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Judge refuses to shut down Calif. housing camp

A migrant encampment on tribal land with dangerous living conditions is ordered to stay open by a federal judge even though its owner said he wouldn't be able to pay for repairs.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A migrant encampment on tribal land with dangerous living conditions was ordered to stay open by a federal judge Thursday even though its owner said he wouldn't be able to pay for repairs.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson ruled that Desert Mobile Home Park will remain open until alternative housing can be built. He appointed a court receiver to manage the park for two years and oversee repairs to shabby electrical, water and sewage systems.

Prosecutors said conditions at the rural Riverside County encampment, known as Duroville, are so poor that the only solution is to close it, even though up to 4,000 residents would be displaced.

"We now have over 250 mobile homes (there), and even though the court has acted to clean up some of the worst conditions, we still have multiple and serious health and safety concerns," Assistant U.S. Attorney Leon Weidman said.

Backed up sewage, feral dogs
Weidman said leaking propane tanks, backed up sewage, standing wastewater in the streets and 800 feral dogs make the park an unacceptable health and safety hazard.

The park is owned by Harvey Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, and is not subject to local and state health and safety codes because it is on tribal land. Duro never obtained a lease permit from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Duro's attorney, Scott Zundel, said his client saw no way to fix conditions that have spiraled out of his control and urged the judge to shut down the park. He said it would take up to $6 million to fix the park and that there was $400,000 in unpaid rent and more than $400,000 in unpaid bills.

Zundel said his client "does not believe that the park generates sufficient income to make those necessary repairs."

Families could become homeless
Chandra Gehri Spencer, an attorney for the 270 families living at Duroville, said the several thousand residents there would become homeless overnight or be forced to move dozens of miles away from their agricultural jobs.

"As farmworkers, they provide the food that goes on our tables and they have no other place to go, they have no other viable option," Spencer said. "You can't red-tag a village, you can't red-tag a town."

The court said at least 2,000 people live in the park and advocates said the number can surge to 6,000 during peak harvest season. The workers harvest grapes, dates, chili peppers and other crops in Coachella Valley.

The judge has already spent more than a year trying to force improvements at the park without evicting its residents. He appointed two special masters and a temporary receiver in February 2008 to take over its management and make improvements.

Riverside County officials have said there are no other local, low-income housing options for the families. The county has suggested emergency housing through a disaster assistance program that could house 80 families and another emergency housing location in Ripley, about 100 miles away.