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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 | When Kazuko Yamate-Fischer was 9, her family was forced out of its home in Compton into an internment camp for Japanese Americans at the Santa Anita racetracks.
“I had straw for a mattress,” she said of the conditions in the camps, where she lived for three years after 1942. “Camp life was not good.”
Now Kaz, as she’s known among her neighbors at the Mission Valley Village mobile home park, faces losing her home again. The land underneath the home she’s lived in for 21 years was sold in February to Archstone-Smith, an apartment developer based in Colorado. The developer plans to clear the site and build 445 apartments in place of the mobile homes, some of which have been there for 42 years. The residents will have to find a new place to live.
Yamate-Fischer and more than 30 of her senior citizen neighbors stormed City Hall Tuesday, outlining their plight for City Council members. They carried signs labeled “STOP THE GREED” and “HUMANITY YES!! EVICTION NO!!”
“Our park is more than just a bunch of homes situated together; we are a family,” said Homer Barrs, the community chief who has organized a homeowners association for the park and has filed a lawsuit against the former owner. Barrs said the deal was a secret sale that circumvented the residents’ right to purchase the land before it was sold.
The residents had figured out a way to purchase the land and become its collective owners. They’d offered to buy it several times since 2005 from Cal-Am, the property manager for the Carolyn Artis Trust that owned the land. Even as recently as last fall, the previous owners assured them the property was not, and would not be, for sale, Barrs said.
The park’s 170 residents pay about $725 in rent for the spaces where their manufactured homes sit. Many of them have paid about $100,000 for the homes they inhabit. But the homes are worth far less than that removed from the spots where they now sit. And even if they can find another place that will take their “coach,” as the residents refer to the manufactured homes, this park isn’t alone in its situation.
“If we were to move into another park, who’s to say this won’t happen again?” said Nancy Nelson, one resident. “The only way you’re secure is if you own your own land.”
As park owners realize the value of the land sitting under mobile homes and look to profit from the sale to a developer, affordable housing advocates say an essential option for fixed-income families could be drastically reduced.
“When I came here to the park, I thought I was going to be here a long time,” Yamate-Fischer said under the lights of television cameras outside the council chambers on Tuesday morning.
“So many seniors live here because it’s close to the hospital. Money talks, I guess. It’s just mind-boggling.” As the cameras turned away, she turned to a friend and collapsed her head on her shoulder. “It’s really hard,” she whispered. Her friends reached their hands out and clutched hers.
Home prices have skyrocketed in recent years; most senior citizen incomes are fixed. And that’s the chief worry for the residents facing a move in the next couple of years, should Archstone-Smith’s plans go forward. The village on Mission Gorge Road sits just minutes from a Kaiser facility in Grantville and is close to trolley and bus lines, grocery stores and pet clinics.
Cal-Am, the company that managed the mobile home park for a private owner, confirmed the property was sold to Archstone-Smith, but declined further explanation.
“We’re not the manager of the property any longer, and I really can’t comment any more,” said Mark Franklin, chief operating officer of Cal-Am.
In an e-mailed statement, Archstone-Smith spokesman David Pendery said the park was purchased in a “private, un-marketed transaction” in February. To begin work on any development of a former mobile home park, developers are required by San Diego Municipal Code to file certain paperwork with the San Diego Housing Commission, which would oversee the relocation and some financial compensation for residents.
Pendery said the company had submitted the necessary paperwork to the San Diego Housing Commission and planned to close the park within the next two to three years. He said the company was prepared to follow all legal requirements.
But officials from the Housing Commission said they have not received that paperwork or the required form that would outline the company’s plan for relocating the residents.
The City Council forwarded the group’s request to the City Attorney’s Office for follow-up Tuesday. As City Attorney Mike Aguirre passed the park residents gathered in the hallway, he stopped to tell them he’s behind them 100 percent and would meet with them to see if there’s anything he could do to help.
The developer is legally required to financially assist in the relocation of residents, either by helping to move their mobile home to another park, or to subsidize the rent for 48 months for an apartment or other housing option. Many of the residents own mobile homes that are too old to be accepted by other mobile home parks — most parks say the home must be newer than 1989 — and others say their quality of life will be slashed if they have to squeeze into apartments they could afford.
Pat Schulz is among many of the park residents who worry they won’t be able to afford a home in San Diego. Schulz moved to San Diego five years ago from Alabama to be closer to her grandchildren, who live in Clairemont.
“I looked and looked and looked for a place I could afford,” she said. “I can’t think of anywhere else.”
The park itself moves at a slower tempo than the bustle of busy Mission Gorge Road outside its perimeter. Birds chirp and wind chimes play lilting chords in the afternoon quiet. Outside the homes, flags wave — for the nation and for the Padres — and residents have planted bright geraniums in pots near their doors. Four residents gather on a porch for “puppy snack time,” the part of the afternoon when Nelson and Marylou Pixley bring their dogs, Muffin and Juliet, to Yamate-Fischer’s house for treats.
“We take care of each other here,” Pixley said, characterizing the park as a de facto convalescent home for many residents. One of their friends, Mary Jane Petroff, was 86 and golfed twice a week until she fell a few months ago from her porch and passed away later in the hospital.
“She was so upset about what was going on,” Pixley said. When Petroff’s car wouldn’t start one morning, she became quickly overwhelmed and was panicked over her financial future, Pixley said. The group believes the stress disoriented her and contributed to the fatal fall.
For most residents, the park was a retirement plan. Barrs and his wife moved into the park three years ago. They sold their Tierrasanta home and purchased two mobile homes: one for them in Mission Valley Village and one for their sons, who attend the university in San Marcos. It was a cost-cutting move. Now, he said, they’re facing a loss of tens of thousands of dollars.
“Modern mobile homes, manufactured homes are a lot bigger, a lot nicer; this isn’t grandma’s trailer,” he said. “This is our whole life.”
Barrs’ living room windows overlook a pond at the Admiral Baker golf course. His back room serves as an orchid nursery; a small shed gives him room to cut the rocks and minerals he collects and polishes for display in a lighted case in the entryway. Through the window, he watches ducks and deer and trees sway in the breeze at the golf course.
“I spend about an hour a morning just sitting here, thinking how lucky I am,” he said.