It's Hard to Move When You're 92

— 'They call it America's finest city, but I don't call it that," barked Ernie Abbit, a 72-year-old lessee at De Anza Harbor Resort. Abbit, president of the homeowners association, is agitated. Without the city's intervention, the 1100 people of his mobile home park are scheduled to relocate November 23, 2003, when their 50-year-old lease expires. "Nothing has been forthcoming from the city," Abbit continues. "Nothing."

From outward appearances, all seems to be well in this community nestled at the edges of one of Mission Bay's prime coves. Dated homes in need of facelifts sit near those sporting major cosmetic improvements. Signs advertise a Sunday church service and bingo games. White-haired women bob in the pool as others stroll by lugging easels and painting equipment. All seems idyllic. Yet when I visited, the first man I ran into told me, "Things are really sad here. People are afraid."

With good reason. Ernie Abbit says, "Some of these people will become part of the homeless." This statement sounds extreme, but a closer look at the situation reveals the severity of the residents' plight.

A logical solution would be to move the existing mobile homes to other parks. Industry experts, however, report there is no space available in San Diego to accommodate even a few mobiles, much less 510. A new mobile home park has not been built within San Diego County in the past 20 years.

Relocating a unit to privately owned land is also unlikely. The cost of moving a mobile home runs between $20,000 and $25,000, and if a person has property, or the financial means to purchase it, county regulations would make it difficult, if not impossible.

If the mobile homes could be sold at fair market value, they would vary in price from $25,000 to $200,000. But who would purchase them with nowhere to move them?

According to Jim Lewan, president of Golden State Mobilehome Owners League, Chapter 37 (De Anza), California law requires that upon closure of a mobile home park, the park owners (in this case, the De Anza Corporation) pay all reasonable costs connected with relocation. Both Lewan and Abbit say that De Anza is the only mobile home park in the state excluded from this protection. Until recently, the residents of De Anza were to receive a total of $8000 per household as stated in their long-term rental agreement. In a letter dated November 15, 2002, they were notified that the corporation may not pursue the hotel venture, and if not, the residents "will not be entitled to the Relocation Benefits."

Why would the city exclude the De Anza mobile home owners from this protection? Searching for an answer leads to a convoluted history. The city has held the property in trust from the state since 1945. It has leased the property to two corporations since 1953, which have subleased spaces in the park to private residents. The De Anza Corporation has held the lease since 1969. The De Anza Corporation holds three leases in the area: the mobile home park, the Mission Bay Golf Course, and Campland, a 280-space parcel offering recreational vehicle sites for tourists.

A dilemma arose when it was discovered that portions of the property were developed on tidelands, which by law are not to be built upon. State Senator Larry Kapiloff sponsored a bill, which passed in 1982, that allows the De Anza residents to remain on the property until November 23, 2003. In 1989 homeowners signed a long-term rental agreement with the De Anza Corporation that provided rent control for the residents. In return they promised to leave in 2003 with no opposition to the De Anza Corporation's plans to convert the property into a hotel. Some homeowners felt they were threatened with escalating rents if they did not sign the agreement.

As part of the Mission Bay master plan, the De Anza property was designated a "special study" area, and in 1993 the city decided to exclude the residents from the normal protections mandated by the state upon closure of mobile home parks. Justification for this was that the property is on tidelands.

Furthermore, in 1999, the city entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the De Anza Corporation giving the corporation, among other things, exclusive rights of negotiation regarding future use of the property.

The residents wonder what really influenced the city in 1993 to exclude them from their legal protection and in 1999 to enter into a contractual agreement so biased in favor of the De Anza Corporation.

For now, though, they must address the current crisis. Many of the people are in their 80s and 90s. Ethel Murphy, 92, has lived at De Anza for the past 27 years. When asked what she would do if forced to move, she said, "I don't know. It's really hard to move when you're 92 to begin with, and I really have no idea where I would go. It would be a catastrophe."

