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Center Offers Americans a Helping Hand

Rosarito sets up a city office to assist foreigners with property, residency issues. Volunteer staff dispenses wealth of advice -- in English.

June 16, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

ROSARITO BEACH, Mexico -- Sandra Mehas was enraged when she woke up one morning and saw the front entrance to her housing complex blocked by a steel beam. Mehas, the homeowners' association president, went straight to the mayor and demanded that the beam be removed. Soon after, workers reopened the road.

So when Mayor Luis Enrique Diaz decided to open a new city office to help international residents living in Rosarito, he knew exactly whom to call.

Mehas now runs the service center, designed to help Americans and other foreigners purchase and lease property and establish legal residency. The mostly American volunteer staff also assists new Baja California residents with paying taxes and obtaining electricity and phone service in their homes.

"It's our job to make sure that the Americans get the right scoop," said Mehas, who was born and raised in San Diego. "Sometimes people leave their brains at the border."

More than 6,000 Americans live in Rosarito Beach, a city about 45 minutes south of San Diego known for its beaches, seafood and rustic furniture. Altogether, about 60,000 Americans live in Baja California.

The mayor said he wanted to ensure that Americans knew they had a reliable place to get free assistance -- in their own language. The center, believed to be the first of its kind in Mexico, opened in April in a bright corner office of Rosarito's City Hall. Since then, other border cities have called for advice on establishing their own centers.

Brochures about Rosarito and Mexico are neatly displayed on the donated furniture, and posters of upcoming events decorate the walls. Banners in both English and Spanish welcome international residents. There are stacks of business cards -- for recommended attorneys, real estate agents and translators.

"The Americans live here, so we need to give them the support and security so they will stay here," Diaz said. "It's worth the effort."

Diaz is counting on foreigners who have good experiences in Rosarito to pass the word to their friends and family. City officials also hope that the center will prevent foreigners from getting defrauded or from entering into property agreements that aren't legal. Although foreigners are allowed to own land in Mexico's interior, they can only lease land along the coasts and borders. Even with leases, Americans and others say they need to be cautious about the risks of investing in Mexican real estate.

A group of U.S. residents was evicted in 2000 from their homes on the Punta Banda peninsula south of Ensenada after the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the land did not belong to a peasant collective that leased the parcel, but rather to several private parties.

U.S. consular officials support the service center and have given the staff phone numbers and information to pass along to American residents. U.S. Consulate spokeswoman Liza Davis said she believes it's a perfect opportunity for Americans living in Baja California to share their experiences, good and bad, with others.

"They want to get past some of the negative publicity, to make people know that the area is tourist and resident friendly," she said. "And any question they can't answer, they know they can call us."

Joane Shamma stumbled upon the service center recently when she went to City Hall to complain about a contractor she had hired to replace her screens and to build a wrought-iron gate at her home in Ensenada. Shamma, a sculptor from Corona, said she paid the contractor -- who works for a Rosarito company -- about $400 as a deposit and never saw him again. The office staff referred her to the consumer protection agency and told her how to file a complaint.

Shamma bought a second home in Baja California about 15 years ago and said being a homeowner in Mexico is a "whole different ball of wax." She said she never had a central place to go for help before the service center opened.

"Now we feel that the community is backing us," she said. "Even for them to just sit and listen is a wonderful thing. At least you feel like, OK, I'm not alone."

Her friend Leslie Rogers moved to Baja California from San Diego about four years ago looking for a cheaper and quieter lifestyle. She bought and remodeled a house near the beach, but now she believes she is being swindled on the land lease by the owner. She went to one of Mehas' volunteers, who referred her to an attorney and explained how the lease should work.

Ed Jones, who volunteers two days a week at the center, said he wishes that the center had been open when he moved to Rosarito 10 years ago. Though the singer doesn't want to live anywhere else, he said it was an adjustment realizing that "manana is not a phrase, it's a lifestyle." Now he wants to make life easier for other Americans by guiding them through the process and helping them if they have a problem.

"We don't fix it for them, but we show them where to get it fixed," he said.

Mehas said she has 15 volunteers working with her at the center willing to help. With all that manpower, the tenacious Mehas also plans to get started soon on her next projects: bringing more cultural programs to Rosarito and building a library and computer center for youths in town.

On a recent morning, Mehas copied and folded center brochures, which she plans to drop off at hotels and restaurants in Rosarito. She is also speaking at homeowners' associations and Rotary clubs in the area to publicize the center.

"This is just like starting a business," said Mehas, who taught elementary school in San Diego. "It will take time. But it will be a success."

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