Nearly 80 current and former residents of a Ceres mobile home park want a Stanislaus County jury to award them millions of dollars for "slum-like conditions" at the park — from raw sewage bubbling up into bathtubs to exposed live electrical parts.
The homeowners are asking for $2 million for the loss in value, use and enjoyment of their mobile homes and overpayment in rent as well as punitive damages against their landlord, Colony Park Estates.
The two-month trial now under way in Stanislaus County Superior Court is expected to last through September.
Attorney Jim Allen, who represents the residents, said some people have walked away from their mobile homes or been forced into bankruptcy because they can't afford the $10,000 or more it costs to move.
"This is their chance to get out of this park," Allen said.
More than a dozen residents were in court Tuesday but said their attorneys had advised them not to comment on the case.
Among their complaints, according to the lawsuit:
A sewer system that has been failing for more than a decade, spilling raw sewage inside the mobile homes and on the streets. "There is a near-constant odor of sewage," the lawsuit reads.
An underpowered electrical system that keeps homeowners from running multiple appliances and causes brownouts. A state inspector noted exposed live electrical parts and other "unsafe and hazardous" electrical conditions.
The swimming pool is frequently closed or so dirty it can't be used. A Stanislaus County environmental inspector noted the pool was cloudy and green. On one occasion, feces was found in the water.
Mobile homes, now abandoned and "unfit for human habitation," have become a magnet for criminal activity and an eyesore for residents. Vacant spaces are full of dry weeds and litter, creating a fire hazard.
Rent called ulterior motive
Mobile home owners rent the spaces on which their homes sit. Attorneys for Colony Park Estates say the lawsuit is just another attempt by a group of residents to impose rent control measures on them.
"These people are doing anything they can to challenge the rent," attorney Craig Brunet said.
In 2006 and 2007, residents from Colony Park and other area mobile home facilities picketed and lobbied government officials to limit or roll back rent increases.
They failed with the Ceres City Council and in front of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors despite a consultant's study that showed newcomers at Colony Park pay $640 per month on average compared with $365 to $525 at other Ceres mobile home parks.
But the Modesto City Council in 2007 passed an ordinance that limited rent increases to 6 percent a year after some residents complained of rate increases of $250 over two years.
Modesto council members made it clear they were targeting Equity LifeStyle Properties, the Chicago landlord that owns Colony Park and Coralwood Mobile Home park in Modesto, a park for seniors.
An official with Equity LifeStyle, which has a long record of fighting rent control measures in court, told the Modesto council that rent control was "unconstitutional and a failed social policy."
Council members felt they had no other options to protect seniors living in Coralwood, they said at the time.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.