At this point, both the city and the De Anza Corporation do not have anything definitive to say regarding the residents' predicament.

When I spoke with the De Anza Corporation's public relations consultant, Steve Alexander, I had the impression that the corporation has no intention of working with the city to change the laws and extend the lease for the mobile home owners. Alexander said, "There's no real change, no real update, nothing that has happened other than, you know, each month goes by, November gets closer." When I asked what the future plans for the land were, he said, "Because the master plan calls for the construction of visitor serving, you know this is one of the areas where you can have visitor-serving industries or visitor-serving facilities. That's where we are. I don't know anything more at this point." Regarding what assistance the De Anza Corporation will provide for the residents if they vacate on November 23, he said, "Again, that would be speculation. I can't answer that at this point. Everything right now is focused on meeting deadlines and complying with the goals of the project." As to what hope the corporation has for the residents' future if they do vacate in November, "Again, it's difficult to speculate what's going to happen on a precise day in November when everyone is supposed to vacate. It's just premature to speculate that here in January."

The De Anza Corporation, it appears, is focused on the removal of the residents as part of its business plan for the future use of the property.

All the residents I spoke with said they were filled with hope that their city would show concern for the situation. Much of that hope is directed to Donna Frye, councilwoman for District 2. "I've got hope as well," Ms. Frye said. "I mean, I'm extremely sympathetic to what's happening here. I understand it very well." But she was blunt, admitting the situation "is sort of in flux. That's a kind way of saying it. There's so much else going on, with the budget cuts, and then, of course, you know what's going on with the Chargers and all the other hoopla on some other issues. Sometimes the issues we're trying to get information on just don't have the same level of priority, unfortunately. So, you know, so that's kind of where it is. It's kind of in a holding [pattern]...no action that I have seen."

In the context of discussing the 1999 Memorandum of Understanding with the De Anza Corporation, I asked her if the city had considered changing this. "It has not come up. I would expect that would come up in closed session. It has to be soon, because November is not that far away. That's why I'm doing some things on my own here. Just trying to get more information because time is of the essence, and something needs to be done."

The residents have a proposal. "We are not looking for another 50-year lease," Ernie Abbit says. "We are looking for the current lease to be extended to 2017." Their rationale is that the Campland lease does not expire till 2017, and the additional 14 years would provide positive opportunities for the city as well as the residents. The city would gain more income. It currently receives an estimated $1.2 million per year from the De Anza citizens -- not inconsequential, given the city's current money crunch.

Donna Frye agrees, referring to the $20 million shortfall in "our existing budget, not counting what the state budget cuts may be. They're absolutely correct."

Moreover, because the De Anza Cove property has already been designated a "special study" area, an extension would afford the city more time to accomplish an in-depth study of land-use possibilities that would comply with the Mission Bay master plan, while collecting nearly $17 million. "Why don't we revisit the situation in 2017," homeowners president Lewan said, "when all three parcels are available?"

The homeowners propose that in the interim they could operate without the De Anza Corporation's involvement using a fee-based management company. "We will also fund our own demise," says Lewan. The homeowners plan to "put into an account, a trust, a certain amount of money per month per homeowner so that each homeowner will have a pot of money to draw upon" at the time of moving, whether soon or in 2017.

For now they live in hope. "I hope that sanity prevails. I hope the city has a human heart," says Lewan. "I think the people on the city council are wise people, and they will make it possible for us to stay," says Ethel Murphy.

"I'm waiting for the Lord to do a miracle," adds Jane Hewitt.

Their city councilwoman says, "I think everybody has some responsibilities here. It's kind of a three-way street." Frye advocates sitting down at the table to "just try to say, 'What do we need to do to rectify the situation? What are the financial realities? And what are the political realities?' And see if we can't come to some sort of a solution. And I think we can."

Even Ernie Abbit is positive. "I definitely believe there is hope. We're gonna fight the good fight."

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