Along with his neighbors at the Ashley Trailer Park in an unincorporated area on the eastern fringe of Pasadena, 80-year-old Ralph Hune remembers bitterly the day in early June when the letters came.
The letters were from the park's owners, informing tenants of the 23-space park on Colorado Boulevard that as of Aug. 1, their rents would be going up by anywhere from 70% to 400%.
For Hune, this meant that the rent on his 12-by-18-foot space would be raised from $130 to $350 a month.
At the same time, Hune, who had put down a $87.20 security deposit on the space, was told he would have to pay a supplemental deposit of $312.80. To stay in the space where his trailer has sat the last 27 years, he has to come up with $662 by Friday.
"That's way beyond my Social Security check," Hune said. "And if I don't pay it, I suppose they'll throw me out."
That, according to Hune and his neighbors, is exactly what the park's owners want. They claim that owners Jack McCaskill and Richard and Mary Coffin are using the rent increases and supplemental security deposits to illegally evict residents so they can put the park property to more profitable use.
Under a recently enacted state law, trailer park owners wishing to change the use of their property must give residents a 12-month notice and assist them in relocation. The residents say that the owners are using the increases as a means of skirting that law.
The park's owners have refused to comment on the rent increases, either to residents or to the media. However, their attorney, Francesca de la Flor, said the increases are necessary to make the park "economically viable."
Seizing the Opportunity
"What's happened is that rent control has been lifted in the county of Los Angeles and rents are going up all over," De la Flor said. "Once rent control was lifted, the owners saw it as an opportunity to get fair-market value, given the park's desirable location.
"If they wanted to evict them, they could give them their 12-month notice and raise the rent."
Four residents have left the park since the rent increases were announced. But the 13 others, either unwilling or unable to move, say they are going to stay and fight.
Basil Tellou, 62, said he urged his neighbors to bring pressure to bear on the park's owners by publicizing their battle.
"I just kept telling everyone that if we just lay down and let people do evil with impunity, they're just going to keep on doing it," said Tellou, whose rent is being raised from $43 to $225 a month and who also is being asked to pay a $275 deposit.
"I absolutely refuse to pay it because there's something rotten going on," Tellou said. "They're not running a trailer park, they're running an eviction center, because they want us all out,"
The flamboyant Tellou, a former actor who currently lists among his professions, "poet and mystic," attracted local newspapers and television crews to the park.
Neighbor Mary Morton wrote letters to public officials, including President Reagan. The residents who had decided to stay in the park chipped in $70 apiece and retained an attorney.
Soon, they began to see results. Pasadena attorney Howard Rotter told them that they had a case and announced his intention to file a request for a temporary restraining order enjoining the rent increases and any attempts to evict the residents.
County Supervisor Mike Antonovich wrote to Morton that the county counsel was looking into their allegations against the park's owners.
This week, Rotter and De la Flor met to negotiate an agreement between the residents and owners.
However, Rotter said that the two are still "far apart," and that he plans to file the request for a restraining order Friday if an agreement has not been reached. De la Flor was not available to comment on the negotiations.
Meanwhile, the county counsel's office is expected to complete its investigation by the end of this week, said Dave Vannatta, an Antonovich aide.
Rotter and the residents say that the rent increases are the culmination of a lengthy effort by the owners to clear the park.
Over the past six months, seven spaces have become vacant without being filled by new tenants. During most of that time, a sign reading, "Sorrey (sic) no vacancy" was posted on the park's front gate, Rotter said. The sign was removed shortly after it was shown on a television news broadcast.
'Not Renting Any Spaces'
Ten of the 23 spaces remain vacant. Residents say this makes them dubious about the park owners' claims that the rent increases are economically motivated.
"They're not renting any spaces," said Leroy Scarbrough, 59, whose rent is going from $220 to $350. "If their expenses are going up, why aren't they renting any spaces?"
Before the rent increases were announced, Gladys Blankenship, 73, lived rent free as the park's manager. As of Aug. 1, she will have to pay $350, like the rest of the tenants.
During the past six months, she said, the park's owners have told her not to rent to new tenants.