Richmond, VA - April 9, 2014
June Updates (see below)
I live in Rudd's Trailer Park on Jefferson Davis Highway in south Richmond. It has been a trailer park for over 50 years. Many of the older trailers here are not very nice, but the owners who live in them have made them livable. For reasons that aren't clear, the City of Richmond seems to be determined to shut this place down and displace the residents.
A large number of Hispanic people live here, many with young children. The children are beautiful and well-behaved. My experience is that they are friendly, polite and respectful. The parents often have trouble speaking English, but the children are fluent. There are a few African-Americans and a good number of older white people, many of whom are not in good health. None of these people are wealthy, but they do own their own trailer and perhaps a vehicle. Many of the vehicles are worth as much or more than the trailers.
Should the City close down Rudd's Trailer Park, there will be little notice given and because it can cost $2,000 or more to move a trailer, many people may have to abandon their trailers. In some cases, it might cost more to move the trailer than the trailer is worth - if a place can be found to move it to. Either way, this is quite a hardship to people who are already struggling to get by and may have health and family issues to deal with also.
The City contends that many of the trailers in the park have code violations, and this may be true. The City generally demands that code violations be dealt within 30 days. Sometimes extensions are granted, but this is up to the City's discretion. These code enforcement inspections have taken place before, but this time the City seems more determined to shut down the trailer park rather than promote public safety.
For example, some trailers don't have working furnaces or baseboard heating. The City insists there must be working heat in these trailers within 30 days - as if heat will be needed in May. Systems can cost hundreds of dollars, yet the City feels it can't extend this requirement. The City also claims that the electrical pedestals for each trailer, housing the Virginia Power meter, are all defective and must be replaced or repaired immediately, or else all power will be cut off. Yet, these electrical pedestals have never been a problem in past inspections and the meter readers for Virginia Power apparently haven't had any issues with them.
This time the code enforcement dragnet included what amounted to warrantless searches, with police present, of the trailers to inspect inside for various code violations. Apparently, no violation was too trivial to write up. A huge stack of letters went out to residents with copies going to the the manager of the trailer park. The residents, some of which are baffled by the entire process, and the manager of the park have been overwhelmed by the entire ordeal. City inspectors have even told residents that the park will be shut down, so they didn't have to comply or even pay rent.
The way the code enforcement inspections have been handled combined with the behavior of the City workers makes it impossible not to wonder what is behind all this. The City has increased the assessment of the land in recent years to twice what the property is worth, according to an actual appraisal made by an independent professional appraiser. When confronted with this appraisal, the City refused to budge on the assessment. There have also been claims that the trailer park is a high crime area, but I can attest that there is little crime here and what crime occurs is often committed by non-residents that come in and steal. Compared to RRHA public housing murder zones, the park is rather tranquil.
One thing is certain, the City of Richmond isn't concerned about the welfare of the residents of the park and they aren't acting in good faith. While the park may not please the anyone's sense of aesthetics, and there may indeed be some code violations or safety hazards. Threats of displacing dozens of families for failure to immediately install furnaces in May or install new electric pedestals that already seem to meet the approval of Virginia Power is a rather radical way to help the residents, which is what they initially claimed to be doing. Perhaps this about some kind of land grab. Maybe this is about racism against Hispanics. Maybe it's about overzealous bureaucrats. It sure doesn't seem to be about helping people that are struggling to get by in the first place.
UPDATE (June 2, 2014):
After the initial code enforcement inspection dragnet, there has been a lull in activity. The family that owns the land where Rudd's Trailer Park is located has had several unproductive meetings with the City of Richmond trying to get officials to be more specific with what exactly they have a problem with regarding the electrical pedestals/meters that the owner's are responsible for. These are the same pedestals that have passed City inspections in recent times when they have been reconnected to power lines after a disconnection and the same pedestals which the power company has raised no objections to. The City has been somewhat unresponsive as to what is to be required and what new requirements they may make after the owners spend between $30,000 and $100,000 to repair or replace these pedestals.
The City has sent dozens of code violation notices to the resident owners of the individual trailers regarding alleged violations. One of the violations cited in many of the letters is in regards to the requirement that trailers have a central heating system, as opposed to space heaters, even though permanently installed baseboard heating is acceptable. Initially, the City required this be rectified within 30 days (just in time for summer). Thanks to a church group and their attorney, the City has extended the time to comply to August or September, depending on who you talk to. However, code enforcement officials are still hassling some residents about installing heating systems and a new twist on the the central system thing has air conditioners targeted. Some residents have been instructed to remove air conditioners from their windows - nothing like living in a metal home on those hot and humid Richmond days coming up.
