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“This Court Will Not Close Duroville”

Balancing Tribal Sovereignty and Residents’ Rights in United States v. Duro

By Megan Beaman Carlson, Arturo Rodriguez, and Ilene J. Jacobs

Thermal, California, surrounded by desert agriculture and vegetation, is home to a hidden mobile-home community of up to 4,000 people. Primarily low-income indigenous Purépecha and Mexican immigrant farmworkers, these residents have been dubbed “the poorest of the poor” in the national media. Their home—Desert Mobile Home Park, better known as “Los Duros” or “Duroville”—sits on an allotment of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation. In view of Duroville’s advanced dilapidation, one would never guess that allottee Harvey Duro Sr. began clearing the land only ten years ago in response to massive forced relocation and housing crises elsewhere in the county.

Duroville quickly disintegrated into extremely substandard conditions because of the combined effects of Duro’s poor planning, minimal park maintenance, and the rapid influx of displaced residents. The park suffered inadequate roads, plumbing, and electricity, and toxins from a neighboring dump polluted Duroville’s air and caused severe physical harm to residents. This pollution brought the park to the attention of the federal government; the Environmental Protection Agency sued to close the dump, which now sits dormant and poses a reduced risk to residents’ health. Residents also bore practices, including electricity and utility shutoffs, that would be illegal if state or local laws applied. Enduring the substandard conditions or suffering displacement due to park closure appeared to be the only alternatives for Duroville residents.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen G. Larson allowed neither. On April 30, 2009, he issued an order blocking Duroville residents’ mass displacement sought by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (United States v. Harvey Duro Sr., 625 F. Supp. 2d 938, (C.D. Cal. 2009)). Judge Larson recognized that Duroville was a community where residents live and work, where their children learn and play, and where unseemly and systemic racism underlies the living conditions. Judge Larson refused to accede to the government’s demand to close the park; instead he appointed a receiver to run it, ordering it to meet standards of decency and requiring any relocation to be orderly and compassionate. California Rural Legal Assistance, having intervened in the case on behalf of four families residing at the park, represented the interests of the park residents threatened with the irreparable loss of their homes.

Factual Framework

A complicated set of facts coalesced in United States v. Duro. The lens of the modern affordable housing crisis focused on two groups of indigenous North Americans set at odds with each other by difficult circumstances: the Cahuilla Indians of the Coachella Valley in Southern California, and the Purépecha people of Michoacán, Mexico.

Unique Problems of the Purépecha People. The Purépecha people are an indigenous group in the region of Michoacán, Mexico. Centered in Ocumichu, Michoacán, the Purépecha community deems itself one of the last indigenous groups to retain its native culture intact after the Spanish invasion. However, the community has been affected by the same economic and other pressures on Mexican nationals, and thousands of its members have sought better opportunities in the United States. Purépecha immigrants to the United States have joined together in small communities in several regions. One such concentration of the Purépecha people formed in the unincorporated areas of Mecca and Thermal, in Riverside County, California, with many finally settling into a tight-knit community on tribal land in Duroville.

Like many indigenous peoples of Mexico, Duroville’s Purépecha community is wary of government and other officials due to historic and systematic oppression. The Duroville community is extremely self-sufficient and has developed within the mobile-home park a financial and cultural support network that includes group savings accounts—to provide for college tuition, emergencies, funerals, other financial needs of community members—and cultural events and celebrations. The other side of the wariness is a collective reluctance to complain to officials or to assert legal rights; this leaves many of Duroville’s Purépecha residents to endure the barely habitable conditions in the mobile-home park and suffer exploitation as they struggle to earn a living as farmworkers in the area’s very rich agricultural fields. Duroville’s Purépecha leaders, overcoming this inherent reluctance, played crucial roles in United States v. Duro and fully contributed to the residents’ ultimate victory at trial.

Long-standing Housing Crisis Among Low-Income and Latino Residents in Riverside County. Riverside County is no stranger to housing crises. County residents have long suffered a shortage of decent affordable housing, and the shortage is magnified when the farmworker population grows during the annual grape harvest. The local government’s historical reluctance to provide and support affordable housing development contributed to this decades-long shortage.

