Federal Judge Refuses to Shut Down Housing Camp

Thursday, April 30, 2009
Gillian Flacuus
Mercury News

A federal judge refused
Thursday to shut down a squalid migrant encampment on tribal land where
thousands of farmworkers live in broken-down trailers without hot water
along dirt streets roamed by wild dogs.

The decision by U.S.
District Judge Stephen Larson included a stinging rebuke of the Bureau
of Indian Affairs for refusing to deal with the problems at the Desert
Mobile Home Park, also known as Duroville.

"As unsafe and
unhealthy as the park may be ... it nonetheless offers a shelter and
place for people who have nowhere else to go," the judge said. "Unless
and until there is alternative housing, this court will not close
Duroville."

Larson appointed a court receiver for two years to
oversee repairs to sewage, water and other systems and collect hundreds
of thousands of dollars in back rent.

He banned any new tenants
from moving into the park and encouraged current residents to relocate.
He acknowledged, however, that alternative low-income housing won't be
available for more than year.

Larson said Harvey Duro, the
park's owner and a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla
Indians, violated the law by not getting a permit when he opened 40
acres of his land to farmworkers in 1997 because of a shortage of
affordable housing in the Coachella Valley, about 130 miles southeast
of Los Angeles.

Because the park is on tribal land, it is not subject to local and state health and safety codes.

The judge also accused James Fletcher,
Southern California superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, of
being hostile and unfair in his dealings with Duro.

The agency was blamed for not stopping Duro early on then not doing enough to help him get a permit later.

Outside court, Fletcher disputed the allegations.

"I don't think it characterized what happened during that 10-year period. It was unfair," he said.

No residents attended the hearing. Their lawyer Chandra Gehri Spencer said they had to work.

However, Sister Gabi Williams, a Roman Catholic nun who has worked with the tenants, expected them to be overjoyed.

"It's
a just and fair beginning to help all sides work together," said
Williams, who works for the Diocese of San Bernardino.

The
ruling came after a three-week trial to decide the park's fate.
Prosecutors, who sued Duro in 2007, argued conditions at the encampment
were so poor that the only solution was to close it, even though about
4,000 residents would be displaced.

Assistant U.S. Attorney
Leon Weidman said during his closing argument that Duro has had 10
years to improve the dangerous conditions at the park but hasn't done
so.

Attorney Scott Zundel, who represents Duro, also urged the
judge to shut down the park, saying his client saw no way to fix
conditions that have spiraled out of his control.

Zundel said it would take up to $6 million to fully fix the park. He also said his client was not a slumlord.

Thom
Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said the government
was happy with the outcome because the judge recognized the park was
founded illegally, took steps to improve it and banned any new
residents.

About half of the farmworkers who live in the park
are Purepecha, a people indigenous to Mexico who have their own
language and culture.

The residents, who earn less than $20,000 a year for a family of six, pay $275 a month to rent a space for their trailers.

"As
farmworkers, they provide the food that goes on our tables and they
have no other place to go, they have no other viable option," said
Spencer, the tenants' attorney. "You can't red-tag a village, you can't
red-tag a town."

Court papers filed this month indicate 80
percent of trailers do not have hot water and at least 19 trailers have
been without power since August.

Larson called the park an "inconvenient truth kept out of sight."

"This is not a business, this is a village," he said. "Thousands of our fellow human beings call the park home."

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