These days, only a single pair of pink flamingos and a few Buddha rock gardens still decorate 1950s-style trailers in what residents fondly call "the ghetto" at the Seal Beach Trailer Park.
More and more of the trailers at the old park near the sea resemble two-story town homes. Built over now-invisible trailers and complete with ocean-view sun decks, the ritziest have multiple fireplaces, expensive Art Deco brick walls, hot tubs and even a baby grand piano.
The conversions of mobile homes to town house look-alikes have won the eccentric little haven that first sprang up in the 1930s a state award for innovative and affordable housing. But they also have been the target of sharp criticism from neighbors who say that park residents--all but five of whom are protected by rent control--get unfair rent subsidies from local and federal government agencies while spending thousands on lavish remodeling projects.
Now the park's 125 residents want to turn it into a cooperative--with a little help from the city, county and state. The plan, which involves buying the six acres of coastal land with the help of a state assistance program, is being met with criticism, too.
City's Help Questioned
"I'd like to know how many low-income people are actually living in the park," resident Norma Strohmeier asked the City Council at a recent meeting. "Seems to me if you can make an investment" of $50,000 for an addition, "I don't really see how the city needs to help."
Added another Seal Beach resident, Mitzi Morton: "These people who couldn't afford the rents . . . and couldn't afford to buy new trailers . . . now we're going to help them own property, when they wouldn't do it for me or any other resident in town."
Park tenants point out that the poorest of the residents still live in modest coaches and that most of those in the more elaborate structures built them themselves on shoestring budgets, helped by carpenter friends and neighbors. And the cooperative, they say, will provide security for the oldest and weakest of their flock.
First, though, the trailer park residents have several hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is finding a commercial lender who won't demand a 10% down payment and will lend more than $2 million for land on which the park is located.
The band of renters needs $2.7 million to buy the park from developer Bill Dawson, who until a few weeks ago lived there.
They've asked to borrow $543,000 from the state through the Mobilehome Park Assistance Program, designed to help preserve affordable housing. The City Council voted in April to act as a sponsor on the state loan, which will cost taxpayers no money directly but demands administrative time for city staffers to shepherd the loan application.
The county also is considering helping with those tasks.
This month, a state committee will decide on the tenants' application for a loan, some of which would go toward reducing monthly mortgages for poverty-level tenants, said Julie Stewart, public affairs director for the state program.
If their plan comes together, the Seal Beach Trailer Park tenants will join a small legion of mobile home owners in California who have taken advantage of state assistance programs and successfully bought the land beneath them.
"Up until now we've been living month to month," said Scott Wildman, a 32-year-old Northrop engineer, standing on his second-story balcony gazing toward the Long Beach marina. "We want to have some control over our future."
Low Monthly Payments
There isn't a space in the park that rents for more than $294 a month. Some rent for as low as $190. A few residents pay only $35, with the remainder of their rent being subsidized through a federal Housing and Urban Development program. And the tenant association insists that monthly payments will not increase more than 10% with the park's purchase.
"I think it's feasible," said Ed Knight, Seal Beach's director of development services. The park residents, he added, "have survived this far."
The park runs along 1st Street between Pacific Coast Highway and Marina Drive.
Eight years ago, the tenants were to be evicted and their park condemned. Then the city expanded its redevelopment boundaries to include the park, and land owner Dawson was permitted to build 80 town homes on the edge of the 11-acre parcel nearest Pacific Coast Highway. The mobile home owners, with $1 million in relocation assistance from the city, moved to the back of the site. Trailers that could not be moved were replaced. Rent control was imposed in the park to protect the residents, a majority of them then elderly, from eviction.
The tax revenue generated from the town homes, priced as high as $275,000, paid back the city relocation costs, Dawson said.