More than 100 years ago, writer Upton Sinclair described a devious trick played by Chicago businessmen against vulnerable immigrant workers in the city’s meatpacking district.
Shockingly, it’s relevant in Tucson today.
“Cheap as the houses were,” Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, “they were sold with the idea that the people who bought them would not be able to pay for them. When they failed — if it were only by a single month — they would lose the house and all that they had paid on it, and then the company would sell it over again.”
As my colleague Emily Bregel reported this week in her fine series on life in Tucson’s run-down trailers, a similar scheme is happening in Tucson to this day. Owners of some of the rundown trailer parks “sell” trailers — though the owner doesn’t actually have the title, in some cases — to new residents. Then they raise rents for the ground under the trailer, or otherwise make life impossible for the residents, who get behind on payments and are then evicted.
The park owner then retakes possession and resells the trailer.
Yvonne Moreno says she’s lived the experience, at Desert Breeze Mobile Home Park, 5344 S. Park Ave., just down the street from the Arizona Daily Star building. In 2011, Moreno told me Tuesday, she bought a trailer for $3,500 from the owner of the park, through manager Erik Jaramillo.
“After he had the money in his hand, he said, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s no title to the trailer,’ ” Moreno said.
I stopped by Jaramillo’s home-office at the park and called him, without hearing back. I also called and did not hear back from Jim Stagner, who owns Desert Breeze and several other Tucson parks through his company, Stagmo Investments LLC.
Moreno told me Jaramillo put a late fee of $120 on one month’s rent, and she paid it, but in the next month’s bill, she was billed that amount again plus another $115 or so. When she raised a stink, Moreno said, she was served with an eviction notice.
But Moreno has a sense of the few powers a poor person has, so she did not leave it at that. First she looked into moving the trailer but found she couldn’t because a telephone pole was in the way.
She finally moved out of her trailer but made sure to take every pipe and piece of metal with her, up to and including the walls.
“I scrapped it out completely,” Moreno said. “I tore it apart because I said, ‘I do not want him to be able to do this to another person.’ ”
Moreno also filed suit against Stagmo Investments in small-claims court. The case was elevated to Pima County Superior Court and is scheduled for trial on June 16. Because she can’t afford an attorney, she will represent herself in court.
Moreno has a series of complaints against Stagmo, going back to when she bought trailers in other parks, and is asking for damages in the “zillions.”
“I want all these parks taken away from him,” she said of Stagner. “I want the abuse to end.”
But her complaint is not just that of one disgruntled tenant.
Angel Torres, who no longer lives at Desert Breeze, told me he bought a trailer there, lived in it, then sold it to a woman in 2009. She did not make payment to Torres or rent payment to Desert Breeze.
After months passed with no payment, Torres was ready to write it off, but then he was sued in small-claims court by Jaramillo and Stagmo for the back-rent payments.
“To clear all that up, I ended up giving him the title,” Torres said.
A current resident, Antonia Campoy, worked with Yvonne Moreno and a group of tenants in 2012 to fight against what they consider random monthly charges and other abuses. Their effort failed.
“He charges us late charges all the time,” she said.
Campoy lives in her single-wide trailer with her daughter, who was recently broken up with her husband, and six grandchildren. Her daughter’s family hopes to find a new home soon.
“As soon as they leave, I’m taking off, and I’m going to give this to whoever wants it,” Campoy told me. “This is the worst place I’ve ever lived.”
Campoy and Moreno both told me they had contacted Southern Arizona Legal Aid and been denied help. But the office does sometimes take similar cases, Legal Aid attorney Beverly Parker told me.
“I’ve never seen it prosecuted,” she said.
The alternative, a civil suit, is also far-fetched, she said.
“No attorney will take a case like this, because you’re looking at $2,000 or $3,000. It’s not something a private attorney can afford to take on. This is an area of our populace that doesn’t have access to justice,” she said.
As the Star’s series made clear, there is a lack of regulations in this area. No regular inspections of mobile-home parks are required and no license is required for selling trailers, for example.
But that doesn’t mean the authorities have no tools. The city and county have codes they can enforce, if they choose. By my rough guess, inspectors in Desert Breeze would probably condemn a third of the trailers if they stopped by for a look.
And prosecutors have laws they can enforce, but they either don’t hear about the cases or choose not to bother.
Poor immigrants, exploitative landlords and indifferent authorities — not so different from Chicago’s “Packingtown” a century ago.