Within the last decade, the state of California has made a point to strongly enforce environmental health codes in order to provide higher quality lives for its citizens. However, these same codes have led to several senior Fallbrook residents being threatened with misdemeanor violations and unaffordable fines.
On September 30, Martin Ortega, an environmental health specialist with San Diego County’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH), Land and Water Quality Division, inspected mobile homes in Crestview Estates, in the 1000 block of East Mission Road in Fallbrook.
According to Ortega, a percentage of the county’s mobile home parks are routinely inspected every seven years as part of Title 25, a set of state regulations designed to protect mobile home owners and allow for enforcement measures.
“[Crestview] was due for an inspection. I gave the managers a 30 day notice, as well as booklets to be given to the residents in order to prepare them for my visit,” said Ortega.
The mobile home park owners were also given an operating booklet, which explained what was not permissible or permissible in regards to room additions, laundry facilities and storage areas.
Upon inspection, Ortega found several mobile homes in violation of various sections of the California Health and Safety Code and California Code Regulations.
“Some of the violations to code included storage sheds with improper electrical wiring, an accumulation of combustible materials, central air conditioning units without permits, and washers and dryers outside of the mobile home,” said Ortega.
Upon serving the notices of violation, Ortega gave the mobile home park tenants 90 days to obtain the various permits needed and dispose of any un-permitted items.
“I gave them a month longer than the typical 60 days,” said Ortega. “The tenants have until January 5, 2010, to correct the violations. If they do not comply, the mobile home owners will have to take responsibility.”
For those who wish to comply, there are extensions beyond the 90 days available if it is apparent that progress is being made on compliance, said Ortega.
However, a portion of the Crestview community believes that the violations they were written up for were not only unfair, but also that the fines were too expensive to allow for compliance from the monetarily limited group.
Bonnie Wright, who has lived in Crestview since April 2000, is particularly concerned with what the county requires.
As a former mobile home park manager for a park in Encinitas for 14 years, Wright is familiar with what a mobile home park inspection should include.
“[The inspector] would make sure handrails were secured, and things like that,” said Wright. “Anything else [such as older air conditioning units, sheds and laundry appliances] that had been installed before was grandfathered.”
Wright said no such discretion was offered by Ortega’s inspection.
“This guy came in like Rambo,” said Wright, who said Ortega wrote her up for small items, such as having an extension cord lying alongside her property to use for Christmas lights.
“He asked me to unplug it and remove it from my property,” she said. “I didn’t even have it plugged in at the time.”
Crestview’s residents were also informed that if any of their functioning home appliances, such as an older water heater, were to go out, it carried requirements.
“One neighbor was told that if their water heater were to go out, they’d need a permit to install a new one,” said Wright.
Community members called the California Department of Housing and Development (HCD) Riverside office, hoping to find a reason as to why they were being written up.
“When we asked HCD about it, they knew nothing,” said Wright.
Upon further investigation, residents discovered that Ortega was an environmental health specialist with the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health.
According to one HCD investigator, who asked not to be identified, local jurisdiction can elect to be in charge of the mobile home park inspection in their area. In Fallbrook’s case, since it is an unincorporated part of San Diego, the county can levy its own fees for violations found in a mobile home park.
“It always starts at the local level,” said the investigator. “Every county has its own way of assuming jurisdiction. If they do not, then the HCD takes over.”
Crestview’s residents also questioned why they were being cited for appliances that had been grandfathered in previous inspections.
Gerald Smith, another Crestview resident, was cited for his washer and dryer that were set up inside a shed on his property.
“[Ortega] stood outside of the shed where the washer and dryer were kept, never went inside, but said that I had them improperly wired. How would he know if he hadn’t gone in?” he asked. “I was also asked to remove and disconnect my washer and dryer. Don’t I have the right to store them in my own shed?”
According to the HCD investigator, Title 25 is supposed to provide guidelines for what are deemed violations in mobile home residences.
“An investigator may find an appliance without proper permits that has been working in the home for over a year, without creating a hazard, and allow it to be grandfathered,” explained the investigator.
HCD district representative Franklin Oliva offers more insight on what may have happened at Crestview.
“There is nothing official in Title 25 that permits for violations to be grandfathered,” said Oliva. “An inspector can ask himself, ‘Is this appliance over a year old and functioning without a problem?’ If it is, it is the investigator’s personal discretion if the appliance is grandfathered.”
“Just because something was grandfathered for a year doesn’t mean that it won’t be a violation,” continued Oliva. “The government doesn’t leave itself exposed in that manner.”
Ortega confirmed that during his training, he was told that Title 25 does not have a grandfather clause.
