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

A home in Santa Monica's Village Trailer Park
A home in Santa Monica's Village Trailer Park
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

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.

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.

At the May 23 meeting of the city planning commission, three days after the exhibit at Gallery 169, officials convened to hear Luzzatto argue that the park should be rezoned to allow a mix of condominiums, cafés and yoga studios within walking distance of a planned light rail station.

The cavernous City Hall chamber was packed. Santa Monica Police officers acted as bouncers, guarding the door when the room reached capacity. The overflow lingered in the equally crowded lobby, watching the meeting simulcast on TV.

Both sides had marshaled their resources: More than 40 individuals signed up to speak about either the Village Trailer Park or the proposed East Village development.

The first seven speakers, working professionals ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 40s, each took a moment to express the obligatory empathy for elderly residents who would be displaced — before reciting talking points plucked from the development plan. They extolled the East Village project's "nice pedestrian experience," while bemoaning the present "lack of newer, exciting places to live" on that side of town.

Then Jack Doner took the stand. Doner, 83, is a television and film actor. As Jack Donner, he appeared on TV shows including Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie and Mission: Impossible, and he has lived in Village Trailer Park for 27 years.

"It's nice to see how many young people can speak for how we feel," Doner growled into the microphone, shaking his cane in the general direction of the young professionals who had taken the podium before him.

" 'Oh yes, they'll get over the shock,' " he mimicked, adding, "Maybe we won't live long enough to get over the shock of losing our home!"

A few speakers after Doner, Michael Tarbet took the podium on behalf of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights. The group implored the commission to keep mobile home zoning. Failing that, it suggested the commissioners consider a reduced project that would allow existing households to stay put until the rest of the area plan was complete.

"The negotiations need to be stronger — you need to send a message," Tarbet said, hitting the podium. "It can't just go on like this. It's like what happened before rent control, when they tore down thousands of units." His last few words were delivered as the computerized beep indicated his three minutes were up.

A January 1951 advertisement for the Village Trailer Park proudly pronounces it the only park of its kind in Los Angeles with a swimming pool, trumpeting, "3½ acres of landscaped area with tropical trees and flowers; a few minutes from the ocean and tourist points."

The park, one of at least a dozen that once existed in Santa Monica, was founded to accommodate the auto camping rage of the late 1940s and '50s. After World War II, a housing shortage in Southern California helped tip the trailer park from transient resort to semi-permanent housing.

As the years passed, the residents became rooted, adding sundecks, trellises, greenhouses and garages onto their vintage Airstreams, Gulfstreams and Traileramas. Jacarandas, Norfolk pine, yucca, palm and magnolia trees grew up in a handsome median that ran through the center of the property and around its edges, screening the park and its residents from sight.

Mary Herring moved into Village Trailer Park with her husband in 1992 after the city of Santa Monica purchased the trailer park where they had been living and turned it into a bus depot.

When Herring, in a straw hat painted with faded daisies, walks around the park paying visits to her neighbors, she appears not altogether different than she might have in her former life as a certified nurse's aide and ward clerk.

On a sunny afternoon in June, she stops to chat with Van Wie, 91, as he waters his tomato plants. The retired firefighter has magazine cutouts of Ronald Reagan, John McCain and Sarah Palin lacquered to his fence. He was just recently declared legally blind, Herring confides.

Several residents can't come to the door: One is battling cancer and still recovering from a recent surgery. Another, a former television and film costume designer, can't answer either. "He's in bed most all the time now. He has muscular dystrophy," Herring says.

A couple months ago, Calvin Normore, a UCLA philosophy professor who has lived in the park since 1998, heard Herring calling — but there was an urgency in her voice.

"I stuck my head out and I said, 'Mary, what's going on?' She said, 'It's Ray, over on A Row. He needs help being fed,' " Normore recalls.

As a young man, Ray Abysalh was in the Navy; he served on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. As an older man, he purchased a trailer in the park and planned to live out the rest of his days. He paid $140,000 for the trailer at A-16 just weeks before the first closure notice arrived.

The day Herring came to visit, Abysalh had just been released from the VA Hospital. A tumor in his throat had collapsed his esophagus, so he was being fed through a tube. But the tube was clogged.

When it became clear that he needed serious attention, Normore drove Abysalh to the hospital. Herring sat with him all day and all night.

In an apartment, "he would have had no support," Normore says, but in the park, people look after one another.

"When people get sick in bed, there is always someone who is going to help out," Herring says.

When Abysalh died in the hospital soon after, Herring found a home for his Persian cat, Sweetie.

