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Balancing Act

In the aftermath of city code inspections, a community fractures on Jefferson Davis.

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The Mexicans, most of them from Guerrero, started moving into Rudd’s Trailer Park on Jefferson Davis Highway with the first wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants. A Central American or two slipped in, everyone settling among older white residents. It was as it always is with immigrant settlements: One relative, one friend, one acquaintance following another, a chain of optimism spanning 10 years and 2,000 miles.

Rudd’s was no paradise. At least 50 years old, worn-down dirt roads fronting 106 ancient trailers, sun-faded and weary. No matter. Newcomers plunked down three, four thousand dollars and started paying rent. They added porches, lay tile in the kitchens and composite flooring in the living rooms, and so claimed their stake in their new hometown.

The first comprehensive city code inspection was in 2012. It was prompted by fires at a few mobile home parks, including Rudd’s, says John Walsh, Richmond’s code enforcement operations manager. It was time, the city decided, for top-to-bottom inspections of all nine mobile home parks, now predominately Latino communities. It started with Rudd’s, Richmond’s largest.

For more than a decade, inspectors had been on Ronnie Soffee, part-owner and full-time park manager, for various violations. This time, inspectors hit the park with about 700 violations, including ones for outdated electrical systems and ungraded dirt roads. Inspectors told residents they needed to take down additions that threatened the structural integrity of the old trailers and to repair long-broken heating systems.

The city has condemned about 20 trailers, most of them after families decided to move out in the wake of the inspections, Walsh says. The abandoned trailers have been vandalized and “a community has been broken,” says Mary Wickham, the executive director of the Sacred Heart Center, part of a coalition seeking to help park residents.

“It’s depressing,” says a five-year park resident who asked to remain anonymous. “People are real scared. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything we put into our trailers, it doesn’t matter. They are going to close this park.”

City inspectors plan to return to Rudd’s in mid-October. There’s no telling what Soffee will do with the property, Wickham tells residents at a meeting last week, but it’s probably wise to begin preparations to move.

“No queremos dar falsas esperanzas,” says Phil Storey, an lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center. We don’t want to give false hope.

Soffee says he has a potential buyer and it’s a matter of meeting the city’s “outrageous” demands for improvement, most of which he’s completed. He says he’s collecting $430 in monthly rent from only 66 trailers, soon will owe the city $72,000 in back taxes, and is broke because he is “the world’s worst businessman.”

“The city just wants all the trailer parks gone,” Soffee says. “They are coming down like Godzilla on Tokyo.”

Not so, Walsh says. Balancing health and safety concerns without harming the integrity of the community is a challenge, he says, “but it was never our intention to displace large numbers of people.” The city has issued no more condemnations at Rudd’s since last summer, he notes, and it brought in the Fire Department to teach residents how to use smoke detectors and space heaters.

“Our intention from the very beginning has been a simple life-safety directive,” Walsh says.

The health and safety of residents should be paramount, Wickham and other coalition members agree, but so too should be maintaining affordable housing for low-income workers in a city trying to keep more people from falling into poverty.

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