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Field of broken dreams 

How some people are screwing over the poor in SLO County and getting away with it

click to enlarge FORGOTTEN :  Dozens of abandoned structures litter California Valley—dubbed by county officials as the “Field of Broken Dreams”—decades after a scam that took advantage of eager new landowners. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FORGOTTEN : Dozens of abandoned structures litter California Valley—dubbed by county officials as the “Field of Broken Dreams”—decades after a scam that took advantage of eager new landowners.

The California Valley drops like a sinkhole at the eastern edge of San Luis Obispo County. Off the main stretch of Hwy 58, onto the crisscrossed dirt roads that weave through seemingly endless fields of overgrown grass, it looks as though a tornado dumped hundreds of trailers, RVs, and crumbling homes onto the barren lots to rot.

County code enforcement officers Art Trinidade and Harley Voss drove their Ford Ranger between deep potholes in the packed dirt roads of the California Valley subdivision. They slowed in front of one house: an abandoned, decaying, two-bedroom hovel in an empty field. The roof sagged; the whole structure looked like it was about to collapse in on itself like a dying star.

“I’m going to do some due diligence and make sure there’s nothing going on inside that house,” Trinidade said as he went to look for squatters.

He squeezed through a break in the tangled wire fence and cautiously approached the house. The door was ajar but Trinidade knocked lightly and pushed it open just enough to stick his head in.

“Hello?” he blurted, slowly walked in, and stood amid what had been a living room, scanning the surroundings.

Every wall had holes punched in it, from tweakers looking for money or the aftermath of a meth bust, Trinidade guessed. The back wall and roof were missing as was most of the ceiling, which appeared to have been ripped down from the inside by someone who gutted the place in a frantic search. Insulation that had been torn from walls and ceilings littered the floor of every room. In one of the small back rooms, half the roof was missing and the floor was carpeted by weeds and tall stalks of grass that wormed through the foundation.

“Somebody came here and just tore the hell out of it,” Trinidade said.

Everywhere there were bits of gutted furniture, among them an overturned metal bed frame in one room and an old cot buried beneath rotting insulation and dry wall in the living room. It’s hard to believe this was once a home. But the owners, like dozens of others in the valley, were enticed, swindled, and forced to abandon.

Welcome to “The Field of Broken Dreams.” This house, like about 100 others, is the remnant of a series of scams that killed dreams of home and land ownership in the valley.

“They just gave up and left,” Trinidade said once back outside.

click to enlarge GUTTED :  County Code Enforcement Officer Art Trinidade scouts for squatters in an abandoned house in California Valley. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • GUTTED : County Code Enforcement Officer Art Trinidade scouts for squatters in an abandoned house in California Valley.
The valley has a history of chewing up bright-eyed homeowners, spitting them out, and leaving a trail of abandoned trailers and shitholes like this one barely capable of housing squatters and meth cooks who frequent the area.

Even when the valley’s lush with bright lupine and California bush, it can feel desolate; a place so isolated only the most charitable driver would give hitchhikers a lift to the nearest store or gas station 45 miles distant in Taft. This is truly no-man’s land—the “Wild West,” as Trinidade and Hoss referred to it several times.

“We used to joke about that it’s where mobile homes came to die,” Trinidade said.

“California Valley!” Hoss shouted.

Many California Valley residents love the quiet and seclusion, especially those who live on the good side of the valley where the water is safe to drink. In fact, the original developers who subdivided a portion of the valley into about 7,000 2.5-acre lots in the 1950s hawked the place as the next great paradise in California. They enticed eager young families to buy lots sight unseen, sometimes using photos from Lake Tahoe, Trinidade said.

Ronald Roberson bought property as a speculator in 1951 and moved to the area to retire in 1988. Back in the ‘50s, he said, there was a barbecue and auction in which thousands of people bought lots “left and right.”

“They didn’t know what the story was,” Roberson remembered. “They just bought because it was $10 down and $10 a month.”

That was the first scam in the valley, because east of Soda Lake Road, there really isn’t any water or power. The water is so alkaline it’s undrinkable. Many people didn’t know this—many still don’t know it cost about $1,000 per foot to bring PG&E’s power lines to a lot, or that good water—if there is any— is often so deep it’s practically out of reach. Then there are county permit fees that can quickly top $10,000. Soon a $50,000 parcel is no longer the bargain it seemed.

Trinidade pointed to another abandoned trailer.

“Particularly on this side, when you see things like that, those are broken dreams,” he said. “They just gave up.”

When Trinidade and Hoss first started patrolling the valley about 15 years ago, they stumbled on another scam. Here’s how it worked.

