The Fire Next Time…Will We Be Safer?

Mobile home owners' safety concerns were ignored for years

From Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on down to the local level in Los Angeles, officials are wringing their hands and promising to rebuild the devastated Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar to higher safety standards to prevent another tragedy.

But the truth is they have ignored these same safety concerns for years even as advocates have warned of the dangers and pleaded unsuccessfully for tougher legislation to protect owners of manufactured homes from predatory practices of park owners and developers.

Glenn Bell, a resident of the Blue Star Mobile Home Lodge whose home was damaged in last month's fires, has organized a group called Neighborhood Friends and has written, testified and fought for owners of manufactured homes for years.

 "The system treats us as second class citizens," he said in a recent interview. "We don't have the same rights as other home owners. Safety issues are ignored. These are affordable homes but people are being evicted and left at the mercy of park owners and developers who contribute to the politicians and get what they want."

Questions about the safety of mobile homes and mobile home parks have arisen with the devastation at Oakridge where 500 homes were destroyed this weekend and at Blue Star and Sky View Terrace where more than 40 homes were burned in last month's fires in the North San Fernando Valley.

Much of the emphasis has been on manufacturing standards, but Bell argues that many homes are built with fire resistant materials and are safe. The problem is many mobile homes are old and that "a homeowner cannot by law secure a space in a manufactured housing community, then go to a dealer and buy a home of their choosing" so operators increase their profits by installing homes that are made with less safe materials.

LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky also has raised the issue of building codes and other safety measures in a motion that requires fire officials to "review water flow,  fuel modification and brush clearance requirements" and recommend how on "how these codes can be strengthened or better enforced in the interest of safety in these communities."

Those are long-standing complaints among the mobile home community.

Bell notes low water pressure was a major problem at Oakridge and Sky View Terrace and a locked emergency gate at Blue Star kept residents stuck in harm's way for more than 90 minutes.

He is skeptical that much will change once the smoke from the current fires dissipates, pointing to the Los Angeles City Council's unanimous approval of a far-reaching motion two years ago to study unsafe conditions, overbilling for electricity, poor planning and legal issues that disadvantage mobile home owners.

Several city departments were involved in the studies and a survey found 30 percent of mobile home owners reported they had been victims of unfair business practices.

But no action was taken to change laws or enforcement practices.


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