The housing problem was magnified in the late 1990s when county code enforcement officials began an aggressive effort to close hundreds of unpermitted mobile-home parks that met some of the demand for low-income housing in the Eastern Coachella Valley. These parks had been allowed to operate for decades, often without county-required permits. The county’s enforcement displaced hundreds of low-income Latino families, who were left homeless or in search of quick affordable alternatives, no matter the conditions. Mobile-home parks quickly sprung up on nearby tribal lands, where local and state building codes did not apply, and thousands of residents moved in.

California Rural Legal Assistance interceded on behalf of families threatened with county displacement and filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development thirty administrative complaints alleging that county actions constituted illegal race, national origin, and familial-status discrimination. The complaints, and the possibility of hundreds more, ultimately resulted in a landmark $21 million enforcement agreement requiring the county to develop a plethora of housing and other remedies and resources for residents (Enforcement Agreement Between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Maria Hernandez et al. and County of Riverside, Case Nos. 09-98-2574-8 (Title VIII), 09-99-11-0007-300 (Title VI)).

This favorable result still did not prevent mass displacement. County residents, primarily farmworkers and other low-wage earners, remain affected by the county’s actions. Many residents of Duroville were among those who relocated, without assistance, and they remain in dilapidated mobile homes on tribal land.

Special Challenges for Residents on Tribal Land. Substandard housing is a widespread problem in the Coachella Valley; when it rests on tribal land, the housing presents special challenges. The federal doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity prohibits states and local jurisdictions from interfering with indigenous Americans’ rights to make and be governed by their own laws (Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 117 (1959)). Finding that only Congress could authorize state civil jurisdiction over Indian lands and that Congress had not yet explicitly done so, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the secretary of the interior’s 1965 attempt to apply California land-use laws to tribal land (Bryan v. Itasca County, 426 U.S. 373 (1976); 25 C.F.R. § 1.4(b); Notice of Department of the Interior, 30 Fed. Reg. 8722 (July 9, 1965)).

Thus the only housing and building standards applicable to Duroville and other tribal mobile-home parks are those adopted by tribal councils. On many tribal lands no standards at all apply. Because residents are not protected by local, state, or federal legal laws on habitability, eviction, and other issues, their only option is to negotiate with the tribe. Low-income residents’ struggles are magnified in places like Riverside County, where little or no alternative housing can be found.

Litigation

Created and fueled within this factual framework, litigation occurred over the course of six years, finally resulting in a victory for Duroville residents. The district court continues to monitor progress.

Bureau of Indian Affairs First Learns of Park and Initiates Litigation Against Owner. The Bureau of Indian Affairs claims that it first learned of and inspected Duroville in early 2003. Duro later testified that, before accepting mobile homes on his property, he informed the bureau by telephone that he wanted to develop a mobile-home park and that when he was told “good luck” he interpreted this as the bureau’s blessing for his commercial endeavor.

The bureau had not given its blessing. Instead it issued a cease-and-desist order against Duro and, when he failed to close the park, sued to eliminate or abate the alleged health and safety hazards (United States v. Duro, ED CV 03-0754-RT (SGLx) (C.D. Cal. 2003)). This lawsuit, referred to in later litigation as Duro I, resulted in a settlement agreement requiring Duro to bring the park into compliance with “applicable government codes, standards, and regulations” within eighteen months. The agreement did not explain or identify the “applicable government codes, standards, and regulations” to which it referred—a presage of future disputes. The court dismissed the action in 2005 and provided that the parties could move, “upon good cause shown prior to November 13, 2005, to reopen the action if settlement is not consummated” (Id., Order Dismissing Civil Action (May 9, 2005)).

The bureau then apparently forgot about Duroville; it conducted no inspections, nor did it monitor Duro’s compliance with the agreement, and it had only brief correspondence with Duro regarding a lease to operate the park. Neither party did anything else in Duro I for approximately two years.

A suspected arson fire in May 2007 destroyed six Duroville mobile homes and damaged two others. The fire received extensive local media coverage and once again brought the park to the attention of the bureau, which concluded, following an inspection, that Duro had not complied with the 2003 settlement agreement.

