When I read that a man died in a vacant-trailer fire on South Park Avenue, I thought I knew the story.
“Desert Breeze” came immediately to mind. It’s a mobile-home park — a parqueadero, as most of the residents say — that I reported on in May 2014 because of the financial tricks played on residents and the decrepit condition of the place.
Of course a person would die in a fire there. And of course the body was found in a vacant mobile home — most in that park are. A likely scenario: He was homeless, maybe an addict, and broke in for some shelter, then set a fire for warmth.
That may be what happened, but the situation at the park, it turns out, is not what it was, thanks to free enterprise. And that should give hope to Tucsonans dwelling in broken-down mobile homes or suffering from the bad acts of abusive managers.
Until October, Desert Breeze, a 70-or-so space park at 5344 S. Park Ave., was owned by Tucsonan Jim Stagner. Under his ownership, residents complained that they were sold trailers to which the manager did not have titles, then charged exorbitant, estimated bills for water and electricity.
In other words, the residents didn’t receive bills from TEP or Tucson Water — they were billed by the manager at the level he determined. If the residents couldn’t pay the utilities on a trailer they had allegedly bought — but didn’t have the title to — then they risked being evicted, allowing the owner or manager to sell the trailer again.
Vulnerable people fell for it.
But Stagner no longer owns Desert Breeze or three other mobile-home parks in Tucson. According to Pima County assessor’s records, he has divested himself of all his local parks. That’s good news.
The buyer was HMB Properties, a Houston-based company. HMB owns mobile-home parks in three Midwestern states but staked its claim in Arizona last October here on Tucson’s south side.
Desert Breeze cost HMB $934,000, the assessor’s records show. The company also bought Colonial Estates, 6410 S. Fontana Ave. for $950,000; Alvord Mobile Home Park, at 3358 E. Alvord Road for $620,000; and Shamrock, at 5519-5521 S. Park Ave. for $529,000.
Who would want to invest $3?million in some dumpy trailer parks? Matthew Hetrick and his partners. Hetrick, the H in HMB, is from Santa Barbara, California.
“The gist of what we do is put a lot of money into parks to try to raise them up,” Hetrick said.”The goal is to make it a safe habitable community that people want to live in.”
Now that’s crazy talk. Put money into a run-down Tucson trailer park to make it attractive to tenants?!
It’s not what the residents at Desert Breeze are used to. I talked with a half dozen of them on Thursday and Friday, and they told of a parqueadero that had gone downhill for years under the previous management.
Carlos Carrillo, who has lived there 20 years, cast his eyes over the park and told me in Spanish that about 13 of the mobile homes are occupied.
“It was 68,” he said.
What happened? People either got fed up with seemingly random utility charges, got evicted, or just left.
Now there are signs of a rebound. The trees are trimmed. Two Dumpsters are collecting garbage. Piles of debris have been collected and cleared out. There’s talk of the decades-old trailers being pulled out.
Hetrick told me that at Colonial Estates they’ve probably taken out 30 bins full of junk. They’ve done $50,000 in tree work and $60,000 in road work at the parks, he said.
“We’ve seen a big difference,” resident Maria Salinas told me in Spanish. “It’s very clean.”
The idea is not to pour money in, then jack up rents to pay off that investment, Hetrick told me.
“We don’t come in and gouge the rent. That’s not in our model of how we fix up the parks,” he said.
Last week, unfortunately, the work was less proactive and more reactive at Desert Breeze. In response to the death, workers put plywood over the windows of the many abandoned trailers to keep transients out.
The stench of death was bad after the fire last Sunday, Carrillo told me, but all that was left by Friday was a faint smell of smoke.
Tucson firefighters were surprised to find the body in a sweep of the apparently empty trailers that burned last Sunday morning, said fire Capt. Barrett Baker.
Who was this man? Tucson police are trying to figure it out. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office hasn’t yet determined the cause of death, though of course smoke inhalation or burning to death are likely. Either way, a painful demise.
The future Desert Breeze, the one that’s coming into being, will probably have even less of a place for men like him. Low-income housing, Hetrick pointed out, is for people who have an income.
“What gets so tricky when you get into affordable housing — everybody thinks it’s the safety net to put people in free housing,” Hetrick said.
It isn’t free. It’s definitely not for squatters. But if Hetrick and his partners can offer something affordable and livable, they’ll have made Tucson a better place.