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This RV Park Is The Last Resort For Families On The Edge, But Eviction Looms

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Rick and Melissa Long could not find an affordable rental house for their family after their Sylmar rental house became too expensive. They live with their two children in an aging travel trailer at the Cali Lake RV Resort north of Santa Clarita. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)
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Stewart Silver thought he and his partners were buying a vacation campground 18 months ago when they acquired a property north of Santa Clarita.

Instead, he ended up running a long-term residential park for RV occupants, now called Cali Lake RV Resort, because he just couldn't say no.

Silver says he couldn't turn away people living in RVs on the edge of homelessness, like the woman who had been caring for her newborn baby in a Winnebago parked under a highway overpass in the heat of summer.

And there was the retired, disabled studio construction hand who'd been priced out of his house and apartment and was roving the streets in his RV in search of a safe, legal place to park.

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But when Silver doubled capacity to take in more RV families who couldn't afford to go anywhere else, he ran afoul of L.A. County planners, water safety inspectors and state housing officials who said the park posed a risk to its residents' health and safety.

For a few tense weeks in late summer and early fall, it looked like Silver might have to evict some residents. That order has now been put on the back burner, but the risk of evictions could still crop up due to county limits on RV park residency.

'IT'S A COMMUNITY'

Built in 1968, Cali Lake RV Resort used to be called White Rock Lake RV Park. It's located on a wide flat spot in Soledad Canyon, within the floodplain of the usually dry Santa Clara River. The Metrolink train passes noisily by several times a day on its runs between the Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita.

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Google Earth satellite photo of Cali Lake RV Resort on Soledad Canyon Road. It's about 6 miles north of the 114 Freeway, north of Santa Clarita. (Google Earth screenshot)
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Silver said when he and his partners bought the RV park, they intended to fix it up to be a vacation campground for brief stays of a few days to maybe a season.

What they got was very different.

The park is full of low-income, long-term residents. Some work, commuting down the 14 Freeway to jobs in Santa Clarita and beyond. Others are disabled, some of them reliant on wheelchairs for mobility.

"Everybody here is a permanent resident. If they leave here there's nowhere for them to go," Silver said.

One man has lived in his fifth-wheel RV in the park for more than 20 years, office manager Serena French said. Others have been there for three or more years.

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"It's a community," Silver said. "I realized that after we purchased it and we pretty much couldn't say no to people that are in need."

And every day, the rental office would get more calls from people desperate for a legal, safe place to park their aging mobile homes, he said.

"We pretty much couldn't say no to people that are in need and would have to sleep on the streets," Silver said.

To accommodate newcomers, his contractors graded more than 50 new RV parking spaces and wired in power lines. They trenched sewer drains to the septic tank and extended the water lines from the well.

FAULTY WIRING AND CONTAMINATED WATER

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Silver more than doubled the park's 47-lot capacity to more than 100 spaces. The expansion was carried out without permission from the L.A. County Regional Planning Department.

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Some of the newly added RV spaces that faced an eviction threat at the Cali Lake RV Resort north of Santa Clarita (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

When Silver went to renew the park's permit (it's due to expire in 2020), county planners said they would not consider the permit until all the newly added spaces were returned to their original condition and the new tenants were evicted.

In August, the state Department of Housing and Community Development issued violations for failed inspections, including problems with the electrical wiring, according to inspection documents.

The L.A. County Public Health Department issued its own violation for water system contamination back in March. The water had too much manganese, a mineral that turns water brown and can damage the nervous system if it's ingested in high quantities.

Some of the residents contacted County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, pleading with her to let them stay. She interceded with county and state officials earlier this month, which secured Silver additional time to bring the park up to code without displacing anyone.

Barger declined to be interviewed, but her spokesman Tony Bell said the residents would be permitted to stay while the park's repairs were going on.

Silver brought in contractors earlier this month to work on the electrical connections. He was also working with a contractor to deal with the manganese contamination.

Silver said he would comply with all the fix-it orders, anything to keep from having to evict his tenants. And he has submitted an application for a new conditional use permit for the expanded park.

State and county officials were scheduled to meet with residents at the park Wednesday evening to hear more about the problems and the likelihood they might stay while the place is brought up to code.

If Cali Lake's residents are forced out, they would join the ranks of some 8,000 people living in roughly 5,000 campers and RVs already parked on the streets of L.A. County, according to the county's most recent homeless count. It's a life that requires moving every so often to stay ahead of police and tow trucks.

While Silver is creating vitally needed RV parking in a county desperately in need of affordable places to live, he's also in business. If he rented all 56 additional spaces at the full-hookup rate of $825 a month, his revenue would increase by about $46,000 a month.

Silver operates another RV residency lot in Wilmington on an industrial property that was converted from a truck rental parking lot. He charges the same $825 monthly rent to park on a slab of asphalt, offering what his website says are full hookups and access to laundry and Wi-Fi.

