained. "It essentially allowed Michael Gelfand to preclude any other solutions from being discussed without being a breach of contract."
Meanwhile, residents say, Gelfand had managed to put the fear into De Anza residents to the point where many felt they couldn't leave even given the opportunity. Gelfand had residents sign a long-term rental agreement that, among other things, precluded residents from opposing his hotel proposal while requiring them to pay rent through the November 2003 lease-expiration date even if they moved.
In exchange, rents-which range from about $600 to $1,400-were frozen.
"Every instance along the line we've been prevented from moving because of the coercion between [leaseholder] De Anza and the city," resident Spellman said while seated on his bright-blue porch. "There was no way to get out of paying rent on the property. They kept the money coming in, to the point where I believe Gelfand is making about $4.9 million in profits a year while the city was getting something like $1.2 million a year."
The problem with the proposed buyout, Spellman noted, is the requirement that residents must remove their homes, many of which have been remodeled over the years from typical trailers to astonishingly luxurious homes, some sporting three bedrooms, carports and elaborate rock gardens. Abbit estimates that removal-or demolition for those that can't be moved-could cost residents anywhere from $9,000 to $45,000 for some of the more permanent homes.
Some residents have their entire life savings tied up in their homes, many of which come with a mortgage on top of the rental fee for the small parcel of land on which each home sits. And with the housing market as tight as it is in San Diego, options are few.
Abbit said Gelfand at one point directed residents to several possible relocation sites, but the association president said they were all unworkable, including one east of Del Mar that was situated on wetlands. "There was two feet of water on that site," Abbit said with a mild chuckle. None of the sites was zoned for mobile homes, and it would have been up to the residents to pursue the zoning change.
"Some help," Abbit sniffed.
Residents also wonder how the city, struggling as it is to keep its budget out of more red ink, can afford the estimated $4 million it will take to buy out the park residents. The city has asked the San Diego Housing Commission to put up $2 million-the bulk of it from a Section 8 housing-assistance reserve-toward the cause, and Frye knows she will get grief from environmentalists for volunteering city dollars from a Fiesta Island sludge mitigation fund required by the state Coastal Commission.
Last Friday, the Housing Commission rejected the city's funding request, but observers suggested that the City Council, convening as the Housing Authority, will find a way to get that money.
City officials have also told residents that they will continue to receive "essential services," like water and electricity, but they have hedged on the fate of many popular community elements, such as the community center, its adjacent pool and an old Quonset hut known as the Pavilion, which serves the older section of the park as a chapel and recreation hall. Aerobics and art classes continued through last week, but their futures were also uncertain.
Frye said rumors that the facilities will be padlocked come Nov. 23 are untrue. Still, it's clear that the lack of discourse between the city and residents until recently has many on edge.
"The reality is," said homeowner attorney Zamoyski, "that this "proposal' is nothing more than a last-minute, ill-conceived attempt to snuff out the city's substantial liability by offering a brief extension of time on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. These elderly citizens are afraid of becoming homeless, and the city is telling them that this settlement proposal is their only option.
"But it does not solve the ultimate problem of finding a new home for all of these residents; it merely postpones the crisis while stripping away the legal protections granted to these homeowners by the state Legislature."
Added partner Tatro: "In a county recently decimated by wildfire and faced with a critical shortage of affordable housing, the city let these people down. With impeccable timing, the city's threatened eviction proceedings will attempt to ensure that these people are homeless by mid-December, just in time for Christmas." ©