Mission Valley Village residents wait for the unknown

“The City, Jim Madaffer, the mayor, they sold the park right out from under us"

"We just want the uncertainty to end,” says Donna Fenter. “We’ve been living in limbo for years. It’s torture. It feels like a damn internment camp. We can’t make any plans. We can’t do anything but wait. These are supposed to be our golden years.”

Fenter rests her head in the palm of her hand and sobs in front of 21 of her neighbors, all residing in the Mission Valley Village mobile home park. Someone reaches over and rubs her back as she weeps.

Fenter, who will be 81 later this year, has lived in the park since 1987. She’s joined her neighbors at their makeshift dog park to discuss living conditions at the Village, which was established in 1959 southwest of Old Cliff Road on Mission Gorge Road, along the banks of the San Diego River.

The dog park has been the meeting place for residents to socialize and talk over the latest turns in their lawsuit against Archstone-Smith Development Group, which purchased the seniors-only mobile home park in 2007. Neighbors erected the knee-high foldaway fence two years ago in an empty space after construction crews tore up a home and removed it from the property.

“We were sick of looking at all of the empty spaces and just thought we should make something for the community,” explains one resident.

Most of those sitting inside the 15-by-30-foot pen are women, and all are between the ages of 68 and 81. They sit on white plastic chairs positioned around four patio tables. Some have walkers, and one man, who is missing his right leg, sits in a wheelchair. A few hold umbrellas to shade themselves from the afternoon sun. They share stories about those who have left and updates on new ailments of those still there. They say stress is slowly killing off everyone.

It started on April 26, 2007, when residents received a letter from Archstone-Smith announcing that it had purchased the property in February. The correspondence informed them that the company planned to cease operating the mobile home park on April 26, 2008, and construct a 444-unit condominium complex.

In the months that followed, residents received more letters.

On June 29, Archstone retracted its notification that the park would close in one year.

On September 11, the company informed residents that closing the park would be a lengthy process. “I know many of you have enjoyed living in the park and we hope you will continue to enjoy living at the park over the next months and years,” read the letter from Archstone-Smith’s director of land acquisition, Michael Walseth. “I mention months and years because the park is not closing anytime soon.”

The homeowners spent the next year fighting the proposal to tear down the park. Meanwhile, the value of the mobile homes dropped. Residents began to move, and empty concrete slabs became permanent fixtures.

Surrounding the group at the dog park, empty lots and concrete driveways separate vine-covered coaches on the ten-and-one-half-acre property. Electrical conduit and PVC plumbing pipes that once supplied power and water to homes stick out from the ground. Wood and debris litter the gravel plots where doublewides once stood. Two years ago, the park housed 119 mobile homes. Today there are only 70.

Of those mobile homes remaining, many are in disrepair, with missing metal siding, weedy walkways, and bushes that branch out into the street. Some residents no longer maintain their homes. They feel it’s a waste of money. Other homes appear to be in pristine condition; bushes are trimmed, yards manicured. The residents say that everyone deals with the stress in his or her own way.

“People just think that we can up and move our homes,” says someone else during the meeting. “We can’t. Most parks don’t even take the older coaches, and most of us can’t handle a move.”

Toward the end of 2008, tenants learned that on November 18 the city council would hear Archstone-Smith’s proposal to demolish the park. The residents contacted media outlets. Homeowners wrote to councilmembers and conducted traffic studies. News crews filmed them standing on Mission Gorge Road holding signs opposing the project.

On the day of the council hearing, residents implored the city council to deny Archstone-Smith’s petition to lift the Mobilehome Park Overlay Zone — a city ordinance whose purpose is to preserve mobile home parks — and reject the developer’s proposal. Their efforts failed when councilmembers Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, and Jim Madaffer joined Ben Hueso and Kevin Faulconer to approve the proposal.

The motion, presented by then-councilmember Madaffer, whose district encompasses the park, did include some good news for the residents. The motion enhanced the relocation assistance that park residents are required to receive by law. It allowed residents to choose between two options: Archstone-Smith would relocate their mobile home or the company would pay a rental subsidy. The city council requested that the developer provide seven years of rental subsidy, instead of the four years City policy requires. This meant that homeowners could be paid in a lump sum the difference between their current rent, which was $725 at the time, and the fair market rent figure listed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a similar-sized dwelling in San Diego.

In 2009, Housing and Urban Development listed rent for a two-bedroom home at $1418 a month, amounting to a payout of approximately $58,212 to most of the homeowners.

But in the nearly two years that followed, the victory has amounted to nothing. No relocation benefits have been awarded. Archstone has taken the position that until it issues a six-month notice of closure, it does not owe the benefits to residents who move. In addition, Archstone claims that the relocation benefits cannot be inherited or transferred to a new owner. As a consequence, the homes are unsellable.

The park still exists, but barely. Since 2007, rent has been increased by $50 per month, and many of the elderly residents are unable to pay their bills. Forty-nine homes have been removed, 6 residents have been placed in assisted living facilities, and 25 residents have died.

The majority of those remaining plan to stay until Archstone-Smith kicks them out, or as one neighbor describes it, “until they roll me out of here feetfirst.”

Carolyn Gunnon, president of the homeowners’ association, speaks up as some neighbors express their anger. “I think that’s what Archstone is hoping for is that people will just give up and leave. If we leave, then we don’t get anything. It’s money for them.”

In December 2009, the Mission Valley Village Mobilehome Association hired lawyer Peter Zamoyski to represent homeowners in a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit against Archstone-Smith. The lawsuit alleges that Archstone violated the Mobilehome Residency Law by denying homeowners the right to transfer relocation benefits to new buyers or heirs. The lawsuit contends that the developer, by delaying park closure, caused home values to plummet. It accuses Archstone of “fraudulent conduct and misrepresentations” in inducing owners to sell their homes to Archstone.

The suit also asks Archstone-Smith to base the rental subsidy on the rent at the time the park was purchased, $725 a month, and not the new rate that’s $50 higher.

“It doesn’t sound like much,” explains Zamoyski, “but one of the largest components of the relocation package is seven years of rent differential. Every time they raise the rent, the benefits get smaller.

“They have done everything to make life more difficult for these folks, to try to help out Archstone-Smith’s bottom line at the expense of the owners,” says Zamoyski during a September 21 phone interview. “That much is clear.

“Archstone-Smith said…they would not raise the rent as long as they were closing the mobile home park.” But some residents became ill and needed to move. Archstone-Smith told them that “they would buy the house for $5000 if the owner agrees to waive the relocation benefits,” says Zamoyski.

To prevent Archstone-Smith from raising the rent a second time and from speaking to previous tenants or to heirs, homeowners asked the court for a restraining order. Days before the judge was expected to rule on it, lawyers for the developer asked to take the case into mediation.

In the meantime, the nearly 100 people living in the park remain unsure of their future. Sitting at the dog park on that September afternoon, the residents are upset and scared.

“So many people just don’t know what they’re going to do, and you can tell it just weighs on them,” says former homeowners’ association president Homer Barrs. “It could be months, two or three years, or maybe five years. We just don’t know. A lot of people don’t know we’re still here. They forgot about us.”

After Barrs finishes his comment, resident Heather Manues speaks in an embittered tone: “The City, Jim Madaffer, the mayor, they sold the park right out from under us, and they just are having us sit here, like we’re nonentities.”

“This was where I was going to die,” says 22-year park resident Doris Melvin. “I was devastated when I heard the news, but I refuse to let them chase me out.”

Archstone-Smith failed to respond to requests for comment. Lawyers are continuing mediation sessions.

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