In order to visit a beach community, one must wear ugly sunglasses, so I snatch my chrome Elvis reproduction shades that I purchased in Las Vegas last summer and hit the door. From the 8 West I take the 5 North and get off at Mission Bay Drive. Just off the ramp is one of San Diego’s great outdoor spaces: De Anza Cove. Lush lawns meet the bay’s beach. Full shade trees cast big shadows for the picnickers dragging baby carriages and barbecues. Down a little path that runs next to the water, joggers in bright shiny shirts and chunky shoes bounce along. Oh, it’s pretty. This treasured outdoor space also offers a scenic view of a dumpy trailer park and its dilapidated mobile homes.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve looked across the water and wondered how in the hell a trailer park is still standing in the middle of a beach community, even more so, right on the bay. It’s 2011, and by now nearly every bit of prime real estate has been built up into a skyscraper condominium complex or a ritzy hotel with polished brass dolphin statues in the courtyard. (Why so many damn dolphin statues, San Diego?) Anytime I see a throwback to good taste like this mobile home park, my eyebrows make a V, my head cocks to the side, and my face registers a decidedly “What in the…?” expression, as if I’d just seen a man riding an ostrich. How could this thing escape redevelopment for so long?
Driving through the mobile home park, I see touches of a nice community intermingled with signs of complete decay. The bulletin board out front reads “Church Service Sunday 10:30 am Bay Club” and has posted “Lilies for sale” and “Come grow your own vegetables. Plots available.” Just beyond the bulletin board are trailers that appear to have only tattered blue tarps for major sections of roofing, and their foundations seem to be made up of shopping carts and bottles. The mobile home park looks like It’s a Wonderful Life before Clarence the angel shows up.
It probably won’t shock you to know that a trailer park in such a prime location has provoked the ire of its neighbors as well as the greedy eye of the City. I’d like to tell you that the City can’t touch it, that this ugly-ass trailer park, thumbing its nose at the superficial beauty and outlandish expense of Pacific Beach, is a permanent fixture, but that’s not true. There has been a fight for this plot of land for decades, and the City of San Diego has been scheming to develop it into a hotel since at least the 1980s. And the City can do it, too. The land belongs to the City. Sort of. It actually belongs to the State, but the State gave it to the City. But not to put mobile homes on. So the State wants it back, but the City… Hang on. Let’s start at the beginning.
Way back between 1939 and 1945, the State of California gave this marshy land to the City “to be held in trust for the use of all citizens of the state.” Isn’t that nice? Of course it is, and of course the City didn’t do that; it did the exact opposite. In 1953, the City leased the land to a developer (you know, like San Diego does) with the provision that the developer put in a tourist area and a trailer park. The original lease calls for “accompanying facilities, businesses and concessions with the written approval of the City Manager.” That sounds wonderful. You can imagine a wide-open park, a little ice cream stand, a boat rental, and Annette Funicello hopping from beach blanket to beach blanket. Yeah, that didn’t happen.
What happened was the developer put in a “trailer park” as requested. But it wasn’t a “trailer park” like you could motor up in your Studebaker towing an Airstream trailer and camp here for a week. It was a “trailer park,” you know, like a mobile home park that contained around 680 units, and about 80 percent of those were made permanent residences. They took this public land and turned it over to developers to use as a private source of income on these mobile home rents, of which the developer would kick back a percentage to the City. It’s an interesting idea to use land as a mobile home park, especially this plot. All you have to do is suck out the marshy muck (birds and fish, right up the tube!), make a peninsula out of sand, pave it, add utility lines, and you’re done with “developing.” No major buildings to construct; just let people roll their houses in and start collecting rent. The City didn’t mind that this wasn’t exactly a “tourist” area anymore, that they had essentially done the exact opposite of what the State mandated for these parcels, because they were scraping a bit of the rent off the top — starting out at 5 percent of the rent that residents paid to the developer/management company. Money rolls in, and everybody keeps quiet that this isn’t “for the use of all citizens of the state.” (Sacramento’s not going to come down here!)
People moved in, set up their homes, and settled down to a quiet life on the bay. They bought and sold the trailers on the land just as anyone does with regular houses. Laundry rooms, a clubhouse, and a pool were put in, the little roads paved and repaved. The people went to work, paid their rent, and in the evenings sat down in front of large console televisions and sucked Hamm’s beer from cans.
And without much notice, in 1978 a bill was passed in California called the Mobile Home Residency Law. We’ll get to that in a minute. What’s far more interesting is just a little skip ahead two years to 1980.