Two landowners sold off lots—usually to immigrants—but did so by charging a few hundred dollars in down payment and then a few hundred dollars per month, with a promise that eventually they’d turn over the deed.

click to enlarge ROTTING AWAY :  Years of water damage in one local home was ignored by the landlord leading to mold on the drywall and extensive water damage to the wall studs. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • COURTESY PHOTO
  • ROTTING AWAY : Years of water damage in one local home was ignored by the landlord leading to mold on the drywall and extensive water damage to the wall studs.
“They weren’t being truthful with the people who were buying the land,” said California Community Services District Manager Sharee Washer. “When asked if there was water and he’d say, ‘Oh, yeah there’s water.’”

There was no mention that the water was undrinkable or about the cost of permit fees and so on. Eventually county code enforcement would come along and the fees started to rack up.

“So for these poor guys after putting in pretty much their life savings on the down payment, they lost their land,” Trinidade said.

Unfortunately, people in the valley are reluctant to complain, especially to testify, and the county was never able to prosecute the “scammers.”

“We just kind of ran ‘em out of town,” Trinidade said.

Trinidade and Hoss said they’ve kept such scams to a minimum. Part of their solution, Trinidade said, has been “trying to discourage people from living out here because it has such a history of scams.” The county occasionally seizes lots and kills the development rights to prevent any more scams.

Though the surreal fields of abandoned trailers in California Valley may seem unique, there are places elsewhere in the county where people are being exploited.

“Ag workers really get the brunt of a lot of the issues as far as substandard housing,” Trinidade said. “And they never, ever complain.”

Helping the helpless

A middle-aged Hispanic woman clutched a little girl in her arms. She stood in a small musky room beneath a ceiling cracked and warped by water damage. John spread a few dozen photos over a SpongeBob Squarepants comforter on one of two small kids’ beds in the room. He flipped through pictures of moldy drywall and the rotting studs behind it.

John, who asked not to use his real name, said he’d always dreamed of moving to the Central Coast. In 2002 he finally did, settling into a small three-bedroom home for $1,000 per month. But three months after moving, he learned the roof leaks and water drips through the ceiling when it rains. Then the rain drove rats to gnaw through his walls. He pointed to one rat hole a few feet from a wooden crib in another room. Furthermore, there’s just a single gas line that feeds his and several nearby houses, so when fumigators shut off the gas to one home, John was left with no hot water.

John said when he complains to the landlord the response is usually the same: “He’s telling me if I wasn’t happy I can give 30-days notice.”

For years, John complained about the leaking roof. In early 2007 his rent was hiked $100 per month and finally a few months later the landlord sent crews to fix the roof, but did nothing to address the other problems.

“He’s taking advantage all the time,” John said.

A few weeks ago, John found legal help from a local nonprofit: California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). He threatened to sue the landlord and move, which finally got work started. Repair crews came to begin patching the walls and replace the worn, moldy carpeting. One room smelled of fresh paint and had bright new carpeting, a stark contrast to the rest of the house. John said he was hoping to move as soon as possible, but was waiting for city officials to inspect the home and write a report. Despite the horrible situation during the past eight years, he worried his landlord would write a bad referral in retaliation for his complaints.

Neighbors with the same landlord told New Times of similar problems: bad wiring, broken heaters, slanted floors, a shared washing machine that never seems to work.

An older woman limped out of her house wearing pink rubber sandals, clutching her gray cardigan sweatshirt closed.

click to enlarge TRAPPED :  One local family has fought their landlord unsuccessfully for eight years over persistent water damage. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TRAPPED : One local family has fought their landlord unsuccessfully for eight years over persistent water damage.
“I’m very handicapped and I don’t want to move,” she said nervously and a bit confused. “I don’t know, I can’t go against the landlord.”

It’s such a sentiment that drives Michael Blank. During a recent interview, Blank walked into his office at the CRLA building in downtown SLO and flipped through a stack of case files.

“We do so many that they sort of blur,” he said thumbing through a small sample of about 700 cases his office handles per year. “People will put up with a fair amount of abuse out of fear of losing their home.”The nonprofit CRLA is a legal resource for low-income clients, many of whom don’t know their rights, which can make them targets. The local office has been around since the ‘80s, Blank said, and he’s worked there since ’85.

“Let me grab another stack,” Blank said, returning with an even larger armful of files.

“‘Couldn’t pay rent on time. Landlord was screaming at me to get out,’” he read from one.

“‘Rented a studio apartment. Never got the final lease,’” he quoted from another.

Blank is slender with a head of thinning gray hairs. He has a calm demeanor and speaks slowly in a soft voice with the rhetoric of a political idealist. “Some people are afraid—afraid of power,” he said. “And some people prey on that.”

Of the cases handled by the CRLA, most tend to center around housing, debt, and wage issues. “The classic trilogy for low-income people,” Blank said. And there are many local cases of abuse.

