Hell on wheels?

Chico Trailer Haven tenants say life in the park is far from heavenly

RAW DEAL? <br>John and Sherry Wills say that raw sewage spilled near their trailer at Chico Trailer Haven—a charge that is officially unsubstantiated.

John and Sherry Wills say that raw sewage spilled near their trailer at Chico Trailer Haven—a charge that is officially unsubstantiated.

photo by Tom Angel

Park ‘n’ live: There are upward of 2,000 trailer parks in California.

It’s a warm afternoon in late August, and the makeshift yard of Tami Leroux is filled with all the bustling noises common to trailer parks. Her small home—simply a parked RV—is surrounded by a ramshackle, vine-covered fence she built herself.

“I know it’s not pretty,” she says with a laugh, “but I built it and it’s mine.”

Traffic whistles by on nearby Nord Avenue. There is the intermittent clunk-clunk-clunk of the trains passing alarmingly close to the shuddering trailer homes. A couple of people wash pots and pans and clothes at an outdoor spigot. There are dogs—lots of them—barking and sniffing around everywhere, and children—lots of them—passing time on the narrow, dusty street that meanders through the small park.

While it is far from posh or easy, life at the trailer park has been pretty good, say Leroux and her friends John and Sherry Wills. Pretty good, that is, until just a few months ago, when the trouble started.

The park, which is home to 80 or so people, is now plagued with serious septic tank problems, tenants who haven’t paid rent, vacancies, squatters and theft. Depending on whom you talk to, the sources of the problems vary. The Willses and Leroux lay the blame in the laps of absentee owners who, they say, couldn’t care a whit about the place. The park’s affable, long-term property manager, Larry Richey, says the problem stems from a few rotten tenants who’ve spoiled the park for the rest of their neighbors.

But the Willses and Leroux are so sure that the owners—Clyde Wilson and Lester Taylor of Bellflower—are the problem that they’ve scraped together $1,250 from bake sales and car washes to hire a lawyer to force the owners to clean up the place.

Chico Trailer Haven is not unlike other trailer parks. Low-income residents and migrant farm workers who can’t afford much else make up the population. At monthly rents of $275, it’s far cheaper than almost anyplace else in Chico. That low cost of living is what brought Sherry and John Wills to the park from Salem, Ore., 18 months ago. Her mother’s health was failing, and they wanted to be close to her, but her home was too crowded for them. At that time, the park was a perfect fit.

“It was never a palace or anything, but it was a lot nicer back then,” said 38-year-old Sherry Wills. She and her husband moved into a 1950s-era trailer that became a permanent part of the park long ago; the wheels are covered by painted plywood, and a fence and a small garden surround the home.

For a while last year, the Willses were the park’s assistant managers. But, they say, once they were removed from the position (the reasons for which they care not to discuss), the condition of the park began to deteriorate.

Walking around the park, they point out remnants of the continuing problems—abandoned cars, piles of what looks like raw sewage on the ground near an illegally inhabited trailer, mean-looking dogs roaming around, tree limbs that sweep over power lines and trailer roofs, and damaged electrical boxes.

If they could, they say, they’d like to move, but they can’t afford to. Few of the trailer parks in Chico allow trailers any older than 10 or so years—both Leroux’s and the Willses’ trailer are far older than that. And, they say indignantly, they really don’t feel they should have to move.

“This could be a real nice place,” they said, almost in unison. “If someone would just care enough about it to fix it up the way it should be. … I think we deserve that.”

Together, they’ve mounted an effort to do just that. They’ve kept hand-written notes of what they say are violations of their rights as renters, produced for the landlords a 15-item list of repair demands (which more than half of the park’s residents have signed), and hired a lawyer to force the repairs’ completion.

But Larry Richey, who manages the trailer park, said that the tenants’ attempts to force his hand are totally unnecessary—he is, in fact, already in the process of fixing much of what his tenants are so riled up about.

The property owners, he said, spent upward of $50,000 just this month to replace the park’s broken septic system (which has really been the tenants’ main complaint). And Richey’s planning to repave the potholed road in the park, repair the electrical boxes and add nighttime lighting.

While the Willses say that they have filed complaints about the park’s past septic problems, the state Housing and Community Development Department, which inspects the park, said that it doesn’t have any complaints lodged against the park or its owners. Same for the Environmental Protection Agency and the local Department of Public Health. Gordon Gatton, the state inspector assigned to the park, said that he’d visited the park only last week and found the septic tank up to code.

So why all the fuss?

Richey said that it’s a simple problem with a few unsavory tenants.

“About a year ago, I had a manager who wasn’t really that great,” Richey, who lives in Paradise, said. “I was trying to help him. He was an ex-druggie trying to turn his life around … but he turned around and let in a bunch of people that have really brought the place down.”

He noted that he wasn’t referring to the Willses or Leroux and acknowledged that the park’s past septic problems did make life hard for them. But, he said, the new septic tank is now working, and there haven’t been any problems since then.

Richey said that many of the tenants got angry when the previous manager was fired—the position is still vacant. He said he tried to fix some of the problems the former manager created. He asked the tenants with roaming dogs to get them licensed and leashed, required those with self-made fences to take them down and those who were delinquent to pay their rents on time. That, he said, is when he started getting complaints.

He added that neither the Willses nor Leroux have paid rent in almost a year, and he hasn’t yet tried to evict them.

“We’re not trying to get them out,” he said. “We’re just trying to get them to clean up and start paying the rent or leave themselves. That’s all. This is a business.”

The Willses acknowledged that they haven’t paid their rent in months but said that they haven’t because they been “jerked around for so long” by Richey. Sherry Wills said that they discussed it with their lawyer, who they said told them that they were “totally within our rights” to withhold their rent.

The Willses say they plan to file a lawsuit against Richey and owners Wilson and Taylor if things aren’t fixed to their satisfaction. They’ve already calculated their moving expenses (about $5,400) and say that if they win the lawsuit they’re threatening, they will move to the Smokey Mountains.

“If you asked me, ‘Do you want to sue or just live in a nice happy place ever after,' I’d take the ‘ever after’ any day," John Wills said. "But it doesn’t work like that."