Yeah! The Go-Go ’80s! The greed-is-good era saw Ronald Reagan hand over the economy to the banking industry and stockbrokers take off their nerdy glasses and those green visors and swap their hand-crank calculating machines for shoulder-padded white suits, hair gel, and cocaine. That’s when people started looking at De Anza Cove and going, “What in the hell are mobile homes doing here?”
In 1980, the State Lands Commission conducted a review of the plot and found that it really wasn’t a tourist area for public use. They were shocked to find a mobile home park on what was supposed to be public land and told the City of San Diego to clear it out and make it into the tourist area as the City was supposed to have done 30-some-odd years earlier.
Well, in the previous 30-some-odd years, the mobile homes had become decidedly less mobile. Permanent structures like sundecks and carports were attached to the exteriors of the trailers. Salt air had rusted the steel and oxidized the aluminum into fixed place. And another thing happened: the residents had gotten old. The occupants were now as elderly, creaky, and rusted into place as their trailers.
Recognizing this, in 1982 the state legislature passed a bill called AB 447, or the “Kapiloff Bill” — so named after its author, Assemblyman Larry Kapiloff. The Kapiloff Bill essentially says, “San Diego, you dumb bastards. We gave you this land to use as a tourist area and you made it into a trailer park with permanent residents. Now, get those mobile homes out of there. But (and this is a big but), we know there are elderly residents there, people who have been there since the damn ’50s, so you have until 2003 to save up the money and transition them to other places. If you don’t like it, we’ll take the park back from you and do it ourselves.” (Paraphrased.)
In light of the “take it or leave it” wording of the bill, San Diego envisioned all that rent money going to the State instead of staying here, so the City “took it.” But, they weren’t happy about it and they certainly weren’t going to do what the State told them to do. (Why would they start now?)
The City of San Diego, always acting like a drag queen who’s just had her wig yanked off, took the Kapiloff Bill to the residents of De Anza Cove and started blaming them for developing the land into a mobile home park, even though most if not all of the residents probably had no hand in building the park. Hell, they probably had no idea how the park even got there and what the State of California had originally intended the land to be used for. I imagine a City official hopping out of a Lincoln Continental with the Kapiloff Bill in hand and screaming, “How could you build a mobile home park here!” at a stunned resident in a robe about to pick up the morning paper.
Since San Diego could smell the money of development like sharks smell blood in the water, the City started eyeballing the spot for a swanky new hotel. This is the part where the City transforms from “bumbling and corrupt” to something akin to the villain in a Scooby-Doo episode. The day that the California State Assembly passed the Kapiloff Bill, San Diego laid out a plan to jack up the rent. Remember that 5 percent the City was scraping from the management company? The City renegotiated the terms to take 10 percent, 15 percent, and finally 20 percent of the gross revenue collected — effectively quadrupling the rent that the management company paid the City.
Skyrocketing the rent like this had two intended consequences. The first being obvious: the management company would then pass on the rent hikes to residents. And those who didn’t have the wherewithal to fight City Hall would give up and move out. The second consequence of skyrocketing the rent was, of course, to make money on more development. If everyone moved out, the City could build that brassy hotel they always wanted. This little plan of ratcheting old people’s rent and popping up a hotel was supposed to garner the City between $50 and $60 million over the 20-something years from the 1980s until 2003. (If the hotel didn’t get built, according to the plan, the City stood to make only about $42 million.)
Now, let’s talk about that little thing that hardly anyone noticed in 1978. The Mobile Home Residency Law. Every resident in California has some sort of protection from being tossed out into the alley with the trash cans and stray cats. If you live in an apartment, the police can’t kick your door in and yank you out into the courtyard. If you own a house or condo and someone else (including the City or State) wants your house or condo, they have to pay you for it. Since mobiles don’t have land and since they’re not apartments or condos, here’s this thing for them: the Mobile Home Residency Law. Before the owner of a mobile home park can kick residents off the land and change the park into something different, there’s a long process of filing impact reports, assessing how much each mobile home is worth, acquiring permits for this and permits for that, and filing a cavalcade of paperwork. Oh, it’s a huge deal.
