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A Haven From Soaring Rents

As housing prices rise, some find refuge in a San Bernardino National Forest camp.

April 03, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

The setting is pure Ansel Adams. Towering, snow-capped peaks fill the sky. Ground level is more John Steinbeck, though.

Carnival ride mechanics, highway construction workers and a homeless waitress all have staked out spots at Bonita Ranch Campground in the San Bernardino National Forest. Parking spots, that is. As housing costs continue to soar across Southern California, including in once-affordable areas like the Inland Empire, the working poor and others are finding refuge in unlikely settings -- such as an RV campground owned by a woman on the financial edge herself.

"Usually I tell them they have to leave when the summer people start coming in for the weekend. But this year I'm probably going to have to tell the summer people I can't afford to lose the month-to-month folks," said Becky Hughes, who charges between $370 and $450 a month for a hookup (the higher rate applies if you want cable TV).

With rents expected to hit an average $1,000 for the first time in the Inland Empire, according to a study released Tuesday by the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, that's a bargain. Three-bedroom units could climb to $1,400 a month by the end of 2005, according to the study, and rents will soar between 8% and 10% annually, in part because of an increasing number of jobs in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

"When the valleys fill up, there's no place left for people like us," said Cathy Smith, who moved in last year to help Hughes. "It happened in the San Fernando Valley, and now it's happening in San Bernardino.... But this area lulls you, it's so beautiful and peaceful."

Gesturing at carnival workers in a rundown bunkhouse sitting across spot 46, she said, "They're survivors, like the rest of us."

Staying in most campgrounds beyond two weeks is not allowed, but here, if folks are quiet, neat and pay their rent, they're welcome.

Hughes and her husband bought a 20-year lease on the campground from the U.S. Forest Service three years ago, but he died after slipping off a crane while trimming the camp's trees. She is trying to make a go of it with her grown children's help. There are hard times as well as sweet ones here.

The setting is a bit of paradise, next to Bonita Falls in Lytle Creek Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains. But the last six months have been hellish. The campground was encircled by wildfire last October but emerged unscathed. On Christmas Day, mudslides buried the main road, cutting off access to Interstate 15 below.

Debra King, 49, pulled in from Harrisburg, Pa., with her husband, Charles, and their two dogs in February 2003 in their 1978 Dodge Cruise Master, and "it's been nothing but trouble since," she said. "Fires, mudslides, we've seen it all."

King, a computer technician, was thrilled when her company offered to transfer her to California. But when the couple arrived, they couldn't find an affordable apartment.

"Man, they want $1,000 for a one-bedroom," she said.

Nearby sits the bunkhouse, a refitted horse trailer by all appearances. Five parallel sets of metal steps lead up to five tiny cubicles just big enough to hold a bed. Each has its own window and welcome mat.

The "stove" is a washing machine tub in the fire ring outside, with a rusty grill on top. The five men who live here repair the Zipper, the Tilt-a-Wheel and other rides for a company that rents out carnival rides. Each has $38 a week for rent deducted from his paycheck of $250 to $450, before taxes.

"It's fine, I like it," said John Posel, 56, who uses a wheelchair because of arthritis but can still work on the rides. "It's better than being on the streets."

A company van comes by to pick up and drop off Posel and his fellow workers. Most people here head out early to work and return at dusk.

A dog named Sparky who crawled in during the fires with a scorched stomach and paws greets all comers.

Sonny and Fran Ruiz pulled in to spot 39 about 18 months ago from Rancho Cucamonga.

On a whim, Fran Ruiz recently drove by houses in her old city that used to sell for $250,000.

"The flier said 'in the $700,000s' . I thought it was a misprint," she said "I turned around and left."

She and her husband have a motor home, complete with satellite dish and their cat PeeWee lounging on a sofa.

"It's very reasonable," Ruiz said. "Sonny's always dreamed of living in the forest." But she yearns to take a long, hot shower in a full bathroom, and "sleep in my old big bed."

Her husband, a forklift mechanic, said they will build in the desert eventually, where land prices are still affordable.

"This is temporary," he says, the RV shaking slightly as he stands. "But there's no rush."

The smell of barbecuing fills the air. Gary and Melody Barney, 57 and 39, settle into lawn chairs with candlelight and a bottle of wine. Schoolteachers, they sold their Rialto home to buy land and build a retirement home in Lytle Creek. Their home sold faster than expected, and when they checked apartment prices, they realized they could do better camping in their RV for a few months.

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