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A Santa Monica Trailer Park — and Its Senior Residents — Face Off With Fancy New Development 

Thursday, Jul 12 2012
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A home in Santa Monica's Village Trailer Park

PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

A home in Santa Monica's Village Trailer Park

The eviction notices kept coming, one after another. Mary Herring, who will turn 79 in August, says she received six in all — "They just wanted to make sure we got it."

The first notice that Village Trailer Park would be closing went out to its mostly elderly residents on July 10, 2006. On Aug. 5, less than a month later, 80-year-old John Stiles put a gun in his mouth. The night before he took his life, neighbors say he was agitated about the park closing and anxious that he had nowhere else to go.

The notices, it turned out, had been issued erroneously. The owners had not secured from the city of Santa Monica's Rent Control Board the permits necessary to close the park.

click to flip through (9) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
 

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Six years later, they still don't have the permits. But the battle over the once-lush 3.5-acre parcel at Colorado Avenue and Stanford Street — and the meaning of "affordable housing" in a city that pioneered rent control — has only escalated since.

In that time, developer Marc Luzzatto, one of the park's owners, has pushed a plan to replace the trailers with a dense cluster of tiny, high-end condominiums and apartments for young singles who are eager to live close to the planned light rail station.

The trailer park's occupancy has dwindled by half as residents have moved or passed away. (The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which is fighting on the residents' behalf, claims there have been four suicides since the eviction effort started, although the Weekly was only able to confirm one officially.) Luzzatto and his co-owners have refused to fill the park's vacancies, choosing instead to wait out six years of fundraising efforts, lawsuits and petitions for historical status.

A recent vote by the Santa Monica Planning Commission endorsing Luzzatto's plan could mean the developer won't have to wait much longer to begin construction.

But 48 elderly and disabled residents still need to be relocated. And it's those residents who are standing in the way of Santa Monica's development dreams — and reminding it, uncomfortably, of its progressive past.

On a warm May evening, a few hundred people milled through Santa Monica's Gallery 169, the compact, two-story, glass-and-steel structure that sits one block inland from Pacific Coast Highway on Channel Road.

Earlier that week, David Mamet's daughter Willa had driven down from Oakland (where, in addition to dabbling in photography, she runs a holistic health practice and a Judaica company) to photograph the trailer park and its residents. She would call the resulting body of work "109 Spaces: a Living History."

At the exhibition, a fundraiser for the residents' legal efforts, Mamet's black-and-white prints were priced at $350 each — about $10 less than most Village Trailer Park residents pay monthly for a rent-controlled concrete pad.

The usual set of Westside gallery crawlers mixed with the less-usual city council members and elderly trailer park dwellers. David Mamet himself was in attendance, sporting a pink floral shirt and a short-brimmed straw fedora. The celebrated playwright, who famously declared himself a conservative in 2008, scorning his onetime liberal peers, had contributed a written piece to the exhibit; it was blown up and pinned like a manifesto to the gallery wall.

"The Santa Monica City Council are as pure a bunch of solons as you could find on a summer day, I'm sure," Mamet wrote. "But were they simply a hypothetical group, would they be more inclined to favor the 'increased tax revenues' no doubt proposed by the developers or the claims of the beneficiaries of that rent control whose supposed champions they are?"

There was, in the gallery owner's words, a "rumble" when one liberal city council member, upset after reading the statement, stormed angrily out of the gallery.

In Santa Monica — where the tenants advocacy group Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, or SMRR, ran City Hall for decades — questioning an elected official's commitment to rent control is on par with spitting in his face.

In 1979, the progressive municipality passed what was then the strongest rent-control law in the country. Shortly after, SMRR supporters Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda traveled the state, urging other cities to adopt similar laws.

Since its founding that year, SMRR has elected 21 members to the Santa Monica City Council; 10 of the last 14 Santa Monica mayors have been SMRR members. The group's members were known to fight development in the city tooth and nail. In 1989 the SMRR-controlled city council even instituted a one-year moratorium on commercial development.

But that era appears to be ending in Santa Monica. While five of the seven current council members are affiliated with SMRR, association with the group does not mean what it once did. The success, to date, of the developer's proposal to redevelop the 109 rent-controlled spaces in the Village Trailer Park may be the ultimate proof of that.

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