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California and the West

$21-Million Deal to Improve Farm Worker Housing

Homes: Settlement of bias complaints against Riverside County is the biggest of its kind.

May 23, 2000|JOHN JOHNSON and DEBORAH SULLIVAN BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Federal housing authorities announced a landmark $21-million settlement Monday with Riverside County to improve housing conditions for thousands of farm workers living in dilapidated mobile homes in one of the nation's richest agricultural areas.

The agreement, the largest farm worker fair housing settlement in the history of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will require the county to spend $16.1 million on community projects and low-income housing. Another $747,000 will be awarded to 24 farm worker families whose discrimination complaints led to the settlement.

"This settlement is a victory for all sides," said HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo in a statement. "It will create vastly improved housing for families now living in Third World slum conditions, it will make Riverside County a better place to live, and it will ensure that there is no discrimination in mobile home parks."

HUD officials said the case could set a precedent for managing farm worker housing problems, because it commits several government agencies and a local Indian tribe to jointly working on ways to meet future housing needs in the Coachella Valley.

Riverside County ranks 10th in the nation in agricultural production, with $1.5 billion in revenues, yet every season workers flocking to unincorporated desert communities such as Thermal, Mecca and Oasis must sleep along roadsides or in trailers without indoor plumbing.

According to county and federal officials, the settlement grew out of a 1998 crackdown on illegal mobile home parks after two people were killed in electrical accidents. County code enforcement officers served eviction notices on at least 200 families at 20 mobile home parks and tried to close down at least one of the parks.

More than two dozen frightened residents in three Thermal parks contacted the California Rural Legal Assistance organization, which filed housing discrimination complaints with HUD. The complaints charged that the county was applying its enforcement efforts in a discriminatory fashion, targeting Latino-owned parks.

That led to a high-profile visit last June by Cuomo, who said he was shocked at the living conditions he found. In a public meeting, he appealed to the communities and residents of the desert area to work together to solve their problems.

Though both sides say the settlement was reached amicably, in findings attached to the agreement, HUD investigators made it clear that they thought they had a strong case against the county.

The findings said Riverside County violated several provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In particular, HUD found that the county applied its code enforcement policies "more stringently" in Latino-owned parks than those owned by non-Latinos.

Part of the findings require the county to send a formal letter of apology to the 24 families. The county also agreed to train its code enforcement officers to avoid discrimination.

Nonetheless, each side spoke well of the other on the way the negotiations were handled. "I am pleased that the county has been able to partner with HUD and California Rural Legal Assistance to address the critical needs of farm worker housing in the Coachella Valley," said Roy Wilson, who represents the area on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.

Mobile home park residents were guardedly hopeful that the settlement would improve their lives.

"We're happy that they're helping us so we can raise ourselves up," said Della Bautista, 46, who lives with her husband in one of the affected mobile home parks in Thermal. "We could get a house or something better."

Under the settlement, each family will receive $28,000 to help it buy a new mobile home. Of the $747,000 awarded to families, much of the rest will be used to dispose of their substandard mobile homes, some nearly 30 years old.

At one of the parks covered by the settlement, 11-year resident Lupe Pinedo, 59, said she won't believe tenants will get the promised money until she sees it.

"We're still in limbo because we don't know what's going to happen," she said.

Among other elements of the settlement, the county will provide $10 million for low-income housing over 10 years, $1.8 million to create a 40-unit development of single-family homes, and $1.5 million to create a service center for farm workers. The county also will provide $750,000 for a mobile home park at the Torres-Martinez reservation.

The deal also includes $4.2 million that will come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the city of Coachella, for a housing development in Coachella.

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