Jonathan Watts, the architect who designed the East Village project, was standing in a rail yard in England when the concept for the project hit him like, well, a train. Since this was to be a "transit-oriented" development, within walking distance of a Bergamot stop on the Expo light rail, it needed a sense of motion.

The concept is integrated into buildings' exteriors, which will feature contrasting color panels. "The idea is the shifting colors is like the trains passing," Watts tells the city's planning commissioners.

Building A is brick, like an old train warehouse, he explains; buildings B and C snake through the property like train cars, before crossing a metaphorical river and ending near Building D in the (also metaphorical) woods — a courtyard with newly planted jacaranda trees to replace those that will be ripped out during construction.

The most recent plan for East Village features 486 residential units, mostly studios and one-bedrooms, 147 of them rent-controlled. The plan also includes 8,650 square feet of creative/office space and 17,780 square feet of retail.

The East Village project as originally envisioned had less residential space. Luzzatto added nearly 100 units to accommodate the city's concerns that, with light rail and the recent approval of commercial projects like the Lionsgate production facility a few blocks away, the area will need more housing.

If the plan is approved, the Luzzatto Company would pay a $2 million transportation fee, $386,000 to the city's Childcare Tuition Subsidy and $25,000 to the Bergamot Station light rail project. Luzzatto also has promised to build a new street and extend the existing Pennsylvania Avenue by 62 feet — a value of $2.3 million — to ease traffic congestion.

The sound of road pavers is music to the city council's ears. In June, the council approved the draft of a plan to transform 104 acres of its old industrial quarter into a "walkable and human-scaled, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood" near the new light rail stop.

The council's main concern with the Bergamot Area Plan was its implications for traffic in the area. The East Village Project's two new streets would go a long way toward addressing that problem.

The residents are the only barrier, and — with the exception of Councilman Kevin McKeown, who last July penned an editorial proclaiming, "Evicting the powerless is not the Santa Monica way" — they are largely without champions in City Hall.

Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom, who is currently a candidate for the State Assembly, acknowledges that eviction of the elderly residents runs contrary to Santa Monica's progressive ideals. Santa Monica, he says, "has placed a premium on affordable housing, on preserving tenancy — we have one of the strictest rent-control ordinances in the state of California." But, he adds, "The state law on trailer parks is very specific, and gives owners of parks a good deal of latitude."

Marc Luzzatto has worked hard to impress upon city officials all of the reasons that he would be justified in closing Village Trailer Park. "The infrastructure of the park is stressed to say the least, and there have been lawsuits from residents of the park over the current condition," he tells the planning commission.

Later, resident Brenda Barnes stood up and said, "I filed the lawsuits, I know what they're about — they're about what Mr. Luzzatto did to the park."

But the root of the problem predates Luzzatto's involvement. In fact, his ownership stake, the development and the threat of eviction are all, arguably, the direct result of a lawsuit the residents filed against the previous owners 12 years ago.

In the latter half of the '90s, after decades of idyll, the Village Trailer Park began to fall into disrepair. Among other issues, the roots of the same trees that give the park its distinctive character were tearing up the plumbing.

When City Hall deployed inspectors to the park in 1998, they scribbled down pages and pages of code violations: raw sewage backing up in puddles, corroded gas lines lacking permits, dirty tap water, faulty electricity, trailers too close together and lanes too narrow for fire trucks to pass through.

The city handed the park's owners a laundry list of issues to resolve. When the deadline passed and the fixes were not completed, 52 residents mounted a "failure to maintain" lawsuit. (Some residents, happy with their homes, sat out the fight.)

Nonetheless, in April 2000, the management ordered the median that ran up the center of Village Trailer Park — the pride of the park, bursting with pines, palms, magnolia and jacaranda trees — cut down.

Management said it was necessary to make room for more parking, but many residents felt the act was retaliatory. A news report from the time notes a letter from city building inspector Tim McCormick, stating, "It was not necessary to remove the trees in order to comply with the parking requirements."

The residents ultimately prevailed in their "failure to maintain" lawsuit, divvying up $1.4 million in damages. But many feel the park hasn't been the same since.

The lion's share of the money, residents say, went to the woman who spearheaded the effort. She moved out soon after.

"That left us with no median, and they came in and tore up everybody's yards fixing the plumbing," Herring says of the suit. "We've had problems ever since with Mr. Luzzatto buying the park and all."

Marc Luzzatto bought his half-share in the park six years ago, shortly after the residents' lawsuit nearly bankrupted one of the owners. Muriel Shapiro, who died at age 88 in 2009, was "living on Social Security," Luzzatto says. "She had had to mortgage her residence in order to pay for legal fees and the work that the residents had sued over."

