Dec 12, 2013
On Edge of Paradise, Coachella Workers Live in Grim Conditions
Posted on Nov 2, 2011
By Patricia Leigh Brown
Housing law’s unintended consequence
The proliferation of small unregulated parks dates back to the 1992 Farm Labor Housing Protection Act, an emergency measure that allowed growers to build parks of up to 12 units without obtaining zoning and land use permits.
But the bill written by Richard Polanco, a Los Angeles assemblyman, had unintended consequences. Opportunistic landlords swooped in to erect an estimated 400 unpermitted parks, still known as “polancos,” that skirted basic health and safety regulations, including the placement of wells, septic systems and safe electrical wiring.
The parks remained largely under the radar until the summer of 1998, when two people died in two different parks—one a teenager who was electrocuted when a fence became energized due to faulty wiring, the other a man electrocuted while working on repairs to his mobile home.
“It’s no accident these communities are suffering,” said Beaman, with California Rural Legal Assistance. “It comes with being 97 percent Latino, 50 percent undocumented and 100 percent working class. It’s a snapshot of how certain categories of people are forced to live differently based on their perceived power.”
Widespread panic about park closures prompted thousands of residents, including many indigenous native-speaking Purépecha people from the highlands of Michoacán in Mexico, to move their trailers onto sovereign tribal land, away from code enforcers as well as U.S. immigration agents.
The denouement was the housing apocalypse known as Duroville, a postcard of squalor and lawlessness in which packs of wild dogs roamed muddy alleyways and raw sewage puddled along Michael Street, Marylou Avenue and other byways named for owner Harvey Duro’s family.
Airborne toxins from the burning illegal Lawson dump next door—including elevated levels of dioxin, a carcinogen—finally brought Duroville to the attention of the federal government.
Sister Gabi Williams, 62, a self-described “gringo” nun, has become something of an Our Lady of Mobile Home Parks for her tireless efforts there. She recalls “black water on the ground, the dump with a huge hole in the middle sinking.”
She said of her work there, with flinty matter-of-factness: “It wasn’t a good idea to put up a child center around battery acid.”
After a cascade of events, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced that the park would be shut down, displacing 4,000 to 5,000 residents. Averting what he called “a mass humanitarian crisis,” U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson ordered the park to remain open and set up a two-year receivership charged with making the park livable until alternatives could be found.
Today, the population of Duroville hovers around 2,000, expanding during the harvest and contracting from July to September, when half the residents migrate to the San Joaquin Valley. An 11-acre open sewage evaporation pond is still in use. Thomas J. Flynn, the federally appointed receiver, calls it “a West Nile virus incubator that’s like something out of Margaret Mead.”
Flynn has worked to alleviate the park’s underground economy, a haven for criminal activity, including a notorious drug-dealing intersection in which “cars would pull in as if they were pulling into a McDonald’s,” in his words. He also noted the “repair” shops with hundreds of cars, many stolen.
A blocks-long monolith of domestic detritus—mattresses, playpens, car seats, carpeting, masses of splintered wood—represents the remains of makeshift wooden structures attached to trailers, recently ordered removed.
“Fire accelerators that combined with improperly installed propane tanks were like a bomb,” Flynn said.
Dr. Alberto Manetta, a professor emeritus at UC Irvine and chairman of Latino Health Access, a nonprofit based in Santa Ana, runs a health clinic in Duroville. Two recent health surveys by Manetta and his team offer an illuminating portrait of the park: Ninety-five percent of residents do not have Internet access. Only 8 percent finished high school. One-third lack air conditioning. More than half have no source of hot water for bathing, with children using leftover cooking water to wash. Chronic conditions like diabetes and tobacco and alcohol addiction abound.
Nevertheless, Manetta observes, the residents’ deepest concern is not their health. “Their biggest worry is being thrown out of the park,” he said.
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