The Mobile Home Residency Law also says that if the owner of the park is a city, the city has to pay to move the people who live there. Now, if you’ll remember, the City of San Diego was poised to make between $42 and $60 million on rent from the De Anza Harbor Resort. Everyone knew the end of the lease was coming up; the original lease was for 50 years, and that was way back in the 1950s, and the new Kapiloff Bill stated that the residents could stay until 2003. So, you’d think, in light of the Mobile Home Residency Law, that the City would keep the $40 or $60 million in revenue and pay a small fraction of that to move the residents come 2003. You might even think that the City would follow the law and file the necessary paperwork. Oh, you’re so silly for thinking that. How silly you are. Because of failed business dealings, that swank hotel was never built. The City still collected its rent checks on the mobile home park, but it sure as hell didn’t want to use the money for relocating residents. If the City didn’t use it to relocate displaced mobile home residents, what did the City spend it on? Candy bars and ink pens, for all we know. The City of San Diego has a special talent for blowing money like an investment banker in a strip club. Either way, they say that money’s gone.
And the City still tried to swoop in every few years and take the mobile home park back. Like Huns on a hill, it would declare itself Supreme Ruler of Everything and that it operated under no law. Forgetting that the State originally mandated that this park be left alone until 2003, also conveniently ignoring the Mobile Home Residency Law, the City would charge down with writs and ordinances and mandates and, most of all, the pointy spear of contracts that waive the residents’ rights. Oh my, but the City was always trying to get these poor old people to sign a contract that waived their rights. All the while, if you looked the city manager in the eye you could see the gleam of a blinking “Hotel” sign. Can you imagine? Waiving your own citizens’ rights and handing public land to funnel money to a private business like a hotel? I’d love to take all the little red plastic hotels from a Monopoly game and scatter them in front of City Hall to watch the bureaucrats burst forth from inside and start fighting over the tiny game pieces like starving people fight over nachos. But, I’m digressing. Sorry. Back to the story.
Fast-forward to 2003, the 50-year lease on the mobile home park was up and the Kapiloff Bill was sun-setting and the City had to move those people, so under the provisions of the Mobile Home Residency Law, the City of San Diego gave the residents of the park all the assistance they required to move their homes, or if the homes were too dilapidated, the City paid the residents to have them razed and found them other suitable accommodations. Everything was wonderful, a real spirit of cooperation; bluebirds sang and tied ribbons into the residents’ hair. Of course, none of that is true.
The City came down on the residents of De Anza mobile home park like an ax murderer descending upon a sorority house. Instead of following the Mobile Home Residency Law and having impact reports drawn up and assessments on people’s homes done and all that, they marched armed policemen in and told the residents to sign legal documents waiving their rights to relocation assistance in exchange for $4000 to $8000.
The City fired the old park manager and brought in (I’m not making this up) a company known for its mobile-home-park busting. (Isn’t that an odd niche?) The company, Hawkeye Asset Management, had already busted up a mobile home park in Orange County and was in court for it. So San Diego gave the company a one-source contract (no competing bids) for $300,000 to “manage” the park in the manner that they had managed the Orange County park.
In 2003, Hawkeye, in what seems like a caricature of evil, demolished laundry rooms, cut down trees, shut off utilities like electricity and water to some trailers, erected barbed-wire fences, set up a guard shack, and hired a security company whose armed guards patrol the grounds. Residents who complained were brought into the management office and told that if they didn’t sign the waiver of their rights and take the four to eight grand pittance for their homes, that they weren’t going to get anything — or, worse, the residents would have to pay for the removal and relocation out of their own pockets.
In one incident with the security guard company, a 61-year-old attorney, Dion Dyer, came to the park to meet with his client. The guard interrogated Mr. Dyer as to the nature of his business and asked for his driver’s license. Mr. Dyer told the guard that neither of those things were any of his business and the guard refused to give Mr. Dyer a parking pass. Mr. Dyer, in clear violation of this security guard’s imaginary authority (!), then drove to his client’s mobile home, where he parked off the street in a carport next to the mobile. While inside, Mr. Dyer heard the rumble of a tow truck and went outside to see what was going on. Security guards were waving the tow truck in to hook up Mr. Dyer’s vehicle. Mr. Dyer protested, and the guard threw the 61-year-old attorney to the ground, facedown on the asphalt, and put a knee in his back. The security guard called the police, and when they arrived, they instructed the guard to let Mr. Dyer up. The police never arrested the guard for anything. The tow truck left without its daily catch. Mr. Dyer went back into the mobile to finish out his business meeting with scuffed palms, a crumpled filthy shirt, and bent glasses. While he was sitting there, he began to have chest pains. He thought he was having a heart attack so he went to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with two broken ribs.
