Alive and well in Lockwood

When the IRS seized the Mustang Ranch, it also took over a trailer park full of elderly and low-income folks with nowhere else to go

Karen Dennison’s pro bono project to help the folks from Lockwood Mobile Home Park buy their homes from the IRS stretched into an effort that’s lasted nearly three years.<br>

Karen Dennison’s pro bono project to help the folks from Lockwood Mobile Home Park buy their homes from the IRS stretched into an effort that’s lasted nearly three years.

Photo By David Robert

Jim Cudworth, who’d spent 44 years working on the railroad, threw all of his energy into his multi-tiered garden. He built it across the road from the trailer where he and his wife, Edna, have lived since their retirement in 1992.

“One day—I’ll never forget—he said to me, ‘I guess I’d better finish that rock wall before we have to move,’ “ Edna said. She frowned.

For some, living in a trailer park in Lockwood—a desert patch just over the Truckee River from Interstate 80 and only a couple of miles from the regional landfill—might not be a dream retirement. The Cudworths, Edna said, picked the spot because they liked it.

“I said, ‘That’s where I want to retire. Right there.’ It’s quiet and the people are good. It’s not in town, and our grandkids can play in the river.” She paused. “We loved it out here. We didn’t know Joe Conforte owned the joint.”

And it wouldn’t have mattered if she did know who was collecting the rent on their space at Lockwood Mobile Home Park. It was home.

But then the notorious Nevada brothel owner skipped town to avoid charges of tax evasion. Conforte’s properties, including the Mustang Ranch brothel, were sold. Unfortunately, the company that took over was later alleged to be sending profits to Conforte in Brazil.

In 1999, the Internal Revenue Service seized the holdings of the business, including the renowned brothel and a couple of other properties that few cared about. One such piece of real estate was the 53-acre Lockwood Mobile Home Park, a 10-mile drive from downtown Reno.

An IRS agent was later quoted as saying that the trailer park was home to “nothing but a bunch of hookers and pimps.”

Longtime residents like the Cudworths were furious. The park had 90-some spaces that were renting for less than $100 each. Many of the residents were elderly individuals living on low, fixed incomes. Some were disabled. Some were single moms who barely got by on tiny paychecks.

“That made me mad when I heard it,” Edna said. “My neighbor was a barber for 50 years. His wife wasn’t a hooker. My husband worked for the railroad. He wasn’t a pimp.”

During a meeting with a U.S. deputy district attorney, Edna let him have a piece of her mind.

“I told him that the people out here were grandmas and grandpas, mothers, dads, aunts and uncles,” she said. “And he just looked at me like, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’ He was used to ‘disposing’ of homes and property. I said, ‘Would you like to dispose of your grandma and grandpa?’ “

The residents of Lockwood Mobile Home Park decided to form a cooperative and offer to buy the park from the IRS. That would protect them from dealing with what Edna describes as “some shyster lawyer from L.A. who buys the place and raises the rent to $400 or $500 a space.”

The park residents couldn’t have afforded such a rent hike. And many wouldn’t have been able to move their ancient trailers—either because the trailers wouldn’t survive the move or because other parks have rules about the age of homes they’ll allow within.

They decided to tap the power of the community. The residents formed a board and elected officers. Edna, a friendly woman dressed in denim capris with curled hair and red earrings, was elected president.

“We didn’t know if that was legal or not, but we did it,” Edna said.

But there were many legal hoops through which they’d have to jump. They contacted Eileen Piekarz, now a rural development specialist in housing for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation. At the time, Piekarz worked for the Affordable Housing Resource Council. It was evident to Piekarz that some of these people would be in trouble if they were forced out of their homes.

“In this case, there would have been folks being homeless, those in the lowest incomes,” she said. “There was also the threat of breaking up the community. It was a good neighborly community, and it’s gotten tighter knit since they started this.”

But even Piekarz couldn’t navigate all the issues of homeowners’ law that the newly formed Lockwood Community Corporation would encounter.

Enter the good lawyers.

Edna Cudworth, president of the Lockwood Community Corp.'s board, will receive an award for her part in saving the mobile home park.<br>

Photo By David Robert

Ernie Neilson of the Senior Law Project worked with the Lockwood residents to hammer out the rules of incorporation for the community and also, as Edna said, to “keep our butts outta trouble.”