To enforce the settlement agreement the United States moved to reopen Duro I in September 2007 and sought an order holding Duro in contempt of court for failing to comply with its terms. The court summarily denied the government’s motion as “untimely.”

Government Seeks to Enforce Settlement and Initiates Litigation Anew. The government filed on October 9, 2007, a new lawsuit alleging four claims for relief against Duro and the Desert Mobilehome Park: (1) violation of the stipulated settlement agreement in Duro I, (2) violating 25 U.S.C. § 415 by failing to obtain a lease from the U.S. Department of the Interior to operate Duroville as a commercial venture, (3) public nuisance, and (4) private nuisance. The lawsuit sought injunctive relief in the form of park closure as well as monetary relief to fund the return of the land to its natural desert state.

The government also sought a preliminary injunction to close the park; this came to the attention of several Duroville residents who sought help. California Rural Legal Assistance represented the residents through a motion to intervene as defendants in the government’s litigation; Chandra Gehri Spencer, a private attorney, later joined the case on behalf of the residents. The bureau wanted immediate rehabilitation of the park, as did the residents, but the bureau argued strongly for closure and did not offer or seek a relocation plan for the residents.

Judge Larson, accompanied by various local, state, and federal officials, viewed the park in December 2007 and subsequently granted the residents’ motion to intervene. The court later heard the government’s motion for a preliminary injunction to close the park within ninety days. Rather than issuing an injunction, the court appointed an interim receiver and two special masters to review the park’s physical status, identify potential alternative housing sources, and identify and immediately repair emergency conditions that endangered the residents’ health and safety.

Court Rules on Government Motion for Summary Adjudication. The government moved for summary adjudication on liability (but not remedies) for all four causes of action. The residents opposed the motion; they argued that (1) the stipulation in Duro I was unenforceable and too vague to ensure compliance; (2) the Bureau of Indian Affairs frustrated Duro’s good-faith efforts to obtain a lease; and (3) public and private nuisance actions were regulatory state statutes that under current law could not be applied to sovereign tribal lands. The court found the defendants liable on the first and second claims and held that Duro had not complied with the settlement agreement and that both defendants, Duro and Desert Mobilehome Park had failed to secure a lease approved by the Interior Department as required by Section 415. The court denied the public and private nuisance claims because they were barred by the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity, and the court ordered a trial limited to the appropriate remedies for liability on the first two claims. Around the same time the defendants, tired of the years of litigation, entered into a stipulation with the government to close the park. Judge Larson rejected this stipulation because it lacked a necessary party—the intervener residents.

At Trial Interveners Show that Harm Would Result from Park Closure and Forced Relocation. The residents, forced by circumstances to oppose the application of regulations governing conditions in mobile-home parks despite preferring that the regulations apply on tribal land, discredited and limited the scope of testimony offered by government experts. Residents also highlighted the exaggerated nature of the exigency that government witnesses described.

The residents’ expert witnesses testified about the social crises that forced relocation created in low-income communities of color, such as Duroville, and presented a less exaggerated view of Duroville conditions, which already had improved under court supervision. Purépecha residents testified about the cohesiveness and cultural ties of their people, who constituted a large part of Duroville’s population, and about the impact that forced relocation would have on their ability to remain faithful to their traditions. Other residents testified about the pockets of family members residing in Duroville (one witness had approximately fifty family members living in the park besides fifty neighbors from his hometown in Mexico) and the impact that forced relocation would have on extended families. All testified to their concerns about what would happen were Duroville to close: that the lack of decent affordable housing in the area would make it even more difficult to obtain shelter, that they would lose access to local schools and local fields where residents work, that they would face significant relocation costs, health risks, and homelessness.

Court Orders that Park Remain Open Pending Availability of Alternative Housing. In a moving decision that he read aloud in the courtroom, Judge Larson ruled against both parties. He held that trial evidence failed to establish a requisite meeting of the minds between Duro and the bureau about the meaning of the terms “applicable government codes, standards, and regulations” in the Duro I settlement agreement (the first claim for relief in the second lawsuit) and reversed his initial finding of liability on that claim.