At least the police didn’t arrest Mr. Dyer! In a separate case, the police weren’t so evenhanded. As people checked into the mobile home park, personal information was demanded and recorded. The security company then handed that information over to the police as tips to catch criminals. One day, half a dozen sheriff’s deputies burst into a trailer. A woman and her three-year-old daughter sat shaking and terrified as the deputies told her that her husband was under arrest. When the husband got home, the deputies told him that he, David Wesley Rose, was under arrest, and he promptly told them that he was not David Wesley Rose but, rather, David William Rose. What happened next is murky, but I’m assuming the deputies gave out a big “Oops!” and popped off a quick wave as they got back into their squad cars. No one knows if they stopped at the guard shack to retrieve more personal information with which to abuse residents, but I dare say it’s not out of the question. After hearing this story, of course, the residents became leery of giving information to the security company. What other ways would they use that information?
The court documents concerning De Anza mobile home park also include one case of the guards calling the police because of “terrorist threats” involving a retiree standing in his driveway (“terrorism” cells have apparently infiltrated the slippers-and-Bermuda-shorts crowd) and one case of an armed guard shouting accusations of “plant vandalism” in which a woman was watering a rosebush. (What a charming environment to live in. Wouldn’t you love to have an armed guard yank a revolver on your grandfather while he fished around for a pension check in his mailbox?)
Finally, the residents started filing lawsuits. And in its supreme beneficence toward its own taxpaying citizens, the City realized its error and paid them a handsome sum immediately, accompanied by an apology. Nah, I’m joshing you, that’s not true at all. What really happened was the City hired well-heeled attorneys (at quite a pretty penny to you and me, thankyouverymuch) and kept up the psychological warfare of misinformation and strong-arming by the police and security guards. They jacked up the residents’ rent and utilities bill. When they’d coerced 115 residents to give up and leave with very little money to help them move, a representative of the City reported that it saw its campaign as “very successful” and “moving along as planned.” Which makes me imagine a City honcho yelling out from his plush corner office, “How are we doing with that ‘old people, mobile home’ nuisance thing?”
And a secretary answering back, “Oh, swimmingly,” overlooking a stack of papers. “We’ve demolished their laundry rooms, erected barbed-wire fences, cut the trees. We’ve smacked a couple around, called them ‘terrorists,’ shut off their electricity, and next week we’ll begin ‘Operation Pull the Tennis Balls Off Their Walkers.’”
Thankfully, that operation never got under way. The homeowners filed three lawsuits against the City. Last December, one of those lawsuits ended with a victory for the homeowners of De Anza mobile home park. The courts forced the City to recognize that they were out of line in dealing with the residents and ordered the City to pay them $3.6 million. That settlement is only for the mismanagement and harassment conducted while trying to get the occupants to leave. It has nothing to do with the Mobile Home Residency Law, in which the City should pay to move these people — that lawsuit is still tied up in the courts. And while it is, the residents can stay in their homes, “status quo.” That’s why if you drive down to the bay and look across the water at De Anza Cove, even though it was supposed to have been removed about eight years ago, you’ll still see a dumpy, butt-ugly trailer park.
I hope it stays there forever. I’ll repeat that. It would be my sincerest wish to keep this place a trailer park forever. If by some miracle a law were enacted to leave these poor old farts alone, maybe they would stop letting their trailers deteriorate so. Maybe they’d pull down that tarp and replace it with actual roofing. Maybe they’d spruce up the place, kill the termites, drag the trash out from under their porches, and rebuild the sun-battered and tumbledown decks. If they knew they could stay for a while, and we removed the Sword of Damocles from over their heads, maybe they’d paint their mobiles and replant some bushes.
The State wants to tear this mobile home park out and replace it with a tourist area. The City always has its hairy eyeball on the spot for a spiffy hotel that will prop up the dolphin-statue sector of the local economy for a brief moment during its construction. Neither one of them understands what they have here. If they left this place alone or, heaven forfend, if the City cleaned the place up, replaced broken windows, and replanted the trees they cut down, they could use this park as a publicity piece. They could parade it around in front of us, use it as an example of their benevolence. They could put it in reelection ads and point to it and say, “See! We’re not completely evil!”
Then, when someone asks you where you are from, you could say, “San Diego! Sure, our City is arguably the most corrupt in the country and it’s forever squabbling over money with the State of California, which is itself often assholish, but look! Look at what we do with some of our prime real estate! We leave this big plot of land undeveloped. It’s low-income housing and mostly occupied by senior citizens. We painted it up and put flowers in. Isn’t that neat?” And I think that’s worth a lot more than a new hotel.