ANOTHER THREAT: THE 90-DAY RULE

Besides the health and safety issues, there's another threat hanging over at least some of Cali Lake's residents.

The county code permitting this and other RV parks to do business limits visitor stays to a total of 90 days over a six-month period. It's different from a mobile home park, where long-term residency is permitted.

It's unclear how many RV parks in Los Angeles County are overlooking the 90-day rule.

Cali Lake has a state permit for about half its 47 current official spaces to accommodate mobile homes; the rest are for RVs, so any resident of an RV space who has stayed longer than 90 days could be subject to eviction.

It might be necessary to change state law to make it easier for more people to live long-term in RV parks, said State Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D-Santa Clarita), whose district includes the resort. She said the housing and homelessness crises have created a "new normal."

Smith acknowledged any such change would be challenging. She pointed out the need for "complete infrastructure when it comes to energy and sanitation, so it would be a pretty sizable consideration if the state were to undertake ... anything outside of what's already provided in our state parks for temporary camping and lodging."

'WE WERE STUCK UNDER AN OVERPASS'

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Lacey Borland had been caring for her newborn girl, Journey, in an RV parked under a highway overpass before she found a safer place to park at the Cali Lake RV Resort. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

The eviction scare reminded resident Lacey Borland of how precarious her housing situation is in a region with sky-high rents.

She told her story sitting outside the rental office of the Cali Lake RV Resort, cuddling her 5-week-old sleeping baby girl, Journey.

Lacey and her husband came to California from Idaho for a job, one that didn't pay enough to rent an apartment near his work in Ventura. But they could afford an aging RV.

"A 1998 newly remodeled Minnie Winnie," Borland said. They soon discovered their plan to find space for the Winnebago at an affordable RV park was unrealistic.

"They don't take older RVs," Borland said. "I don't know if it's just because of the transient population? Some people have the really older ones that have the garbage and things laying around it. Maybe has the stigma," she said.

Many parks have rules limiting tenants' vehicles to those built in the past 10 years.

"So we were stuck under an overpass under a bridge for a few months" in Ventura County, Borland said.

That's where she brought Journey after she and her newborn were discharged from the hospital.

"It was so hot we couldn't afford to have our generator going," she said. "It was 100 degrees the day she was born."

After getting rejections from many parks, Borland found the Cali Lake RV Resort.

"They took me in. No questions asked," she said.

Borland's husband still commutes from the park to his job in Ventura, spending about $400 a month on gas. Some of her neighbors at Cali Lake have helped out by bringing groceries from the market six miles away. She considers them to be almost family.

Borland doesn't want to leave because she doesn't expect to find another affordable place to live.

'WE HAVE A LITTLE BIT OF BREATHING ROOM'

While the threat of eviction has been abated for the next few months, several residents said they're not confident they can remain in the park long-term. And they say if they're forced out, they have no other place to go.

"Leave us alone. We're not hurting anybody," said Bill "Bobcat" Clause. "Why try to put a hundred or couple hundred people out on the street?"

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Bill "Bobcat" Clause had been parking his 1992 RV on public streets, often staying just ahead of police and tow trucks, before he found a spot he could afford at the Cali Lake RV Resort north of Santa Clarita. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

Clause, retired and disabled and living on about $950 a month, is like many low-income Southern Californians. He was priced out of traditional houses and apartments. For a time he lived in his RV (purchased new back in '92 when he was working for local studios driving a skid steer Bobcat utility tractor) parked in his son's driveway. When his son sold that house, Clause parked on the street, where he felt vulnerable to break-ins and attacks as well as constant police orders to move along.

Clause said he felt lucky to find a newly constructed space for his rig at Cali Lake two months ago. His small pension and disability checks barely cover his $825 monthly rent plus the fee for an offsite storage locker.

If he's forced to leave the RV park, Clause said he has "no idea" where he would go.

"Nowhere where it would be allowable," he said.

He's not concerned that the park is in a floodplain that has a 1 percent chance each year of being overrun by the nearby Santa Clara River.

"We'll just drive away" if flooding threatens, Clause said.

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This image of a floodplain map shows the footprint of the Cali Lake RV Resort is within an area adjacent to the Santa Clara River that has a 1 percent chance of flooding each year.

The crackdown on the expanded spaces upset and frightened park resident Melissa Long.

"It's not fair that they're going to shut it down for a bunch of people," she said.

Cali Lake was the only affordable alternative she could find last June when Long, her husband Rick and two children needed a place to live. Rick Long says their former home in Sylmar was contaminated with mold, and the monthly rent had gone up to $2,500 plus power bills that ate up their incomes, leaving little for the kids.

Foreseeing they might be unable to find affordable replacement housing, Rick Long bought an old travel trailer and moved it to Cali Lake.

"It was a struggle for a while and now we have a little bit of breathing room so we can actually catch up," Rick Long said. "And that's what we're doing."