In choosing which parks to inspect, the state housing department
told the auditor it prioritized parks “based on the number and severity of complaints the parks receive and the time since the last park inspection.” Parks without any recorded complaints, then, had “a risk of serious undetected health or safety violations,” the audit concluded.
And those parks are home to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, advocates told CalMatters.
“I get calls almost every day from people who have varying stages of information about what their rights are,” said Hilary Mosher, a volunteer regional manager in Northern California for the
Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League, the main lobbying group for park residents. “When I suggest that they file a complaint with (the state housing department), about 90% of them back off because they're afraid of retaliation.”
Two years after Colorado relaunched its own complaint-based inspection program for its 730 mobile home parks, that state found
more than 70% of residents didn’t know about the program. There’s no such survey data for California, but most advocates and lawmakers told CalMatters things are not much better here.
“They’re not familiar with (the complaint system) at all,” said Leyva, who led the state Senate Select Committee on Manufactured Home Communities for seven years.
Between July 2019 and October 2022, the state received at least one complaint from the public — which could be neighbors, residents or even park managers — at 1,730 parks, according to a CalMatters analysis of state data. It received no complaints about 1,953 parks.
“We still found that there were parks over the last 10 years that had never been visited.”
Rick Power, supervisor of the State Auditor’s report
Many parks in rural areas are home to not only low-income residents, but also undocumented immigrants, advocates explained. If they even know how to file a complaint, and can get over language barriers, residents are afraid their park owner will know who filed it.
“People would rather live in bad conditions than have nowhere to live,” said Ilene Jacobs, an attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal aid group that represents Riley and many of his neighbors, as well as other mobile home park residents across the state.
The housing department assured information about a complaint remains private until an investigation is closed. Complaints can also be filed anonymously, although that makes follow-up hard. And if the issue that generated the complaint is gone by the time an inspector shows up, there’s nothing for an inspector to cite, the housing department said.
Residents have another reason to worry: Complaints and parkwide inspections can result in code violations against not just park owners, but homeowners. If an inspector finds a code violation on a resident’s property, such as a missing staircase railing or a build-up of outside junk, they can get cited. If they don’t fix it in time, the violation goes to the park owner — who can then use it as grounds for an eviction.
“Inviting (the housing department) over there may have unintended consequences,” said Angélica Millán, an attorney at Legal Services of Northern California, another aid group.
Of the roughly 5,700 complaints that CalMatters reviewed — all complaints filed about mobile home parks between July 2019 and October 2022 — just under half received a response within five days. Barely more than a quarter took three weeks or longer to get a response. About 250, or 3%, of complaints did not get a state response until three months or more had passed.
“I think it really erodes any trust that anyone might have in the system when there's that much of a delay,” said Madeline Howard, an attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty.
Among other recommendations, the auditor instructed the housing department to broaden its selection criteria to include parks it hadn’t visited at all in many years, including those that hadn’t lodged any complaints, and improve its response times. By last year, the housing department had adopted every recommendation made by the State Auditor, said Power, from the State Auditor’s office.
To fill in the gap for residents who don’t know about the complaint-driven system, Colorado is now hiring its first two inspectors to conduct proactive, parkwide inspections like California’s, and a community outreach liaison, said the director, Christina Postolowski. Other states are taking a more aggressive approach. As of 2018, the state of Ohio inspects all of its 1,540 mobile home parks every year for habitability issues, according to Brandon Klein, speaking for its Commerce Department.
California’s housing department said it employs about 50 park inspectors, funded mainly through fees collected from park owners and residents. Between 2016 and 2019, the annual revenue for the inspection work averaged $8.2 million, according to the audit.
“The brutal reality of these parks is that California probably has one of the best systems in the country,” said Esther Sullivan, associate sociology professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and author of
Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place. How did things get so bad in Stockton?
Stockton Park Village stands out because its residents did file complaints. Heather Riley, her father’s staunch advocate, said she began flooding the state agency with them sometime in late 2019.
“I was calling everybody I could think of because at the time, his sewer was coming up into his yard,” she said. “So I was calling the county and…they routed me here and routed me there.”
As of late February of 2023, the state housing department had received 45 complaints with allegations about Stockton Park Village, although not all complaints were substantiated, according to Alicia Murillo, speaking for the housing department. CalMatters reviewed reports of most of those complaints and parkwide inspections at the park since 2017 obtained through a Public Records Act request.
Inspectors visited Stockton Park Village in February 2019, two months after receiving a complaint about a home that was disconnected from utilities and spilling raw sewage.
Over the course of four months — the statutory timeframe — the state sent multiple violation notices and warnings to the then-owners, the Fairbankses, for uninhabitable conditions in the unit. Then on June 19, 2019, it suspended their permit to operate the park. Two months later, after the issue was fixed, the owners got permission to start collecting rents again.
The same day an inspector recommended the state reinstate the Fairbankses’ permit, the state inspected the park again, in response to a new complaint about substandard conditions. State inspection reports show several of the park’s electric meters were missing, damaged, or without glass covers, which could spark a fire. The state also found evidence of squatters: Several extension cords criss-crossed the park, providing electricity to unpermitted RVs. The window and water heater vent for the laundry room were broken, and easily flammable junk, including brush and wood pallets, was piling up in the park.
The department issued various warnings until four months later when, with the problems still not fixed, it suspended the owners’ permit to operate on Jan. 10, 2020.
“We kept calling the state and having them come out and they didn't do shit about it.
Theresa Krop, 55-year-old park resident
The permit suspension did little to stop the problems, and residents can keep living at the park during a suspension rent-free. Several complaints from early 2020 noted sewage leaks, broken security lights and power that surged on and off. Several people complained about the overflow of garbage. A complaint from the community development department noted the management office was boarded up and county officials were unable to get in touch with a property representative.
