Mobile Home - Photo courtesy of Roger Starnes on Unsplash

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday directed the Riverside County Executive Office and other agencies to accelerate efforts to coordinate the relocation of residents of a dilapidated mobile home park in Thermal, as well as continue coordinating relief operations at the 60-acre site, which has been a fixture of controversy for years.

“This is all very real,” said Supervisor Manuel Perez, whose Fourth District encompasses the Oasis Mobile Home Park. “I felt the frustration of residents. People want results now.”

Perez said he attended a community meeting last week involving 200 of the nearly 1,000 people who reside at the facility, which is located on a segment of the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe’s reservation, specifically along the 88-700 block of Avenue 70.

“They received a public notice on July 1 from the park owner saying not to use Oasis water for any purpose,” the supervisor said. “They have to use alternative water from a nearby market. It’s providing one gallon of water per person per day. There are immediate needs.”

Oasis has been cited multiple times by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for high levels of arsenic in water supplies. The park has also contended with trash overflows and infrastructure deficiencies that have raised health and safety concerns.

Perez said the latest water crisis underscores the level of difficulty facing inhabitants.

Last week’s community meeting prompted him to request assistance from the county Emergency Management Department, and EMD Director Bruce Barton told the board that county agencies, as well as several non-profits, swung into action in response.

“Starting Wednesday, the county will be taking over water supply needs, delivering water,” Barton said. “Over the next three weeks, we’ll be evaluating whatever is needed. We thank the non-governmental organizations. They enabled us to quickly mobilize to your call.”

In 2019 and 2020, the county also trucked water to the park for months after the EPA declared contamination emergencies stemming from the arsenic samplings. The operations cost tens of thousands of dollars to maintain.

“This is infuriating and frustrating,” Supervisor Karen Spiegel said. “When it comes to health and safety, it doesn’t matter where someone is. Something has to be done.”

Last year, the state allocated $30 million to cover relocation expenses. Another $6.25 million in federal grants was made available, as well as almost $8 million in state Project Homekey funding.

According to the county Housing Authority, in the last year, 40 families have been relocated from the park to other facilities, primarily the Mountain View Estates Mobile Home Park in Thermal.

Officials said 830 affordable housing units will be coming available in the eastern county area over the next four years, potentially solving the placement problem. However, Perez noted that “even when we work hard to relocate folks, a week or two weeks later, somebody else moves into the park.”

Former Chief County Counsel Greg Priamos last year called the conundrum a never-ending “merry-go-round,” leaving the county with few choices because of jurisdictional complications, as tribal land is regulated by the federal government.

The park owners are charging $600 to rent individual mobile homes, plus utilities, officials said. Most of the residents are agricultural workers and their families. It’s unknown how many are undocumented immigrants.

“My thought is, we need to litigate this,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said. “But it’s tribal land, and we have little to no jurisdiction. Yet we are expected to solve this. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Perez said it has reached a point of the county needing “to put pressure on the feds” to find a workable solution to prevent the re-leasing of vacated residences at the park, where 238 units are occupied or available.

County CEO Jeff Van Wagenen told the board that Office of County Counsel attorneys and other staff are “having conversations internally” about how to proceed with possibly obtaining injunctions or resorting to other measures to reach a resolution.

The park has no state or federal business permits, although the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has reportedly attempted to enforce some authority over its operation in the last decade or so, without success.

The park bears similarities to the Desert Mobile Home Park, better known as “Duroville,” that was also on Torres-Martinez land.

That facility, which was at the time rife with electrical and water deficiencies, was the subject of federal civil action that concluded in 2009 and culminated in the park going into receivership, out of tribal control. Four years later, it was permanently shut down.

The BIA did obtain an injunction to prohibit new tenancy at Duroville.

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