When Luzzatto bought in — Muriel Shapiro's heirs and a man named James Muramatsu still own shares as well — he already had plans to develop the property. He thought it would take two years to secure the necessary approvals.

Six years later, he is still waiting for the city council to change the zoning from one that allows only mobile homes to one that will accommodate a mix of residential, office and retail.

But even after six years of roadblocks, Luzzatto professes no bitterness. He says over and over again, "I just want people to be taken care and to know that they are OK."

Sitting in his office on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, Luzzatto ticks off the names of people he has helped transition to other housing — most with the help of Section 8 vouchers, or support from the local housing nonprofit, Community Corporation of Santa Monica.

Several former residents spoke before the planning commission on his behalf. Lania Bettin was one of them. She said she was happier since leaving; these days she lives in an apartment six blocks from the beach, which Luzzatto helped her find.

"There have been a lot of problems where I used to live," Bettin told the commission. "Marc Luzzatto and his team were very kind, and I believe the relocation money I was given was appropriate."

The night before John Stiles took his life, he had a long conversation with his neighbor June Griffin. Griffin would later tell the Santa Monica Daily Press that Stiles was upset about the park's closure. He had no one to turn to — his wife had passed away — and nowhere else to go.

Alone in his trailer the next morning, Stiles pressed a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson to the roof of his mouth and pulled the trigger.

He was found lying in his bed, the covers pulled up around him. Empty and near-empty vials of medication were on his counter. There was a suicide note taped to his kitchen cabinet.

"Dear Friends and Loved Ones," the note began, "The clutter that surrounds me is indicative of the sorry state of my mind. ... I am in constant pain and more importantly I am in a very DEEP depression. The time has come to act. ... Goodbye, John."

One concern about relocating residents of the park, 90 percent of whom are elderly, disabled or both, is transfer trauma. The condition, often invoked as a point of order in legal cases of nursing-home closures, is defined in California law as "death, depression or regressive behavior, that is caused by the abrupt and involuntary transfer of an elderly resident from one home to another and results from a loss of familiar physical environment, loss of well-known neighbors, attendants, nurses and medical personnel."

The park has been rife with rumors of suicide among its residents. Legal Aid claims there were four; Mary Herring recalls three; Michael Tarbet of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights cited two when speaking to the planning commission. In addition, there have been several natural deaths that residents attribute to the foreclosure process, including one man who died from health complications after he accepted a buyout of his trailer and moved into an RV he parked in a nearby Bally's Total Fitness parking lot.

But staying put also has its dangers.

In February 2011, the Santa Monica Fire Department responded to a fire at the park. A mobile home in A Row was engulfed in flames.

Joe Zwiesler's 1948 trailer did not have heating, but it had a kitchen stove. On cold nights, the 87-year-old Zwiesler would light three of the burners and position a box fan to circulate the warm air through the trailer.

That night, Zwiesler was in the shower when he realized that his home had caught fire. He ran out into the night, naked. A neighbor brought him a robe, and he stood in the rain and watched firefighters extinguish the flames that destroyed his home. He has since moved into an apartment.

The Santa Monica Fire Department's report leaves many questions unanswered. Area of fire origin: undetermined. Ignition heat source: undetermined. Item first ignited: undetermined. Cause of ignition: undetermined.

Every section on the report is "undetermined," in fact, except one. Human factors contributing to ignition: "Age was a factor," the report states plainly.

"The whole purpose of rent control is so people can age in peace and in place — and that was just one of the assumptions that we had in our community," says Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights co-chair Patricia Hoffman.

In the decades since Santa Monica and SMRR pioneered rent control in California, the passage of state laws — the Ellis Act in 1985 and the Costa Hawkins Act in 2000 — have neutralized much of the power that tenant-rights advocates once enjoyed. At the same time, the value of the land in Santa Monica has gone up, increasing the stakes for developers and politicians.

"I wish that Santa Monica were able to maintain the fiercely protective stance that we once had, but," Hoffman sighs, "there's too many other forces that are in place."

In May, Village Trailer Park residents filled out a survey about their preferences for relocation. At the top of that list? "Move to Mountain View Mobile Home Park."

Mountain View Mobile Home Park is the only other trailer park left in Santa Monica. It is just blocks from the Village Trailer Park and, although it lacks the same distinctive character, staying in the neighborhood might reduce, to a certain extent, the trauma of relocating.