“We kept calling the state and having them come out,” said Theresa Krop, a 55-year-old park resident who has been living in the park since 2018. “And they didn't do shit about it.”
Krop said unlike for some of her neighbors, her travel trailer wasn’t her forever home: “But it was mine that nobody could take from me.”
On Feb. 6, 2020, while its permit was still suspended, the park was selected for its first parkwide inspection since at least 2014. Inspectors found many of the conditions the complaints described persisted, including broken windows in the laundry room, electrical hazards and plumbing problems, and sent off a new wave of warnings.
Still, on March 27, 2020, the state reinstated the Fairbankses’ permit to collect rent. It based its decision on the owners’ efforts to fix the problems and “personal assurances… the rental income would be used to support and pay for the remediation of the outstanding violations,” according to a court declaration by Krause.
The problems didn’t go away. A July 31, 2020 anonymous complainant, for example, alleged they could have a sewage backup in their home.
“As of 3pm today i can not use any water or im gonna have sewage in my house,” they wrote. “The situation here is out of control. We have no management, there are squatters coming day n night, selling of drugs openly. I know its a crappy place, but not everyone here is in that group. We stay where we can afford. Just because we are poor, doesnt mean we have to live like pigs! The smell alone is gonna make alot of folks sick.”
An inspector closed the complaint file the same day because after driving through the park, the inspector couldn’t locate the sewage problem, and couldn’t contact the anonymous person complaining, according to the report.
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
But on Nov. 15, 2020, the department suspended the Fairbankses’ permit to operate for a third time, in response to an earlier, similar complaint from May 2020, describing overflowing trash, dilapidated buildings and absentee management.
The permit suspension had little effect: Three months later, state inspectors found the septic drains and sewer pipes were broken and clogged, causing human waste to flow and pool across the park. The pile of trash had continued to grow out of control, eventually reaching 100 feet long and 8 feet wide — equivalent to a conga line of 10 elephants. It could, according to a July 2021 county inspection report, “potentially trap the residents living to the East of the Massive Trash Pile inside the Mobilehome Park." Dilapidated RVs and cars blocked the park entrance and exit for firefighters.
Since as early as 2019, county officials clamored for the state to intervene, said Merrill, the deputy counsel for San Joaquin County.
“We were trying to say to (the housing department) there are legal residents here who are truly suffering,” Merrill said.
Finally, in the summer of 2021, state housing officials sent a letter to the county requesting that the county district attorney initiate a civil action against the Fairbankses to abate the “imminent health and safety hazards” at the park. The county needed the letter, by law, to sue the park owners over the nuisance. After the Fairbankses failed to respond to the lawsuit, the county successfully petitioned the court to appoint a receiver, Merrill said. The judge on Sept. 1, 2021 transferred ownership of the park to Mark Adams, of the California Receivership Group.
Receivers are private companies that step into the owners’ shoes to resolve difficult code violations and in this case, ultimately sell the property. But Merrill and park residents said conditions did not improve.
“The receiver didn't have income to take any rehabilitative action,” she said.
The property was already so dilapidated by the time Adams took over, he said in a December interview, there wasn’t enough money to make the necessary repairs. Residents hadn’t paid rent in years, and with the permit still suspended, there was no new rental income.
Adams later would only respond in writing to submitted questions by CalMatters, citing a pending sale of the park for $455,000. He wrote:
(It) was two full months after the appointment before even initial funding of a mere $50,000 was approved. And then less than a month later, it was ordered that fully half of that initial funding had to be set aside for relocation assistance as opposed to cleaning up the park. Moreover, the City of Stockton and San Joaquin County Property Tax Collector have been adamant that their main priority is to collect their delinquent property taxes and delinquent utility charges, knowing that by doing so they effectively cut off any additional funding the Receiver could get to perform any abatement work and make the property safe for the people who live there… Since that time, no further funding has been approved for any purpose and indeed the only way the utilities were kept on even for a period of time was (California Receivership Group) advancing $23,000 of our own money. That has not happened in any other case I've been involved in over the last 22 years.
As of March 13, the buyer had not found a title company to insure the sale of the park because of its litigation history, according to a report filed to the court by the receiver. The buyer remains committed to the purchase, according to Drew Shane, speaking for Adams.
Merrill, from the county, is hopeful the new owner will bring the park up to code, but blames the state housing department for letting it get to a point where “it's almost not able to be rehabilitated,” she said in a January interview.
“At no point should any property under any jurisdiction get to the level of decay that (the housing department) allowed this to get to,” she said.
The state maintains it took “extremely strong enforcement action” in the park.
“If you look at it now compared to what it was, it's a night and day difference,” Krause said. “We have a good relationship and constant communication with San Joaquin County. And we've worked collaboratively with the county to get to this point.”
This January, by court order, officials from the county sheriff’s department finally cleared the squatters and garbage and barricaded the park’s empty lots, which also eased pressure on the sewage lines, Merrill said. Those last legal residents, many of whom are elderly and on a fixed income, have survived without water or electricity since January, according to Stephanie Ozomaro, who represents Riley and a dozen of his neighbors in the lawsuit. Riley depends on a generator to stay warm.
“When I moved in here, I thought, ‘This is where I’m going to end my days right here.’ And now,” Riley stammered, clawing for words as he looked around his cramped trailer.
“I'm still here but right now, I have no water. I have to buy, you know, cooking water. Everything I do I have to buy from the store, which, it ain’t that big a thing, but still, I’ve got to get water to bathe in, I can't shower, you know, no electricity. That's why I had to go buy that generator. You know, that cost me. Those things aren't cheap,” he paused, sighing. “It was either that, or freeze to death.”