Migrants Unite for Better Trailer Park Living

Gillian Flaccus, WTOP-FM (Washington, D.C.), October 23, 2010

In the five years Pasquala Beaza has lived in a squalid trailer park for migrant farmworkers, she has endured the stench of sewage overflows, street flooding and blackouts.

When temperatures soared to 115 degrees in the baking Coachella Valley and an electrical fire killed the power for a month, her family couldn’t take any more.

Beaza’s husband and four other residents sued their landlords in state court.

In doing so, they joined a small but growing minority of trailer dwellers fighting to improve conditions at more than 100 poorly maintained mobile home parks that dot the dusty crescent-shaped valley 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

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Once afraid to speak out about deplorable living conditions, residents like the Beazas are taking trailer park owners to court and winning.

A Riverside County judge who restored the power last week at the Beazas’ park ordered the landlords Thursday to maintain the sewage and electrical systems and refrain from evicting tenants or raising rent in retaliation. Residents at two other parks–mostly housing low-income farmworkers, many of whom who are illegal immigrants–have also sued and another filed a complaint with the state’s Public Utilities Commission over water rates as high as $595 a month.

The recent victory marks the first time an entire park has organized itself and represents a turning point in a decades-long debate about how to address an affordable housing crisis that has plagued the eastern Coachella Valley.

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Wretched living conditions for migrants predate the arrival of Dust Bowl refugees in California’s fertile fields, but the situation in the Coachella Valley, known for its table grapes, dates, chili peppers and other crops, is unique for its severity. Dozens of hidden, illegal trailer parks pop up faster than regulators can inspect them in the vast rural county roughly the size of New Jersey.

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The brothers who own the park say they toiled as farmworkers for years themselves and pooled their money to open their property as a way of helping migrants out.

The situation grew out of their control as families planted their trailers for $200 a month, said Oscar Hernandez. Now the brothers are stuck with a 24-trailer site they can’t afford, but can’t shut down because of the court order.

“My brothers made this to help people in need. People came saying ‘I don’t have a place to stay, I need a place to stay’ and now they’re suing us,” he said, as his older brother Miguel listened. “They’re trying to make us look like bad people, but everything we have is here.”

In the late 1990s, local officials cracked down on unpermitted sites, but that just forced residents to flock to nearby American Indian reservations–where the county had no jurisdiction–or become homeless. Advocates won a $21 million settlement against the county for discriminating against low-income Hispanic families by targeting three dozen sites.

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