At Richmond mobile home park, an uneasy cleanup begins

A window of an empty mobile home at Rudd’s Trailer Park off Jefferson Davis Highway in South Richmond shows a condemnation notice from the city.

Life at Rudd’s Trailer Park is no picnic, but many people in the cluster of more than 100 mobile homes off Jefferson Davis Highway don’t understand why city building inspectors have taken such a strong interest in their neighborhood.

This year, Richmond has identified almost 740 code violations in the park and condemned at least eight mobile homes. Officials say Rudd’s is the first step in a larger enforcement push to clean up the city’s nine mobile home parks, all of which are in South Richmond.

The city government insists that building regulations apply to mobile home parks just like any other property, and the issues need to be addressed to ensure safe and sanitary living conditions.

City Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell, who said her 8th District is home to most of the city’s mobile home parks, suggested last week that a high volume of calls generating from Rudd’s was diverting police resources from other areas.

“We want those landlords to come into compliance like anybody else,” Trammell said during a briefing on mobile home parks at a meeting of the council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

“There is no trailer park, and there is no trailer park owner, that is going to get away from us this time around,” said John Walsh, the city’s code enforcement operations manager.

At Rudd’s Trailer Park, people say they’re dumbfounded by what they view as a bureaucratic crackdown on an impoverished, largely Hispanic community.

Ronnie Soffee, the park’s owner and manager, said he’s trying to comply with the city’s requests, but officials came in like “storm troopers.”

“This used to be the United States,” Soffee said. “It wasn’t against the law to be poor.”

“The only reason they’re trying to shut this place down is because they don’t like the look of it,” said Danny Newman, a longtime resident who flies a pirate flag from his mobile home. “Everybody in this trailer park gets along and looks out for each other.”

Soffee estimated that out of about 100 households in the park, 75 percent are Hispanic. For recent immigrants who don’t speak English, he said, the concept of needing government permission to build a deck or put up an awning is completely foreign, as is the process of trying to bring violations into compliance.

“The residents are just completely helpless,” Soffee said. “It’s just like when the Romans put sheepskins on little Christian kids and sent them out to the lions. They don’t have a prayer.”

Councilman Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District, asked if the code enforcement division was collaborating with Social Services to help families who need a place to live due to the condemnations.

“If a property is condemned, the occupant is given the information to go to DSS in the Southside Plaza to seek assistance,” said Mark Bridgman, a city building inspector.

“It’s a daunting task,” Hilbert said. “I want you to know that I appreciate that. But we have the social contract here that people will maintain their property so that it doesn’t affect their neighbor.”

Sitting in a recliner in the park office, Soffee pointed to a picture of his uncle O.W. Rudd, who he said bought the land in 1936. The mobile home park had taken shape by about 1960. Today, Soffee said, it looks pretty much like it did then.

The 9.2-acre property is assessed at almost $2.5 million, which Soffee thinks is much higher than what he could actually sell it for. In 2006, it was assessed at about $908,000.

He acknowledged that the park could use some work. If Sunnyvale, the fictional mobile home park from the cult TV series “Trailer Park Boys,” is a 10, he said, Rudd’s would be “a two or a three.”

One tenant has lived without electricity for about 15 years, Soffee said, but doesn’t seem to have any complaints.

On a recent summer morning, residents wandered in and out of the management trailer, chatted under a shade tree and shared beer just as noon arrived. Several worn-down mobile homes sat empty with orange condemnation stickers showing on windows and walls. The better-kept lots showed signs of life, such as a strip of wood saying “The queen is not accepting an audience today” and a camouflage-wearing teddy bear strapped to the grill of a pickup truck.

Soffee explained the high volume of 911 calls by saying many of his residents might not know when they should call 911 and when they shouldn’t. There haven’t been any recent slayings, he said.

“It’s kind of old-timey crime,” Soffee said. “People stealing lawnmowers” and stuff like that.

At Rudd’s, residents own their mobile homes but rent the lots for $430 per month. The mobile homes typically sell for $2,000 to $3,000, Soffee said.

The violation notices from the city, which started going out in late February and early March, involve both the individual mobile homes, where responsibility falls to the owner-occupants, and the park infrastructure, where the responsibility is Soffee’s. On April 4, the city sent Soffee a violation notice saying that the sewer system, roads and driveways, water supply and electrical systems were not being properly maintained.

For the individual mobile homes, the problems identified by the city include unsafe electrical systems, broken or nonexistent heating systems, unsafe structural conditions due to mobile home alterations and improperly built decks and porches.

“Overlooking these compliance issues jeopardizes the safety and well-being of residents and first responders,” said Michael Wallace, a city spokesman. “As with any code enforcement property issue, the city will work with property owners to remediate any violations which they are responsible for.”

Bridgman said that, for some of the mobile homes, spending a large sum of money on repairs was not a “realistic option.”

“My personal opinion is it wouldn’t be a good business venture to try to refurbish one of those trailers for rental property or a sale,” Bridgman said.

Officials said it’s too early to say how the conditions at Rudd’s compare with other mobile home parks because the city hasn’t gone into the other parks yet. Moving methodically through all nine parks, officials said, might take up to two years.

Soffee said that instead of “putting people out,” the city should be focusing on how it can help them fix the mobile homes, which he suggested could be done for a few thousand dollars per unit.

Soffee said he knows that Rudd’s is no Windsor Farms. He said his tenants might be poor, but they’re happy. They have air conditioning, he said, and cable.

“They can’t imagine why people won’t leave them alone,” Soffee said. “They’re flabbergasted.“

gmoomaw@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6839 Twitter: @gmoomaw

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