No Place for Us

The low-income students living in Irvine Meadows West, a historic trailer park at the University of California, Irvine, received more than a liberal arts education. They received an education in the art of liberation.

Last winter, when I met Garrett Asay, co-chair of Irvine Meadows West’s (IMW) residents’ advocacy committee, he told me about the 100 students who were facing eviction from the park in July because the university administration was planning to redevelop the area into a parking lot.

Being a student at UC Irvine (UCI), I was familiar with IMW. The first time I saw the park, I was taken by its stunning quaintness and bohemian charm. Trees hide the 2.5-acre park, so you don’t know it’s there unless you are really looking. Many of the trailers are over 30 years old and have been passed down year after year. Some have had vibrant murals painted on them; others have had patios and “office areas” added on.

The movement to save the park is as old as the park itself. Thirty years ago, dozens of poor students “squatted” their trailers on the UCI campus to protest the lack of affordable housing that existed even then. In the 1970s, UCI administrators converted the camp into legitimate campus housing – adding plumbing, electricity and mail service. The residents own or lease their trailers and pay the university $130 per month to lease the space to park. By contrast, other students pay $800 per month or more to live in campus housing. Many IMW residents have a difficult time finding apartments on UCI’s campus that will accommodate their lifestyles. On-campus housing residents are not allowed to have dogs, non-spousal roommates or to be enrolled as post-doctoral students – which accounts for a large percentage of IMW residents.

In 1999 UCI housing official Fred Lipscomb shocked IMW residents when he announced that university administrators were planning to close the park at the end of residents’ lease agreements. Asay, a fourth-year graduate student in economics, pointed out that the decision to redevelop the trailer park had been made without any input from UCI’s Academic Senate or the campus community, and that even some administrators and faculty had verbally opposed the decision.

In response to Lipscomb’s news, the student residents launched a protest campaign to save IMW. The campaign received media coverage, with articles and op-eds appearing in the Los Angeles Times. After the not-so-favorable media attention, UCI Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez agreed to a five-year extension for the trailer park. In return, the residents were made to sign a form acknowledging that they were aware of UCI’s redevelopment plans for 2004. During that same time, residents received letters from university officials promising that the university would look for an alternative location for the trailer park on campus.

Fighting Back
By the time I learned of the trailer park plight, the five-year extension was ending and the evictions were only months away. Residents had received no word of a new site for IMW, and yet the university was moving ahead with its planned redevelopment. Wanting to help preserve the trailer park, I drew up an online petition at www.thepetitionsite.com to generate interest and obtain enough signatures to possibly postpone the park’s closing. Because the 1999 media campaign had been such a success, I advised Asay to start a new one. I encouraged him to write an editorial, which ran in two school newspapers, the Irvine Progressive and New University.

In February 2004 IMW residents called an emergency meeting to strategize the fight against the housing administrator’s plan to do preparatory drilling for soil samples during exam week. Barbara Seoane, a 56-year-old undergraduate resident of IMW, felt pressured by the university’s actions. “It’s just been psychological warfare from this university,” she said. “Every day we get a flyer reminding us about the closure just to make us think it’s inevitable. Now they want to do this drilling while it’s final exams and we’re trying to study!”

The California Civil Code specifies that tenants who pay rent to live on a piece of property have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of that property. Since the drilling would violate that right, I suggested that the residents hold a protest rally on the morning the drilling was to take place. On March 1, Asay, Amber Rinderknecht (the other co-chair of the residents’ advocacy committee) and I gathered with a group of 15 students to protest the drilling. When two university housing administrators arrived, we presented them with copies of the Code and stated our objection to the violation. Afterwards, with a reporter for the Orange County Register in attendance, we began a march to the Administration Building, chanting:

Chancellor, can you see the light?
Housing is a human right!
Chancellor, can you see the light?
For our housing we will fight!

Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez greeted us when we arrived. We reasserted our plea to keep IMW open. We had three requests: (1) that the university stop the drilling, (2) that Gomez and the chancellor attend a forum we were hosting to present our arguments for preserving IMW and (3) that the university follow through on its promise to search for an alternative site for the park. Though Gomez’s response was, “I’m afraid the decision has been made,” he did agree to postpone the drilling, to participate in the forum and to provide documents proving that a search for an alternative location had in fact been done, and that no other space for the trailer park was available on campus.

It was becoming apparent to IMW residents that the university wasn’t really taking them seriously. Housing administrators maintained that the residents had no legal standing to oppose the park’s closing, citing the 1999 signed acknowledgements as proof that the students were aware of and had consented to the eviction and redevelopment proceedings. “It was an acknowledgement, not an agreement,” said Rinderknecht. Gomez refuted her statement, saying that she was “arguing semantics.” To fight back against the administration’s total disregard for the residents’ needs, we staged another protest the following week, which was covered by local news stations and CNN. We held a third the week after.

A Losing Battle
The protests generated enough attention to convince Bill Zeller, vice chancellor for housing, to agree to a meeting with Asay and Rinderknecht to discuss the alternative location search. Because Zeller had made early promises that he would consider our proposals and because university housing officials had promised to look for another site for IMW, Asay and Rinderknecht were shocked to learn that the university had never conducted a serious search but had merely kept to its original decision to redevelop the park. University officials decided that they were against having a trailer park on campus at all. A draft of the search report revealed that UCI was mostly concerned that the neighboring Irvine community would find the trailer park aesthetically unpleasing.

The best that we could do was to have yet another big protest – with even more media coverage. We called out the LA Times, OC Register, Daily Pilot, La Opinión and New University; the local network stations; and NPR Radio and Pacifica Radio, which all showed up. On March 30, close to 40 students protested with us throughout the day. At 3 p.m., the university arrested nine students, including Asay, Rinderknecht and Seoane, and charged them with engaging in civil disobedience and failing to disperse. In total, 18 students received disciplinary letters from UCI.

On April 23, we held a forum, “Affordable Housing and UCI’s Trailer Park,” where we presented statistics on affordable housing, parking, land use and safety concerns. Vice Chancellor Gomez and some housing administrators attended. We received support from Irvine Mayor Larry Agran and were endorsed by the United Auto Workers and UCI’s Young Democrats. The forum was reported in the OC Register and the Daily Pilot. But in the end, all Gomez had to say was, “I never agreed to seriously consider keeping the park open. I view today’s forum as part of a kind of grieving process for the trailer park.”

In May, to make yet another plea, I drove with Brian Hart, a member of the Young Democrats, to San Francisco to speak to the University of California Regents Board Meeting about the plight of IMW. We presented a petition with 3,000 signatures in hopes of keeping the park open at another location on campus.

After the meeting, some of the Regents asked UCI Chancellor Cicerone to conduct a more conclusive search for an alternative location for the park. But soon after completing its new “search,” UCI produced a three-page document that restated the university’s prior “findings.” There was no place for Irvine Meadows West, but instead there was going to be the newly built Vista Del Campo 1 and 2 – luxury student apartments renting for over $1,000 per month.

As I write this account in mid-July, the park is scheduled for closure in only weeks; the students have received eviction notices en masse from UCI and many have already relocated. Sadly, it doesn’t look like we’ll succeed in saving IMW. However, we have succeeded in getting affordable housing on the agenda — and we exposed UCI’s unconscionable policies of creating student homelessness.

 

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