The rest of the decision is unique and worth quoting here:

The Park, or Duroville or Los Duros, as it is better known by its residents, is not a business, it is a village; thousands of our fellow human beings call the Park home. It is not nearly as safe or as healthy as we would want it to be; it is, nonetheless, home for a community of people who are poor, undereducated, disenfranchised, and, in many respects, exploited. … [D]espite these disadvantages, these very same people, based on the evidence at trial, are an honest, hard-working, proud, colorful, and family-oriented community of people committed to educating their children and raising them to be productive and successful members of our society. …[S]ome are undocumented, some are resident aliens, and some are United States citizens; this complicated combination of immigration statuses places many of the residents of the Park in the crossroads of our Nation’s incongruous immigration and agricultural policies that, on the one hand, portend that undocumented workers lack legal status while at the same time predicating the economic efficiency of an agricultural industry on their hard work; it appears to this Court that we have, once again, established a rather “peculiar institution” to service our agrarian needs.

… [T]o accede to the government’s—and now Mr. Duro’s—request to promptly close the Park, without identifying where the vast majority of its residents would then live, would create a major humanitarian crisis. For the Court to close the Park under current conditions would create one of the largest forced human migrations in the history of this State. Unlike another forced migration in this State’s history—the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II—there is not even a Manzanar for these residents to go. … Moreover, the immigration issue referenced above further complicates any of the proposed alternatives. As unsafe and unhealthy as the Park may be—circumstances the Court has observed first-hand through its visits to the park—it nonetheless offers a shelter in place for a people who otherwise have nowhere to go.

Until and unless alternative housing is available—alternative housing that is safe, healthy, affordable and truly available to the residents—this Court will not close Duroville [(Duro, 625 F. Supp. 2d at 944–45 (emphasis added)).]

Implications

Judge Larson’s order indirectly and immediately affects Duroville residents and creates interesting challenges and prospects for future litigation.

Duroville’s Residents. Despite their victory in court, Duroville residents’ struggles continue. A court-appointed receivership, Duroville Receivership Organization, now works toward implementing the improvements mandated in the opinion while handling day-to-day needs and emergencies arising from insufficient infrastructure and other problems.

A major positive development after the court’s April order was the response by many charitable organizations that had followed the case but had been reluctant to donate to or volunteer for a park in danger of closing. Tons of food donations now have been distributed to the park’s residents, medical providers from the University of California at Irvine Medical School have been providing free medical services to park residents, animal control groups have helped relocate and provide veterinary services and relocation of dogs in the park, and U.S. marines and other volunteers have undertaken cleanup efforts resulting in the removal of tons of debris from the park.

The grateful Duroville residents do their part to follow the judge’s order to seek alternatives. Some pursue sparse safe, decent, and affordable local housing options and register for county programs and other opportunities. They continue to work toward upgrading their mobile homes and spaces with the help of the Duroville Receivership Organization and other service providers. Children attend school, parents toil in the fields and at other jobs, Purépecha community members practice and sustain centuries-old traditions, all amid and despite the now internationally known daily struggle that is Duroville. Life continues there, and the park remains Duroville residents’ home.

Legal Challenges and Outlook. Unresolved legal issues remain regarding substandard housing occupied by nontribal members on tribal land. More than a thousand mobile homes might be situated beyond Duroville just on allotments of the Torres Martinez Tribe. Riverside County alone is home to eight other tribal reservations. California contains almost one million acres of federally recognized tribal land, and nationwide the number reaches sixty-six million acres or more. That federal, state, and local prophylactic laws do not apply to substandard housing on tribal land due to tribal sovereignty is a sensitive issue. Tribal sovereignty should not be the focus of the dispute, but health, safety, and civil rights issues become complex for advocates and decision makers. The court alluded to but did not directly address the application of international law, and unresolved issues remain regarding indigenous people suffering at the hands of the government and even of other indigenous people.

In United States v. Duro one judge had the temerity to recognize and address these and other injustices at their roots and to set an example for those who will try to chart a course toward decent and fair housing for all. This decision has inspired conversations among legal advocates for farmworkers and Indian legal aid advocates who are committed to further collaboration on affordable housing issues.

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