Another code violation popular with the City is citing trailer owners for having a porch for which the City claims it can find where no building permit was ever issued. Some residents were told they must demolish their porches, some have been told they needed to apply for a building permit and they wouldn't have to remove their porches. One person who tried to get a building permit for an existing porch was told they need to have a structural engineer to okay the porch. This can apparently cost hundreds of dollars. The real rub on the porch thing is that there was a code enforcement sweep at the trailer park about three years ago where old permits were examined and the City did not require the destruction of these very same porches they are complaining about now. Three years ago some unsafe porches were torn down, virtually all "additional rooms" (enclosed porches) were removed, and there was an understanding that some of the porches that violated modern setback requirements (proximity to other trailers) did not violate the requirements when built. Suddenly, what was not a problem before has become a problem, according to the benevolent code enforcers that have come to create a little utopia at Rudd's Trailer Park.
Meanwhile, the family that owns the land has tried to deal with the City and it appears to me that the City is not dealing in good faith. A rather well-connected attorney has talked with some City officials about the matter and a family friend who is a commercial real estate broker with experience in these municipal matters is acting as a negotiator trying to establish an agreement with the City. These actions have served to cause the City to temporarily delay things, but have not really changed anything. The City bureaucrats have acted with a great deal of hostility since the beginning and they may view themselves as engaged in a war on crime. In this city and others, it is no secret that their so-called "broken window" theory has led to the criminalization of poverty. The City cited the "broken window" theory at a meeting I personally sat in on regarding the code enforcement dragnet on Rudd's Trailer Park several years ago.
There have been new reports of code enforcement officials telling some residents that the trailer park is to be shut down, although the City has not officially said anything of the sort to the owners - one way or the other. There is also an issue of selective enforcement. Two nearby trailer parks with numerous code violation visible from the street are not being harassed. One of the parks directly across the street from Rudd's Trailer Park is being assessed for land value at a significantly lower amount for tax purposes. Both of the other trailer parks have few, if any, Hispanics. So far, none of the mainstream news organizations in the City has found this ongoing project of the City to displace dozens of families a compelling news story worthy of asking any embarrassing questions of Richmond's political leadership. This may be destined to be one of those stories everyone is simply outraged about after bureaucrats cause dozens of poor families great economic hardship and cause some older people in poor health to suffer, losing their only asset - an old trailer they call home.
UPDATE (June 21, 2014):
This afternoon, dozens of irate Spanish-speaking residents and former residents of Rudd's Trailer Park gathered in front of the Office Trailer to express their anger at the manager and part owner of the park. An interpreter said that some of the owners of trailers that have been condemned blame the owners of the park, apparently having been told by City of Richmond employees that the park owners were responsible for the code enforcement inspections. These trailer owners do not seem to understand that the maintenance of their trailers is their own responsibility and they don't seem to understand that the condemnations can be lifted if they remedy or appeal whatever code violations they have been cited for, trivial or serious, in letters issued by the City.
However, there have been more reports that City employees have told residents not to bother fixing their trailers and not to pay their rent as the park is to be shutdown. Through the interpreter, the owner/manager tried to explain what he is doing to work with the City, but the interpreter seemed to believe most of the persons present did not understand the situation. It is hard to know whether it is the duplicity and misinformation from the City of Richmond or cultural/language issues that has pitted the trailer owners against the trailer park owners. The lack of understanding on the part of the Hispanic residents has prevented them from being able to effectively deal with the City of Richmond's code enforcement procedures (possibly structured on the work of Kafka). It is unfortunate that those caught up in this selective code enforcement fisaco cannot come together as their interests are the same. From my perspective, it is rather obvious that this situation has been caused by City employees verbally telling residents outright lies that don't even conform with the written directives issued by the City.
Several families, including children, have been forced to leave their homes due to their trailers being condmened by the City. It is not known whether they are aware that the condemnations can be lifted or whether they feel the cost of repairs or compliance is too high to justify. They may simply be unable to afford whatever work the City requires. It is also unknown whether they will just abandon their trailer or pay as much as $2,000 to have it moved to another location. In all likelihood, they probably can't afford to do whatever the City wants done and they are unaware of how to go about contesting the condemnation if they believe the City is wrong. It is quite possible they are now homeless, having abandoned their trailer and whatever belongings they were unable to take with them. Meanwhile, there are old public school buildings in disrepair that would probably not pass rigid code enforcement inspections similar to what Rudd's Trailer Park has had to undergo and instead of using scarce taxpayer funds to repair those school buildings, the City spends thousands of dollars on harrassing the low-income residents of a trailer park.
UPDATE (June 29, 2014):
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on City of Richmond vs. Rudd's Trailer Park: HERE
A Rudd's Trailer Park Facebook page has been created: HERE
Mo Karnage writes about Rudd's and Code Enforcement: HERE
UPDATE (July 13, 2014):
Residents at trailer park worry about future (editorial): HERE
See the people that the Code Enforcers for the City of Richmond want to make homeless: GALLERY
Rudd's Trailer Park - 1954
E-MAIL: Contact members of City Council and tell them to leave Rudd's Trailer Park alone: HERE
This article contributed by Tom Blanton of Richmond, Virginia.