Neilson called another lawyer in Reno, one who specializes in real property and finance. Karen Dennison, a 1971 graduate of the University of San Francisco School of Law, is a shareholder in the law firm of Hale Lane Peek Dennison and Howard. The firm’s Reno office is on the 10th floor of a large office building next to the Nevada Museum of Art.

With expertise in property law, Dennison has represented owners and lenders for several mixed-use and golf course communities, time share developments, hotels, industrial parks and shopping centers. She testified on property law issues during the recent session of the Nevada Legislature.

Now and then, she takes on a worthy client as a pro-bono project.

Dennison accepted the Lockwood case.

She helped craft an offer to purchase the park on behalf of the residents. The IRS asked residents to prove that they weren’t related to the Confortes—that they didn’t have anything to do with the former brothel-owning, tax-evading cartel.

“The IRS wanted to find out who the owners were going to be,” Dennison said. “The residents put together all that paperwork. They worked with Ernie Neilson. It was a team effort with a lot of hard work by the board.”

On Christmas Eve, 2002, the IRS finally announced that it had accepted the community’s offer to purchase the park. The residents would pay about $193,000 for the park—after the past rental fees had been subtracted from that total, the residents owed only $12,000.

The residents took over the park two months ago, in early May. Dennison has helped create a structure for the community not unlike that of a homeowners’ association. To be a member of the cooperative costs a resident a reasonable fee—around $1,300 per space. Those who can’t buy in can remain tenants at affordable rates, though Dennison is working on an idea to allow these lower-income folks to make payments toward the fee. To keep outside investors from coming in and buying up spots, the area has to maintain a certain percentage of low-income residents.

“She was wonderful,” Edna said of Dennison. “The paper work that this lady did and the contracts—it would have probably cost a fortune.”

The office of the Lockwood Community Corp. is a small donated trailer parked behind the Storey County Sheriff’s Office, near a fire station. A window looks out on the sage-covered mountainside. Inside, Tracy Seymour answers the phone and collects rents. Seymour co-manages the park with Tom Mefford.

“We’ve got the best managers in the world,” Edna said. “The Lord really blessed us with them.”

Just up the hill from the office is the nautically themed home of Charlie Cheramie, 78. Cheramie takes the concept of lawn ornamentation to a new level with structures he’s built himself. Like a small lighthouse. And a ship-shape deck adorned with round blue life rings.

It was Cheramie who called the first meeting of park residents back in 1999. The cooperative was his idea. And he nominated Edna to be president. Edna has kind words for Cheramie and others who’ve helped save the community. She thanks Nevada senators Harry Reid and John Ensign and Rep. Jim Gibbons, who all were instrumental in defending their case with the IRS.

Edna will be getting her own award for contributions to community service. In August, Edna will receive the Yoneo Ono Award, given by the Rural Community Assistance Corp. to individuals in the Western United States who’ve made “immense contributions to rural development.”

Now that the residents own the park, their real work has just begun, Edna said. It turns out that park’s 40-year-old water and sewer pipes are in need of a serious overhaul. The estimated cost will be around $1.3 million to get the system up to contemporary standards. Piekarz, Dennison and Neilson are helping the group find grants and low-interest loans to make these repairs. Already, Edna said, the group received a county grant to get a preliminary engineering report, and it got a $151,000 loan “on the first shot—out of the bag!” to begin work.

Dennison thinks that, despite the unique circumstances through which the Lockwood Community Corp. was formed, the idea could serve as a model for other living communities, whether in mobile home parks or apartment buildings.

The attorney doesn’t consider her job with the people of Lockwood finished yet, as many legal details regarding loans and financing will need to be worked out.

“This could be a lifetime pro-bono project,” Dennison said, smiling. “It’s hard to say when we’ll be finished.”

Time consuming and even exhausting though they were, she considers her efforts well spent.

“This is the most rewarding pro-bono project I’ve been involved with,” Dennison said. “It had to do with saving people’s homes, and that’s important.”

Edna said that she didn’t know what she was getting into when she agreed to head up this endeavor four years ago. But even if she could turn the clock back to 1999, she’d still sign on.

“The work starts and you’re running a park and you’re taking care of people," Edna said. "When you think about some of the elderly men here, and the oldest is 84 years old, it makes you feel good that you saved their homes. This is all they’ve got. We can drive down the street and feel proud that we did what we did. … I don’t know what would have happened to them."