Slumlord Sweepstakes!

Is Eve Mitchell the countys most successful tenement entrepreneur?

That question is not being answered by the property owner; phone calls to Mitchell and her attorney went unreturned. A visit to the ranch house, sitting on its hill above the arroyo, proved fruitless as well. Eight months ago, Mitchell transferred one-sixth shares in the property to each of her three children, Steve U. Parker, Mark U. Parker and Linda Laval. Mitchell has reportedly moved to Long Beach; Steve Parker now lives on the ranch with his family. He was visibly nervous when he was approached by a reporter; he said his lawyers had told him to say nothing that might upset county officials and declined any other comment.

Nor are county officials anywhere close to answering the question. In the past year, county planning director Tom Mathews has been more aggressive in following up code violations in response to directives from the board of supervisors last year. But that effort, at least in Trabuco Canyon, has been primarily directed at illegal grading. Mathews said he wouldn't discuss any specifics of the situation, but did say, "There were just so many code violations—fire, building, land use, everything—and that's all been communicated to the landowner."

And what about the fact that the shantytown dates back to at least 1976? "I just don't know what happened," he said.

Assistant District Attorney Byron Nelson, who is in charge of the investigation, was also unwilling to speak. The property "has violations of many codes," he said. "There are below-standard conditions and very substantial problems about environmental issues, particularly polluting the creek."

He said he's focusing on the current situation and didn't want to get into what might "or might not" have happened 10 years ago. "They [the property owners] have a unique property—environmentally sensitive," said Nelson. "And they're not going to realize any value from it until they clean up the mess."

Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose district includes Trabuco Canyon and who has vociferously urged the planning department to crack down on code violations, was more outspoken. "She [Mitchell] has no business doing that, collecting revenue for unsanitary conditions," he said. "It's nothing more than outrageous. She has been exploitive."

Spitzer could offer no specific explanation for the county's 11-year delay in following up on conditions at the ranch, but he said that under previous district attorneys, code enforcement just wasn't a priority. The county has taken steps to deal with the consequences of evictions from the Mitchell Ranch, calling together officials from various county departments and non-profit social-services agencies to provide residents with assistance in finding new places to live.

"We've tried to organize a collaborative effort to get help to these people," said Karen Roper, who works in the county CEO's office coordinating programs for the homeless. "We've been out there five times talking with the residents, and we've put together a brochure explaining where they can go for help. We're hoping to provide some funds for moving."

One of the agencies involved is Catholic Charities. "We're working with several families to help them relocate," said Lupe Savastano, the group's outreach director. "We're hoping to be able to help with a portion of the rent, but a lot of these people are going to need everything—furniture, clothing, help with utilities. We talked with one family who had been there for seven years. Their whole life is being uprooted."

If you were to go to the Mitchell Ranch and visit this community that will cease to exist in less than a month, here are some of the things you might see: nailed to a tree is a hand-painted, crudely lettered sign saying, "Slow, Children at Play." A plastic basketball net is tied to a telephone pole. A pile of children's toys—little plastic action figures—are scattered beneath a tree. A woman sweeps out her home, the crudest of crude shelters, a battered camper shell fleshed out with pieces of plywood. A man sits on a log, feeding tidbits to a skinny German shepherd; in front of him, a pot of something boils over an open fire. Two teenage boys lean against the gutted, tireless hulk of a car, listening to ranchero music over a boombox. A group of younger children run through the brush, playing tag. A baby cries somewhere.

If you were to visit, you might stop a moment and talk with Jose Torres, who is 50 and has lived here for a year. He would tell you that, like most of the others, he heard of this place by word of mouth. He would point out his trailer, sheltered by several shrubs. (Next door is a shack around which grows a profusion of fruit trees and red roses.) He would tell you that he pays $135 per month in cash for the ground on which to park it. He would tell you that everyone who lives here works. The jobs are mostly menial—gardener, laborer, road crew—and don't pay much, but they are jobs. He would tell you that the parents are careful to make sure their children get to school.

And what of having to leave? He would shrug and say that the people here are concerned but that they have read the fliers and talked with the county people who showed up and so they will do what they have to do. He would tell you that some are concerned that la Migra might show up. He would toss his head toward the big house on the top of the hill and tell you that he—and most of his friends, as far as he knows—have heard nothing from the property owner.

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