Business & Economy

Think California's housing crisis is tough in LA? Try Coachella.

Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Margarita Avila lives at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. with her husband and five children. Avila's husband works in landscaping.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Joel Beltran says this area next to his mobile home becomes filled with sewage when the underground septic tank overflows. Beltran lives in Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal with his wife and four kids.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Ariana Quintero, 6, left, Aolanis Beltran, 6, Giselle Quintero, 8, and Sumatra Quintero, 10, live in Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. The park lacks adequate electrical and waters systems, yet 56 families continue to live here.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Margarita Avila washes dishes inside her home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015. "There are some apartments, but it's hard to get them," says Avila. "Sometimes because people don't have documentation, so they don't qualify. And if you do, it's still quite expensive."
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Margarita Avila takes out a popsicle for her son, Dylan Salgado, 5, on a 115-degree summer day at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015. Avila's son is mildly autistic.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Joseph Salgado, 7, has asthma, which can be difficult for him when the air quality is poor. The Lake Fire burns nearby on Friday, June 29, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Parts of the ceiling are cracking and sinking inside Joel Beltran's mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015. "I would want to make more money to give my kids a proper house," Beltran said. "But this is the situation we're all in."
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Sixteen-month-old Oscar Beltran wakes up after a nap in his mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015. Father Joel Beltran and his family first came from Mexico to Coachella nine years ago.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dylan Salgado, 5. left, and Joseph Salgado, 7, play in their mobile home at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015.
Joel Beltran sits down for a video interview at Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. on Friday, June 19, 2015. The UC-Irvine Law School’s Community and Economic Development Clinic is starting a Indiegogo campaign to raise money to hook the park up to the public water and electrical systems.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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The empty desert stretches out in every direction from Thermal, Calif. Yet the sparse valley has an affordable housing crisis on par with that of Los Angeles, 135 miles away.

"There are some apartments, but it's hard to get them," Margarita Avila, a mother of five whose husband works in landscaping, said in Spanish. "Sometimes, because people don't have documentation, they don't qualify. And if you do, it's still expensive."

Over the years, while the working poor in urban parts of Southern California crowded into garage apartments, medium rise apartment buildings, and motel rooms, the rural working poor have increasingly turned to trailer parks like Shady Lane, on the outskirts of Thermal, where Avila found a home.

On a recent 115-degree afternoon, she hunkered down inside the trailer with three of her kids, trying to escape the heat and smoke from a nearby wildfire. The AC unit was on, but low.

"Because when we have a lot of appliances on when it's hot out, a fuse will blow," she said.

The conditions at the park are difficult, even on a good day. It lacks adequate electrical systems and waters systems. But 56 families continue to live here - and even sued the park's ownership when they tried to close it down.

“The problem in Coachella is there really is no other place to live," said Bob Soloman, head of UC-Irvine Law School’s Community and Economic Development Clinic. “Really, the housing shortage is abysmal. It’s worst than anything I’ve seen.”

Soloman came to California from New Haven, Conn. which has old, rotting public housing and not enough of it. Still, he was stunned when he heard about the conditions out in the desert. 

"Mobile home parks are springing up," he says. "But they’re springing up in fairly haphazard ways, they’re not well maintained. They’re often un-permitted."

Joel Beltran, who lives in the park with his wife and four kids, said he doesn't drink the water, which comes from a nearby well. He points to his dog's bowls, sitting in a shaded patch outside his trailer, as the reason why.

"Look at the dogs' water," he said. "Green."

He cleans the bowls daily, and even though the water comes out looking fine, it develops a green, algae-like film as it sits.

Inside, parts of the ceiling are cracking.  Beltran points out the bathroom, which floods when the septic tank fills up.

"All of this gets filled with pure poop," he said, pointing down the hallway.

"I would want to make more money to give my kids a proper house," he said. "But this is the situation we're all in."

Beltran said this could be a great place to live--with proper water, power, and maybe a recreation space for the park's kids.

Soloman, of UC-Irvine, said he wishes there was more government money available to help, but public programs favor apartment buildings. Because of that, he said, parks like Shady Lane rely on individual interventions.

He represented Shady Lane residents in their suit against the park's ownership. As part of the settlement, Soloman and his law students agreed to find new owners for the park - something they're trying to do right now - or take it over themselves.

They're starting and Indiegogo campaign to raise money to hook the park up to the public water and electrical systems.

Soloman said he's in talks with a nonprofit to take it over. If that falls through, UC-Irvine might have to set up its own non-profit to run the place.

"While I’d love to have the magic wand that provides housing for everyone, I’d be delighted if we could take one mobile home park in Coachella and fix it up and have decent living standard for people who are working a lot harder than I’m working," Soloman said. "And then move on and do it again."