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Paradise Found in a Trailer Park

Housing: For some Southland residents, living at the beach is a dream, even in a mobile home. But that life won't last much longer.

May 20, 2002|PHIL WILLON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Doug Harmon just plunked down $225,000 for a little piece of paradise overlooking the pounding surf of Laguna Beach.

The place is a dinky singlewide, but the whitewashed mobile home--with its Sub-Zero refrigerator, fireplace and marble countertops--is definitely more Laguna chic than Dixie Chick.

It sounds like a bargain, but there's a catch.

Harmon's dream vacation house is scheduled to be dismantled in 21/2 years along with the rest of the El Morro Mobile Home Park. The oceanfront homes are perched on a sliver of Crystal Cove State Park, and the state has ordered them out by December 2004 to make room for a campground and RV park.

"I didn't buy it as an investment," said Harmon, kicking back on his sun-bleached deck with his wife and two kids. "I bought it because it was worth spending part of your life here--a place your kids will never forget."

El Morro and other trailer parks along the Southern California coast once offered the dime-store version of the American Dream: a place where a Buick-driving pensioner could afford the same million-dollar view as someone in a gated Malibu mansion.

Those patches of beachfront nirvana are disappearing, washed away by the tide of park owners cashing in to make way for posh, $500-a-night resorts, million-dollar estates and other "higher and better uses" of the land.

Along the Orange County coast alone, nearly a third of the trailer parks that existed in the mid-1980s have disappeared or will soon be closed. Between Malibu and Dana Point, fewer than two dozen oceanfront parks remain, and many that have survived are priced way out of reach for the average homeowner.

At the Paradise Cove mobile home park in Malibu--the surfside spot where TV private eye Jim Rockford lived in the 1970s hit series "The Rockford Files"--an ocean-view doublewide recently sold for $690,000. And that doesn't include the $1,500 monthly rent.

Paradise Cove is a neighbor to Barbra Streisand's cliff-top mansion just off Pacific Coast Highway and is such prime real estate that its owners ultimately plan to transform half the park into a small, exclusive oceanfront hotel.

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The Last Remnants of Working-Class Culture

The gentrification troubles some longtime beach residents, who have already watched as real estate prices along the coast soared beyond the reach of all but the well-to-do. When the trailer parks disappear, they say, so will the last remnants of working-class culture in many beach towns.

"I hardly recognize the place anymore," said Christopher Goldblatt, a seafood importer who grew up in Paradise Cove when commercial fishing boats still docked at the pier down below. "You had surfers, cooks, people who loved the water.... You're not going to see people like Streisand out here snorkeling with a spear gun."

Tustin businessman Richard Hall, whose partnership closed down a Laguna Beach trailer park to make way for a seaside resort, says coastal trailer parks occupy some of the most coveted land in Southern California. Something's got to give.

"They're on a path to extinction. It's all a matter of economics," Hall said.

No one knows that better than the 500 people who lived at the Treasure Island Mobile Home Park in Laguna Beach. The park was razed a few years ago to make way for the Laguna Beach Colony, a $150-million development that includes a 275-room hotel and pricey homes and condominiums.

With its secluded beach and panoramic views, Treasure Island attracted working-class mobile home dwellers from across the county. The spot was a featured backdrop in Disney's "The Love Bug," Lucille Ball's "The Long, Long Trailer" and a few other films.

"It was like a little village like in the olden days. We'd have these great beach parties, all dress up for Halloween, you name it," said Connie Vlasis, who lived at Treasure Island for 15 years with her husband. "You'd be living next door to Pilar Wayne--John Wayne's wife--and the next person over was a nurse, then two gay guys and then a lady who's a kick and sells Avon."

Treasure Island closed in 1997, 10 years after it was snapped up by a real estate partnership Hall had formed with Merrill Lynch Hubbard, the investment giant's real estate subsidiary. After the purchase, Vlasis said her monthly rent jumped from $900 to close to $2,000, and that didn't include the $600 monthly payment on her trailer.

"They raised the rents so high, a lot of people just couldn't afford it," said Vlasis, who moved to another park before buying a bed-and-breakfast inn near Palomar Mountain. "Don't even go into a park unless you own the land, because you have no rights."

Hall agrees that trailer park living can be risky. In the vast majority of trailer parks, residents lease a plot of land but must buy the actual mobile home. The problem is, most mobile homes aren't "mobile." So residents live at the mercy of park owners and are out of luck if the park closes.

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