TribuneSPECIALreport: Low-income housing dispute in SLO

Mission Trailer Park — A tug-of-war between tenants and owner

Residents fear owner Rob Rossi is letting the facility deteriorate as a way to cajole them to sell — but he says that’s not true and the property is simply showing its age

acornejo@thetribunenews.comDecember 30, 2012 

Dingy remnants of toilet paper cling to uneven asphalt, the result of a sewage backup. Plywood covers long-broken windows. Water pools on the concrete near old washing machines.

Mission Trailer Park, in San Luis Obispo’s downtown, appears long forgotten. But to those living there, it is home.

The 33-space mobile-home park, off Higuera Street near the Creamery, provides an affordable place to live for its 20 residents in a town with high housing costs and limited options for the poor.

But a constant worry for those living there is that one day they will be displaced because the land would be more valuable developed. Longtime park owner Rob Rossi, one of the most prominent investors of commercial real estate in the county, said he has no immediate plans to do so.

Craig Steffens has lived at the park for more than 20 years and is a savvy tenant with knowledge of state law protecting mobile-home owners from eviction without the guarantee of relocation.

He has defended the park from threats of closure in the past.

Now, Steffens is gearing up to fight again as one more of the park’s trailer owners has been asked to sign over his ownership rights, becoming a renter instead.

Steffens worries the loss of another trailer owner at the park will undermine the park’s future and put Rossi one step closer to converting the park to rental sites.

That, in turn, would make the park easier to close altogether, Steffens said.

The ramshackle condition of the park is just a sign of age, Rossi said. But Steffens disagrees, saying it is intentional to make the park undesirable.

“The nature of the park owner’s actions are designed to obtain vacancy of the park,” said attorney Paul Geihs, who has defended the park’s residents in the past. “Removal of all the trailers — that is their objective. They are trying to pick them off one at a time.”

Affordable home

The bustle of downtown bypasses the dilapidated park.

A vacant, two-story historic red house, also owned by Rossi, sits adjacent to the park’s entrance.

The property, set back from Higuera Street, is visible to passers-by, but few stop. The residents, some who have lived there for decades, keep to themselves.

The trailers, as rundown as they are, are all that many of the people living there can afford.

“I don’t know where I’d go,” said Bill Blomquist, 78, who has lived there for decades. “At this price, it would be impossible to find anything — maybe at the end of the desert somewhere.”

The park is now down to only eight mobile-home owners, having dwindled from 33 about 17 years ago.

Renters pay up to $550 a month to live there. Those who own their trailers, like Steffens, only pay up to $250 a month for their space.

“It was a nice park when I came here, but it has been let go,” Steffens said. “The laundry room, the showers and toilets closed off, the clothesline taken away are just some of the things the park has done to make it less livable. We would even fix it up ourselves if the park would let us.”

Despite Mission Trailer’s tattered appearance, only small violations were found during a recent inspection by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which is responsible for the oversight of trailer parks.

Some residents were cited for problems with their own trailers.

No major health or safety violations were recorded in the past decade, according to a department spokesman.

“Would we like it to be better than it is today?” Rossi asked. “Sure. We like to have properties in good condition. First and foremost, it is safe.”

Calling it home

Blomquist sits at ease in an old chair outside his trailer at space No. 10 late one afternoon. He plays with his long, ashy beard as he talks about his time living at the park.

The unit’s peeling paint, a haphazard collection of belongings strewn outside the door and his comfortable stature sitting there make it clear Blomquist has been there for awhile. In fact, he has called it home for 24 years. He lives meagerly each month on his Social Security.

The park’s management, working in coordination with Blomquist’s family, recently persuaded him to sell his old trailer and move into a newer rental trailer in the park.

That incensed Steffens, who said Blomquist was bullied by threats of condemning the trailer or of eviction.

Blomquist said he didn’t understand the papers he was signing when he agreed to sell. He also says that he has no desire to move.

Steffens asked Geihs for help.

“He is attempting to stay in his unit, in his space, which he has a right to do,” Geihs said. “By moving into a rented unit, his rights will be cut off. I am trying to protect his rights.”

But family members close to him say his trailer is uninhabitable.

