HAWTHORNE — A broken-down bus and three old, ratty mobile homes stand out as eyesores among the newer, larger coaches in the Amberlight Mobilehome Park, but the weeds have been pulled and debris cleared out.
Wilhelmina Berzins, 77, an 18-year resident, quietly swept the front of her coach last week, a big smile on her face as ocean breezes cooled the bright sky.
But beneath this placid picture, fear and tension pervade.
"It looks OK," Berzins said, "but it doesn't feel OK."
Last week, the 25 residents of the park at Cordary and Rosecrans avenues filed a $5-million lawsuit against the park owner, claiming that he is trying to force them out by illegally raising rents and allowing the park to deteriorate. Residents say the owner had allowed weeds to grow and brought in the old roach-infested coaches and trash-filled bus to make the park unattractive.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge last week issued a temporary restraining order preventing the park owner, Louis Simpson, from enforcing the eviction notices he served on residents after they refused to pay a $50-a-month rent increase. The increase would have brought monthly rents to $235.
A court hearing to make the order permanent will be held Oct. 6.
Simpson could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Steven Kirby, said, "My understanding is that at this time there is no problem at the park that is the subject of a violation of the municipal code." Residents at the park said it was cleaned up recently after they complained to city officials.
Despite the reprieve, residents remain nervous.
"I still feel the tension," said Mathew Duran, 66, who with his wife, Mary, 59, moved into the park three years ago in what they thought would be their home for the rest of their lives.
Bette Jenner, 54, a 17-year resident of the park and its former on-site manager, was more blunt: "It's sure hell."
The 26 residents in 23 coaches at the park have been on the edge of eviction since April, 1985, when the then-owners, Bill and Vera Hannon, sent out notices that the park would close in one year. Residents said the Hannons, who lived at the park in a small house, told them they were selling because they were getting old and were tired of running the park.
Residents banded together and paid a consultant to determine the feasibility of buying the park. The study said that although most of the residents are living on Social Security benefits and their median age is 64, they could buy it through the state's Mobilehome Park Assistance Program.
Residents offered $500,000 for the park but never received a response. The eviction notices, however, were rescinded in August, 1985.
According to the suit, the Hannons sold the park to Tom Turner and Charles K. Meyer on Dec. 20, 1985. They in turn sold the park to Simpson on Dec. 31, 1985. The sale prices were not disclosed.
The next day, Simpson notified residents that effective March 1, 1986, monthly rents would be increased from $155 to $300, a 93% increase.
Residents complained to the city's Rent Mediation Board--a voluntary advisory board with no enforcement power--and an agreement between Simpson and the residents was reached, although Simpson never signed a contract, city officials said.
Residents agreed to pay $185 a month beginning in March if Simpson hired an on-site manager, maintained the property and offered residents one-year leases and allowed them to sublease their trailers.
Residents also agreed to pay an additional $50 a month beginning Sept. 1 if Simpson met the conditions.
He did not meet the conditions, residents say, and they did not pay the additional $50. Two weeks ago, Simpson served residents with eviction notices.
The residents, represented by a public-interest law firm, filed suit Tuesday, alleging that Simpson has "intentionally harassed, annoyed, humiliated, intimidated and otherwise coerced residents into leaving the park while, at the same time, preventing any new residents" from moving in to avoid having to pay additional relocation costs if residents are forced to move.
Under state law, if an owner closes a mobile-home park he must give one year's notice and provide relocation costs.
A Hawthorne ordinance enacted last year also requires owners to have a city-approved relocation impact report explaining what the owner plans to do with the property and how he will help residents find new homes.
Simpson said in his report filed in May that he plans to clear the land and sell it to a developer for a commercial project. The park takes up about two-thirds of the three-acre lot with the portion along Rosecrans Avenue currently vacant. Rosecrans is zoned commercially and has been designated by the city as a redevelopment project area. Behind the park are apartment buildings.