“During [inspections] training by the state, we are specifically told there is no such clause,” he said.
“There’s something wrong with this,” said Wright. “The county needed money, and they seem to have found their way to get it. If we each have at least one violation, the county stands to make a cool $20,000 from us. My question is why is this all happening now? Why didn’t this happen when the original mobile home owners made the changes with the homes?”
According to Ortega, Crestview was last inspected by the county in 1998. Ortega, the only inspector for some 160 mobile home parks in the county, also said he was unaware if any previous inspectors had found violations in the park before.
“It is common for people to buy a mobile home and not have all the work that was done disclosed,” said Ortega. “People literally buy problems when they think their air conditioning unit or enclosed patio is fine, but then find out that they are not permitted. This is why mobile home park owners must take responsibility and make sure that they inform tenants on how a mobile home park should operate.”
Title 25 was created to provide construction guidelines on what is permitted in mobile homes, explained Ortega.
“For example, washers and dryers were made to be inside homes,” said Ortega. “Outside outlets do not have sufficient energy to handle those appliances. There is exposed wire and the machines have no grounding when in bad weather. People can be electrocuted. We are here to prevent that; this is the purpose for enforcement.”
In order for Crestview residents to not have electrical violations, such as those involving air conditioners, a $196 permit would be required from the county, along with a properly installed electrical box for the appliance. For an addition constructed on the trailer, a permit is required from the state, costing $196, and a county construction permit must be obtained. The cost of the county permit depends on the square footage of the addition. If the addition is freestanding, only a county construction permit is required.
Mertis Donath, a Crestview resident of 10 years, was only cited for an outside light on her property.
“Before my husband died three and a half years ago, he installed a light in the back yard for me to use when I let the dog out. It’s simply plugged into a socket on the outside, but I was written up on it,” said Donath, one of the residents who says she refuses to do comply with the county’s requests. “It’s pretty sad that they are taking advantage of those who might be intimidated easily.”
For one Crestview resident, refusal to comply with the county’s demands is not solely a choice, but a forced hand.
In 2007, Michal Taylor lost her mobile home in Live Oak Mobile Park to the 2007 Witch Creek fire, and had to find a home for herself and her husband, who was suffering from renal disease. Taylor herself was recovering from a stroke, so moving around was difficult for both of them.
“He lost $10,000 worth of railroads he had been collecting since he was a boy, and I lost heirlooms given to me by my grandmother and great-grandmother,” she said.
Taylor moved out of a 32-foot travel trailer and into her Crestview home after the Department of Health informed her that she and her husband would not be able to move back into Live Oak because of the toxic atmosphere.
“Coming here was our best option,” said Taylor.
Shortly after moving in, Taylor’s husband, who was already going through dialysis, underwent major heart surgery, and contracted MRSA, an aggressive, antibiotic-resistant infection, in his chest.
“He was never well after that,” said Taylor, whose husband died last spring.
The medical procedures left Taylor without a savings. Upon receiving a notice from the county saying her air conditioner, which was installed by the San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sempra Energy program this past summer, was in violation of Title 25, Taylor was furious.
“I had measured all of my handrails and steps,” said Taylor. “I thought I was fine.”
Taylor called the HCD and County Supervisor Bill Horn’s office, trying to find help against what she believed to be a gross injustice to herself and the rest of the community, but found that everyone believed Ortega was “simply doing his job.”
“This has gotten out of hand, and I didn’t know what to do. I have only heard of one home that didn’t get written up, but we think it’s because he was forgotten. If we don’t comply, we face a misdemeanor, plus a $300 to $400 fine and a prison term for up to 30 days. The county is trying to extort money from us, but I am not going to pay attention,” said Taylor. “[The HCD] representative said they cannot prove if residents have anything permitted or not. The county is overstepping their authority. ”
At first, Taylor was afraid to raise her voice for fear of further penalties, but is now willing to protect herself in court if the county continues to press the issue.
“I live on a very limited income, and have no extra money. I don’t drive my car so I don’t have to pay gas, get my produce at the senior center, and get my groceries through a food program. This is all I have,” said Taylor. “I’m not planning on going anywhere. Let the county take the steps it needs to take, but this is a gross injustice.”
Taylor hopes that her story can raise awareness of the problem faced in her community.
“I’m young enough that I can help others who are upset when they hear the word ‘violation,’ said Taylor. “To give that notice to someone who has lived a law-abiding, God-driven life, it’s criminal.”
Even under all of the stress, Taylor has found a silver lining to this dilemma.
“At least this is a good distraction,” she remarked.