Plans to shutter notorious Coachella Valley shantytown Duroville on hold because of redevelopment cuts

Construction was halted at Mountain View Estates in Mecca, after the state rescinded redevelopment money for the project.
Construction was halted at Mountain View Estates in Mecca, after the state rescinded redevelopment money for the project.
Steven Cuevas
Construction was halted at Mountain View Estates in Mecca, after the state rescinded redevelopment money for the project.
Vacant mobile homes at Mountain View Estates which may or not be filled by the end of the year by residents of Duroville..
Steven Cuevas
Construction was halted at Mountain View Estates in Mecca, after the state rescinded redevelopment money for the project.
The names of future residents dot the partially built and vacant lots of Mountain View Estates in Mecca.
Steven Cuevas

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For years, federal authorities have been trying to shut down Duroville, a mobile home park in the Coachella Valley that the government has deemed “unsafe” even as conditions improve under a court-appointed manager. But plans to move the residents — hundreds of migrant farm workers and their families — are on hold after the state pulled millions of dollars in redevelopment money from Riverside County.

Compared to the dusty alleys, crumbling trailers and lagoons of raw sewage of Duroville, Mountain View Estates stands out like a dazzling desert mirage. The mobile home park, set amid towering palm trees and manicured lawns, was set to welcome residents by the fall.

“The preponderance of residents of this place will be from Duroville,” said Tom Flynn, as he drove around the gated mobile home park in his pickup truck. “You can see here, the community center? This was built a year and a half ago.”

Flynn is the court-appointed receiver overseeing improvements at Duroville, and the eventual transition of its roughly 1,400 residents.

When the federal court seized control of Duroville five years ago, Riverside County made plans for new housing. Up until last month, construction was humming along on the first batch of homes.

“Then after 40 units had been moved in, we received word that the funding from the [California] Department of Finance was going to be halted,” said Flynn.

Riverside County had a $12 million commitment from the state to complete Mountain View Estates. When the state dissolved redevelopment agencies last year, it also yanked funding from county projects.

“Then the county appealed,” Flynn said. “We're in the process now. We're expecting [it] literally could be any moment, any day, where the state will tell us whether they've approved the funding or not.”

He said many of the residents-in-waiting who qualified for the units already have their names posted on stakes outside their would-be homes.

“We thought we were finally within striking distance of alleviating the suffering that had gone on because of the distressed and deteriorating conditions of Duroville,” said the receiver.

Duroville sprouted up about 15 years ago on land owned by the Torres-Martinez Indians. It was nicknamed after its owner Harvey Duro, a former tribal leader who figured he could make a quick buck leasing space on the reservation to migrant workers pushed out of unlicensed parks on county land.

The place was jury-rigged with faulty wiring, plumbing made from plastic tubing and no septic system — something Manuel Maroquin, maintenance chief under the new management, runs into all the time.

“Many sewer pipes are broken. They fix with tape, duct tape! Now, no more duct tape. It’s now [fixed] with new parts,” said Maroquin.

Sitting in an air-conditioned office with the radio quietly playing Mexican corridos, Maroquin remembered when the previous managers would cut power and water when residents fell behind on rent. He’s on the waiting list for the new park, even though it’s more expensive — about $200 more a month.

“I don’t care its more expensive, maybe, it’s a good place,” said Maroquin. “But I have many years living in this place. It’s comfortable because... it’s better than L.A.!”

Many Duroville residents emigrated from tightly-knit communities in Mexico and Central America. Eduardo Guevara said that some of them worry about increased rents at the new park, as well as occupancy limits and other rules that are virtually nonexistent at Duroville.

“They fear that if they move to this new complex they will have to limit the number of people that live in one housing unit,” said Guevera, a Coachella Valley activist and former resident. “They live like it was a small town. They want to continue following certain customs they have that they won’t be able to implement in a new home.”

A couple dozen Duroville kids and their parents spent a recent afternoon at an outdoor fair organized by the non-profit Latino Health Access.

Alejandra Zamora is a volunteer who grew up and still lives in the park. Zamora said the biggest health challenges facing her neighbors these days are not found in Duroville, but in the Valley’s fields.

“More than anything it’s because of the agricultural work they do, not only the conditions where they live,” said Zamora. “They are here because they wanna be here, not because they are that poor. They are comfortable here because the areas where they work are near.”

Zamora is also on the waiting list for a home in the new community. And she’s among those making backup plans if the state fails to reallocate the money needed to complete construction.

Meanwhile, court receiver Tom Flynn is trying to remain hopeful.

“If there's an approval, then this'll pick up right where it left off and hopefully by the end of the year you will have a community of new homes up here,” said Flynn.

It may spell the end of a notorious slum. But it also means the dissolution of a close-knit community that has learned to adapt and in some ways thrive — despite years of punishing neglect.