“Some landlords truly know [the law],” he said. “But there’s a group of them that just try to get by as cheaply as possible and they know powerless people are not going to complain as much—assert their rights—whether they’re disabled, they’re elderly, or they’re new immigrants. They know they’re more exploitable and they know their tenant is living right on the edge and they’re afraid to complain. They’re one step above homelessness, so a landlord—a bad landlord—will exploit that and take advantage of it.”

About 30 percent of his clients are Latino, he said. As Trinidade emphasized to New Times, immigrants almost never complain.

Despite numerous requests to local agencies to speak with people who are either in or had escaped a bad rental situation, New Times was able to locate only a few timid people who would speak, only under condition of anonymity out of fear their landlords would retaliate. (Landlords cannot evict a tenant in retaliation under California Civil Code.) Several local social workers said they’d ask around but were certain their clients wouldn’t want publicity, even if quoted anonymously.

click to enlarge HELPING THE HELPLESS :  A legal-aid attorney since 1985, Michael Blank of California Rural Legal Assistance has been helping low-income individuals and families fight those who take advantage of the poor and powerless. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • HELPING THE HELPLESS : A legal-aid attorney since 1985, Michael Blank of California Rural Legal Assistance has been helping low-income individuals and families fight those who take advantage of the poor and powerless.
According to Blank, there are several methods of exploitation, including some spawned by the tanking mortgage and housing market. One situation Blank sees is when someone—usually an immigrant—gets unwittingly pulled into a bad mortgage.

“They were sold a toxic loan they didn’t understand,” Blank said. “It was 100-percent financing and the APR goes up and their dream collapses.”

One of the latest scams: “You’re a [housing] spectator when the market was booming and you bought an investment, but you can’t pay for that investment, so you go belly up,” Blank said. “But you don’t tell the tenants—you keep collecting rents from these tenants and try to swindle them out of a couple more months of rent.”

Blank said his office now handles about three such cases each month.

“This—god, I gotta be careful here—yes, there’s a battle going on here and poor people are losing … the way the economy’s gone, the rich are doing great and poor people are losing.”

Saving the dream

On April 20, Santa Barbara County tightened an ordinance regarding owners of rental properties, in response to years of pressure from People United for Economic Justice Building Leadership through Organizing (PUEBLO) and other groups.

Every few years there would be mass evictions that displaced as many as 30 families at once, according to PUEBLO Executive Director Belen Seara. Landlords there realized they could squeeze more money from students than low-income families, Seara told New Times. They would finally make long-needed repairs, then jack up the rents $300 to $500 per month.

“And that basically puts them into the streets,” Seara said.

According to the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County 2009 Community Needs Assessment, the average per-capita family income in SLO County was $26,714 in 2007. In 2009 the median farm worker earned $18,383. The County Housing Element, which was updated last August, found that a family must earn a minimum of $54,810 per year to afford an “entry level home” of $306,570. But the median home price in 2007 was $541,000, according to the California Department of Finance. In short, there are few options for low-income housing.

Bill Castellanos, director of CAPSLO’s migrant and season headstart program, said he’s worked with families who gladly accepted help with childcare but refused to complain about substandard housing conditions.

“‘We’d rather live in these conditions because if you make complaints we have nowhere else to go,’” Castellanos said of such clients.

A quick review of SLO-based property management companies rarely turned up civil complaints and even the worst offenders were only charged with small-claims complaints, typically by students who had been screwed out of a deposit.

click to enlarge RATS :  Leaking ceilings aren’t the only problem for one local family stuck in a rundown rental home. The rain also drives rats to gnaw through the walls. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • RATS : Leaking ceilings aren’t the only problem for one local family stuck in a rundown rental home. The rain also drives rats to gnaw through the walls.
Tim Kershner of Cal Poly’s Off Campus Housing Association recommended new tenants assess all existing damage, carefully read their lease, and not hesitate to take a landlord to small claims court.

SLO-based Creative Mediations is another resource to solve tenant-landlord disputes and has a success rate of about 80 percent, according to Program Director Stephanie Medina.

Back in the valley

Hoss and Trinidade turned down another street and were chased by barking dogs. They both railed at a county policy that prevents someone from temporarily living in an RV on an empty lot. One of the residents—a Montana transplant with a thick accent who looked like the cowboy from The Big Lebowski—had lived in his RV in a campground for four years, but was not allowed to do so in SLO County. Neither Hoss or Trinidade understood the prohibition or why low-income housing seems almost intentionally prohibited by certain codes.

“The answer is because we don’t like the way it looks,” Trinidade ventured.

At the point where California Valley extends into the western hills, there’s a half-million-dollar house perched high enough among idyllic rock formations to overlook the sea of vacant lots and abandoned trailers below; and for those who reside below to look up and view what they may never have.

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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