Seniors, Refugees Protest Closure of Westminster Mobile Home Park

Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Thy Vo
Voice of OC

Residents of the Green Lantern Village in Westminster are fighting back against plans by the property owner to close the 130-space mobile home park, which they say would displace more than one hundred families in a county where affordable housing is increasingly scarce.

Park residents—most of whom are seniors and low-income—have been up in arms since Walsh Properties LLC, owner of Green Lantern Village, requested a land use permit from the city last year to convert the property from a mobile home park to other types of housing.

At a Planning Commission meeting last week, dozens of residents packed the chambers pleading with the board to deny a permit allowing for the property to be converted.

“I am 96 years old and I hope this is my last home,” said Dorothy Wilder, who moved to Green Lantern Village with her husband in 1988, and now lives with her adult daughter. Both Wilder and her daughter, Judith Rose, rely on Social Security payments.

At least half of the households at Green Lantern Village are seniors and three quarters, 98 households, are low-income. Most are Vietnamese Americans, refugees and South Vietnamese war veterans who were attracted to Little Saigon’s social and political scene.

Kimanh Ly Thi works seven days a week but took a vacation day to attend the meeting, a public hearing where no action was taken. Thi’s father was imprisoned in a Communist re-education camp in Vietnam and she came to the U.S. with her mother.

“I work very hard to try to support my mom and pay for the house we currently live in,” Thi said. “My mom is worrying a lot…and I’m worried that if this situation continues, my mom may pass away from the stress.”

Ross Bartlett, a member of the park owner’s family, told tenants at a meeting last year the family has considered selling the property for the past decade, according to the Los Angeles Times. The park needs major upgrades to its electrical, water and sewage systems that Bartlett says are too expensive for the family to afford.

Selling the property to another mobile home operator still would require tenants to move to make the infrastructure upgrades, according to a report by a consultant hired by Walsh Properties. Most residents own their mobile homes and rent the land from the park, while a handful rent both their home and the land.

Under Westminster’s Mobile Home Park Conversions ordinance, the owner is required to cover the costs of relocating mobile homes or pay a lump sum to residents if their homes cannot be transported. The owner will also pay $100 a month to residents for up to 12 months to offset the cost of increased rent.

But with limited openings at nearby mobile home parks, most residents say moving to another park is not a viable option.

“This is reality here. Our rents in our park are about $900…so how can we go from $900 to $1900?” Paul Labouchere told the Planning Commission, brandishing copies of an Orange County Register article estimating average monthly apartment rents in Orange County at $1,900. “There’s no way, absolutely no way.”

It’s hard to say when residents would be required to move, if the conversion is approved.

City staff still are working on the environmental impact report documenting the effects of the land use conversion, which could take several more months to complete. Once that report is finished the Planning Commission will vote on whether to approve the conversion and a conditional use permit.

The decision could be appealed to the City Council.

“If you approve this closure, you’re only going to make one family happy and richer,” resident Lynn Truong told the Planning Commission. “But you are making a lot of families…miserable, devastated. And they will have nowhere to go.”

A Haven for Affordable Housing

Many of Green Lantern’s residents say the low rents – most people pay between $900 and $975 a month for the land their homes sit on – affords them a lifestyle that is increasingly rare in Orange County.

“This area is very quiet, very cool. I know a lot of people, I’m friends with my neighbors on both sides,” said Son Do, 67. “None of us want to leave. We’re very happy here.”

Although the park is off a major, noisy thoroughfare, Beach Boulevard, the sound of traffic disappears as you walk deeper into the park. The average age of homes in the park is 37.5 years, but most owners have upgraded their homes with fresh coats of paint, carports, porches and patios.

Some make do with the small strips of land around their coaches to plant elaborate gardens, dripping with oranges, dragonfruit and papaya.

The park is less than a mile from the Westminster Senior Center and a few miles from Little Saigon, where many of the park’s residents can visit Vietnamese supermarkets, participate in cultural events and see doctors that speak their language.

According to 2016 figures from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, there are 197 mobile home parks in Orange County, 17 in Westminster alone.

Mobile home units make up 3.2 percent of housing units countywide, according to the Southern California Association of Governments, and 11.3 percent of units in Westminster.

Dozens of residents from three other mobile home parks have attended Westminster City Council meetings in recent months complaining about major rent increases by new landlords and calling on city officials to introduce rent stabilization or rent control measures.

Linda Tang is a senior project manager at the affordable housing advocacy group the Kennedy Commission, which has been working with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County to help residents organize against the park closure.

“A lot of them said they couldn’t attend [the public hearing] because they were older or sick. I can’t imagine asking them to move 25 miles away if they can’t even attend a meeting a mile away,” said Tang.

Tang said moving to an apartment will be out of reach for many residents because of the high cost of rent. Picking up and moving an entire mobile home is also unlikely for most of the park’s residents.

The report prepared by the owner’s consultant, known as the Conversion Impact Report, is required to identify housing options at mobile home parks within a 100-mile radius of Green Lantern Village. The owner is also required to pay for the cost of moving a mobile home to another park within 50 miles.

The report found 44 empty spaces at other mobile home parks, with rent ranging from $631 to $1,850 a month. But most of those parks won’t accept mobile homes unless they are five years old or newer. Just nine of the mobile homes at Green Lantern Village fit that requirement.

The report also found 16 mobile homes that are available for rent in the area.

For houses that cannot be moved, the owner must pay residents a lump sum for their mobile home, although many residents have argued that appraisals conducted by the park owner are far below the fair market value of their home.

Luis Santiago, whose family bought a brand new mobile home when they moved to Green Lantern in 2013, said the park management never told him of plans to close the park when he moved in.

“The biggest problem is I still have a loan for $98,000,” said Santiago, who estimates his home is worth $150,000. An appraiser hired by the park owner estimated his home was worth $85,000. “I don’t have the money to pay off my house. What’s going to happen to my credit?”

Larry Lazar, a planning consultant for the Walsh family that owns the park, said the family could not be immediately reached to comment on those complaints.

Do is one of several residents organizing as part of the Green Lantern Residents’ Association.

Do worked as a custodian for the Garden Grove Unified School District until a spinal cord injury forced him to leave his job and the Garden Grove apartment where he, his wife and son lived for 16 years. He bought a used mobile home built in the 1980s for $30,000 and said he has replaced the roof, windows, furnace, water heater and repainted the interior and exterior.

He’s been trying to organize the park’s residents and hopes to organize mobile home park residents citywide for support.

The Residents’ Association also is looking into a statewide program that offers funding to nonprofits and resident groups to help buy back mobile home parks.

According to Evan Gerberding, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Community Development, there is $43 million in funding available statewide, and a $5 million maximum per project. About 30 parks have utilized the program since it began in 1984.

“The best option, the ideal, is Legal Aid [Society] can open a conversation with the landlord to let residents buy the park,” Do said.

Residents like David Griffin fear the closure of Green Lantern Village could spur more closures citywide.

“My mayor lives in a mobile home park down the street,” said Griffin, referring to Mayor Tri Ta, who lives in the Mission Del Amo Mobile Home Park on Bolsa Avenue. “Maybe he’s the next one.”

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