Mountain View does not have a view of the mountains, but it does have a view of the 10 freeway, with which it shares a fence, and a view of a former city landfill, on which it is partially situated. (Fourteen years ago, Mountain View's residents sued the city of Santa Monica, which owns the park, claiming that methane emitted by the landfill was making them sick.)

Pondering the absorption of displaced Village Trailer Park residents, Chris McLeod, secretary of Mountain View's tenants association, told the city planning commission that the park recently failed a professional inspection. Another speaker, Maria Loya, held up a notice that she said was taken from one of the park's prefabricated homes, warning of the presence of formaldehyde, which is dangerous for children and seniors.

But the biggest problem with Mountain View may well be the limited number of openings. Forty-eight full-time residents of Village Trailer Park need to be relocated, but only 28 spaces are available at Mountain View.

Residents moving into an apartment instead likely would require a Section 8 voucher or the help of Community Corporation of Santa Monica. But that organization receives 3,000 inquiries every year for just 100 to 150 openings. While the city and the developer have worked to get Village Trailer Park residents placed at the top of Community Corp.'s list, some park residents don't qualify because their income is too low to meet the minimum threshold. (The organization targets low-wage, working families.)

One such resident is Veronica Smith. Her income is too low to be eligible for Community Corp., so her only option is Section 8. But, Smith says, she has been told by the city's housing division that they can't do much to help her now.

In a typical year, the housing division offers 1,100 rental vouchers to Santa Monica residents. If there are no vouchers available, eligible residents can ask to be put on the waiting list — which has 33,000 names.

Luzzatto and the city have worked to get residents to the top of the Section 8 waiting list, too, but residents will have to wait until someone currently receiving Section 8 funds either dies or starts making enough money to afford rent, or the city receives additional funding — which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Luzzatto has offered to move trailers (if they can be moved) or to pay residents' rent for four years at $1,180 per month. He also has offered the option of an $18,500 lump-sum payout.

Many residents don't feel the offer comes close to appropriate compensation. Some paid tens of thousands of dollars to buy their trailers, before sinking thousands more into updates. They would be out that money completely; Luzzatto is not offering to reimburse them for their trailers.

Luzzatto is unmoved by those arguments. "These trailers, at 50 years old, they can't be moved — they would fall apart. And no other trailer park wants them, because they are not up to code," he says. "So they have no real value. They can't be sold."

Questioned by planning commissioners about what he would do if the Santa Monica City Council simply denied his request to rezone the property, Marc Luzzatto said he would close the park, clear out the remaining trailers and let the land go to seed, holding it as an investment. There are simply too many problems to continue operating Village Trailer Park.

And, under state law, city staff seemed to agree, Luzzatto would be within his rights to do that.

It is past midnight at City Hall on June 20, the third evening that the planning commission has convened to discuss the fate of the trailer park (the first meeting, and a second, were continued after running four and a half hours each, with no consensus).

It's a war of attrition. Most audience members who showed up earlier that evening, a fraction of the number who turned out for the first meeting, have gone home. Two commissioners — Jason Parry and Gerda Newbold — have called it a night as well.

After three meetings, eight hours of public comment and hundreds of letters, emails and pages of reports, the remaining commissioners vote unanimously to recommend the development plan, with a few caveats, for approval by the city council. It's slated to be considered at the council's July 24 meeting.

If the city council approves it at that time, Luzzatto can apply for a removal permit from the Rent Control Board. And if the board approves that, Luzzatto will be able to issue one more notice of closure for Village Trailer Park.

He probably would like to think that will be the end of the fight — but at least one resident is hunkering down in her trailer for the long haul.

Catherine Eldridge was one of the residents who joined the 2000 lawsuit against Village Trailer Park's owners.

When most of her co-plaintiffs settled for $12,000 apiece in 2003, Eldridge and one other neighbor demanded assurances that they wouldn't be harassed about moving their trailers anymore when the lawsuit was over.

She refused to settle until lawyers for the park's owners promised they would not move, do anything or attempt to do anything to cause her to have to move her home "on the issue of lot lines, or for any other reason." The lawyers, finally, agreed.

Last year, as Luzzatto began closing in on approval from the city, Eldridge returned to court to have that agreement enforced. In June, Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Cesar Sarmiento issued a declaratory judgment that could, theoretically, render moot anything the city council does, or anything the Rent Control Board says — with regard to Eldridge, at least.

Judge Sarmiento ruled that the agreement would stand. Eldridge could stay in her home, without the threat of being moved, for as long as she likes — even if that means the residents of East Village condominiums have to navigate around her trailer every morning on their way to the light rail.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Marc Luzzatto's name.

PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

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