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Eviction Plans Spur Battle in Carmel Valley

Housing Authority calls complex for the disabled unsafe, but some say the agency is pursuing a sale.

August 18, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

CARMEL VALLEY — In arty, educated, persnickety Carmel Valley, "we get out of bed looking for a fight," says one local politician.

Well, they've got a doozy going right now, with plans to remove a group of disabled and frail people from the only homes they've known for decades spawning a political firestorm unusual even by local standards.

Monterey County's housing board said it had no choice but to close the Rippling River public housing complex. The place is literally rotting from the inside out, it said.

A lot of people in this upscale community of 4,000 don't buy that explanation. Public hearings have turned into shouting matches, and conspiracy theories abound. One popular theory suggests that the county's real reason for the move is to get its hands on the Rippling River property so it can replace subsidized, $50-a-month apartments with multimillion-dollar estates.

Whatever the reason, allies of the disabled are vowing a fight to the finish. "If it comes to the point where the Housing Authority wants to take them somewhere else, they would be besieged by outraged members of this community," promised Randy Randazzo, 78, owner of the Carmel Valley Market.

In the midst of all this are the residents of Rippling River, who fear losing their bit of paradise.

"Before I came here, I never knew what it was like to live with other disabled folks," said Merri Bilek, a buoyant, wheelchair-bound woman of 42. "It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me."

And why not? Compared with the popular image of some public housing complexes as slums, the 10 stucco apartment buildings that compose Rippling River are a garden of comforts. While the pastoral names assigned to big-city complexes are often bitterly ironic, as if calling the seventh circle of Hell Dante's Gardens would make it a fun place to live, there really is a rippling river here -- the Carmel -- running below the 10-acre property. The surroundings are so welcoming that residents of Rippling River's 79 apartments can be seen whizzing around the nearby Carmel Valley village all day.

Townspeople have built a network of paved wheelchair paths so that residents of Rippling River can get around more easily. Elegant eateries prepare special low-cost meals for the tenants and local colleges dispatch massage trainees to loosen constricted muscles. The hit of this year's Kiwanis parade was a Rippling River resident dressed as a cowgirl. She drew applause maneuvering the parade route in a wheelchair decorated to look like a steed.

"We have some nice benefits here," said Bilek, whose circulation problem caused doctors to remove her left leg 13 years ago. "The community is very supportive of us."

Bilek, president of the residents association, remembers when housing executives from across the country toured the complex to see what public housing could be when it was done right. Unfortunately, Rippling River's buildings are no longer showpieces. Some date to the 1930s, while others were built in the mid-'70s -- about the time when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development took title to the former Rippling River Ranch property and opened it to the frail, elderly and disabled.

In places where the outside stucco has been cut away, the wood can be crumbled in the fingers like dry bread. The railings on the balconies are so rotted that tenants can no longer put plants on them.

The cost of repairing the buildings and bringing the complex up to standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act would be $10 million, said Starla Warren, director of development for the Monterey County Housing Authority. The only solution is to move the residents, Warren said.

For $1 million less, she said, the county could build a new facility of 79 cottages and two parks half a mile away at the closed Carmel Valley Airport. That would keep the tenants together and still relatively close to the village. The terms under which the residents live -- they pay about a third of their income in rent -- would not change.

Warren said the Housing Authority has no intention of abandoning the people of Rippling River. "We've been with these residents 20 years," she said. "We expect to be with them another 20."

A lot of people don't believe it. The housing agency "has decided to sell the land," said Don Maddux, 52, a quadriplegic from a swimming accident who has lived at Rippling River for 22 years. "That's the one and only motive to all this."

No appraisal has been released, but some in town put the value of the land as high as $17 million.

County Supervisor Dave Potter, whose district encompasses Rippling River, believes that the housing agency has inflated the costs of repairing Rippling River so it can shut it down. "I've looked at the damage. What we see is deterioration due to a lack of maintenance," he said.

He is not so sure that the conspiracy theorists are off-base in this case. "I don't have any evidence, but I think there's some underlying real estate deal," Potter said.

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