“Our whole goal was to have William in a cleaner, nicer place to live,” said Charles Greenall, his
brother-in-law. “I can’t even explain it; it is to the point where it’s not fixable or livable.”
Greenall, who has offered for years to have Blomquist move in with him at his San Luis Obispo home, said the park has been a good, safe place.

Owning a park

Mobile-home parks were once considered a good investment and an easy way to provide affordable housing.

San Luis Obispo County has more than 80 such parks, ranging in size from a few dozen spaces to several hundred. Many of the smaller parks have conditions similar to those of Mission Trailer Park.

“They are in every nook and cranny of every community,” said Dana Lilley, a supervising planner with the county’s Housing and Economic Development Department. “They are tight-knit communities unto themselves, and they give each other support, emotional and otherwise.”

The parks owners vary from investors to families.

“Few have been built in the last 50 years, and many were not originally intended to be permanent,” Lilley said.  “But what these property owners found out later is that it wasn’t temporary. Once you have a bunch of people living on a property with limited financial means, closing a park is not an easy thing to do. There are consequences for those human beings living in the park.”

State and local law protect mobile-home tenants from being forced to move without compensation. A tenant impact report must be written by the park owner, and residents must receive a termination notice one year in advance. The cost to relocate may also be required of the park owner.

Rossi has owned Mission Trailer for 15 years. In 1999, he attempted to make changes by offering all of the tenants a new mobile home with a guaranteed minimum of five years at the park. The Housing

Authority of San Luis Obispo would then take over park management.

After the five years, if the park was closed for development, tenants could keep the new mobile homes, but they would have to relocate.

Rossi said the idea at the time was to turn the park into Section 8 housing, which offers assistance to low-income residents.

Steffens balked at the idea, saying it stripped away the residents’ rights as homeowners. Ultimately, he prevailed.

“The idea was killed before it even got off the ground,” Rossi said.

The park has continued in its present state ever since.

“It’s not a great investment, but it’s not a bad investment, either,” said Rossi, who said he has never had specific development plans for the property despite owning the Creamery adjacent to it.

“Even if it was sitting there as vacant land, I don’t think anyone in the economic environment of the last five years would develop it,” Rossi said.

Unsolicited offers to buy the property have filtered in for years, Rossi said. He considered some, but none were anything he was ready to accept.

“There are still eight people who have their homes there,” Rossi said. “If there was ever a closure, sure, we are going to have to deal with it. There is no plan to do that at this time. Whether an offer comes along to accept has yet to be seen.”

Future questioned

As long as the mobile-home owners continue to pay their space rent and utilities, they cannot be evicted under protection of the state’s Mobilehome Residency Law.

However, if they were forced to move, it’s unlikely that many of the older trailers could actually be relocated.

“We are very worried about losing all the affordable housing stock,” Lilley said. “We are also as worried about the impacts on those households living there. Many units can’t withstand being moved, and in many cases, with the older units, there’s a good chance that no park would allow them.”

There are also few spaces available throughout the county, Lilley said.

Only a few parks in the county have been closed in the past 20 years, and in those instances, it was done quietly and under the radar, he said.

“The park owner is attempting to gain full extensive possession of the park to move on and develop it into something of a different use — that is the bottom line,” Geihs said, referring to Mission Trailer Park. “He has slowly been getting rid of residents in the park to accomplish that objective — it’s been a work in progress.”

Rossi said the offer to help Blomquist move to a better trailer was borne of nothing but good intent after being approached by his family for help.

Rossi also defends the condition of the park: The old, shoddy laundry room with a sign that warns residents not to use both washers at once; the restrooms, long boarded up to prevent vagrants from hanging out there; occasional sewage backups, which he says occur from residents flushing things they shouldn’t.

“It is just the condition of an older mobile-home park,” Rossi said. “The park is a piece of asphalt with above-ground communications and very little landscaping. It has good sewer, good water. None of those things are antiquated. It’s just an older property in town, and its appearance comes from the conditions of many of the coaches.”

For now, the park remains.

“In the long term, will it be something else? Sure,” Rossi said. “But who knows if that will be a year from now or 10 years from now.”

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