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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

Hall's company, RHC Communities, owns about a dozen trailer parks in California. He said coastal mobile home parks can be a great investment because many are undervalued and can be turned around for a tidy profit.

Residents can also cash in on the booming housing market--but there's always the chance of going bust.

That's what happened in Huntington Beach. In the late 1990s, the city hoped to revitalize coastal business district by closing down the sleepy Driftwood Beach Club Mobile Home Park on PCH, which was on city land, to make room for what will soon be a Hyatt Regency resort.

The city offered to relocate residents to another city-owned park, Ocean View Estates, which was built on the edge of an old mushroom farm and is nowhere near the ocean. When their 20-year leases expire, they're on their own.

"We'll never have what we had at the Driftwood," said Robert Conger, who grew up in Huntington Beach and lived at Driftwood for 17 years. "Even though our mobile home was kind of a dump, I lived across from the beach, next to a golf course. I mean, it was paradise."

That paradise will soon belong to free-wheeling, mimosa-sipping tourists. And it won't be the only one.

The Dana Strand Beach and Tennis Club in Dana Point, a bluff-top trailer park with a priceless view of the water, was closed in the late 1980s and is set to become part of a $500-million village of seaside homes, shops and a posh inn.

For the last 15 years, Newport Beach has been trying to close Marinapark Mobile Home Park, home to 56 mobile homes on some of the choicest city-owned property on the exclusive Balboa Peninsula. Residents live there on year-to-year leases and pay below-market rent. When it comes time to move, they get nothing.

"Our days are numbered," said Herb Williams, who has lived off and on at the Marinapark for the last 43 years. "If I can squeeze out another three or five years, that's not bad, because the truth of the matter is we're living like millionaires for a hell of a lot less money."

In some Southern California coastal cities, trailer parks are the only affordable housing--and that might be their salvation.

Malibu Councilwoman Joan House said people may laugh at the idea of paying a couple of hundred thousand dollars for a trailer, but in her city and neighboring Pacific Palisades, finding an ocean-view house for that much is an even bigger joke.

"If they were to buy their own house on the beach, they'd be putting in 2- to 3 million at least," House said.

"You like to have economic diversity within the community if possible. No one likes economic cleansing, just having millionaires or billionaires."

Similarly, the Seal Beach Trailer Park has long been on the threatened list. But because it offers some of the only low-income housing in the city's upscale Old Town district, the City Council last year put together a deal in which redevelopment funds would be used to help preserve it. Now, the park is owned by a nonprofit organization.

Joe Hecht paid $34,000 for his Paradise Cove trailer back in 1974 and still pays only $680 a month rent. At daybreak, the 82-year-old former nightclub owner takes a dip in the ocean, and Friday nights joins neighbors for a round of cocktails.

"It's a real neighborhood--and Malibu doesn't have many neighborhoods," said Hecht, whose wife, actress Jane Keane, played Trixie Norton in the 1960s TV revival of "The Honeymooners."

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Some of the Best Deals in Southland Real Estate

The wealthy are now flocking to these places, and biting their lip when asked how they like trailer life, because it's one of the best real estate deals in Southern California, said Sheila Dey, executive director of the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Assn., which represents park owners.

"They're living in the nicest places in the state," Dey said. "The rent is cheap. The homes themselves are not, but the rent is."

Just off El Camino Real in San Clemente, squeezed on a spit of land between the railroad tracks and Pacific Ocean, sits Stephanie Leuthesser's trailer--one of about 90 waterfront homes at the private Capistrano Shores Mobile Home Park. Most are empty vacation hideaways.

Leuthesser has no problem with that. That means plenty of peace and quiet, and more waves for her surf-addicted husband, a professor at Cal State Fullerton.

"It's like vacationland. We walk out onto the deck, then bow down saying, 'We're not worthy,'" said Leuthesser, a Web site designer and native Texan.

The Leuthessers don't own a lawn mower. The backyard consists of a tiny deck, a 10-foot strip of sand and then--the Pacific. Since moving in three years ago, they've rescued three injured seals, a handful of pelicans and countless gulls.

There is a downside: sweeping the sand off the living room floor. An El Nino-fueled storm also nearly flooded them out a couple of years back. And, 17 times a day, the ground quakes under a passing train.

"You kind of have to be an odd sort to be here," Leuthesser said with a laugh. "Sometimes I tell people we live in a trailer park next to the railroad tracks. Some people we tell we live in a gated community in Orange County right on the water."

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