By Louis Martin, RCAC staff writer

Special thanks to RCAC Rural Development Specialist III Blanca Surgeon for her contributions to this article.

It began as a one-time collaboration between Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation (Pueblo Unido) to provide safe drinking water in the Eastern Coachella Valley. More than a decade later, it blossomed into a relationship that involved nearly every RCAC program including community and environmental services, housing development and lending. The work made an incredible impact on valley communities and the most ambitious projects are yet to come.

Polanco Parks struggle and thrive

In the Eastern Coachella Valley, mobile home communities quietly grew away from oversight or bureaucracy for more than 30 years. Despite the more than 100 mobile home parks that now exist, these communities hardly existed on paper prior to the 1990s. Even today, they remain largely unseen physically and legally. In 1994, California Sen. Richard Polanco took early steps to recognize the parks as incorporated communities. His contribution made the term “Polanco Parks” popular and still the most common vernacular today. The parks grew unchecked for decades, both struggling and thriving simultaneously. The result is a collection of communities often written about in the most unfavorable terms and without considering the people who live there. They are frequently co-opted as the face of American poverty, with vivid images of homes with no water, electricity and serious structural problems.

Sergio Carranza has worked to combat the negative stereotype for the past decade. As Pueblo Unido’s executive director, Carranza works closely with Polanco communities. He recognizes the serious poverty that exists in the Polancos. But while well-intentioned forces advocate for the residents’ eviction and relocation, Carranza argues that the Polancos are worth fighting for. He sees that Polanco communities display resourcefulness and resilience despite immense institutional pressure.

Local administrations take notice

Decades ago, farmworkers established ad hoc mobile homes on employers’ land. Eventually, the poor living standards alarmed local administrations. State, county and local governments issued violation notices and pressured the landowners to provide infrastructure. Rather than finance what would equate to a small town, landowners took the path of least resistance and started evicting tenants to close the parks. Polanco communities came up with a creative solution: they organized their capital to communally purchase land in the area and moved their mobile homes to create new parks. Carranza says this entrepreneurial initiative is based on a culturally oriented approach used in Mexico’s rural areas where families build homes on their land without a permit process.

The evictions solved the problem, but only on paper. Farmers no longer had responsibility for the inhabitants. The Polanco residents were also satisfied. They gained sovereignty and returned to a degree of anonymity. Yet the underlying issues remained. The Polancos continued to grow, unchecked by any regulation. In 1999, exposed wires electrocuted two residents in a tragic accident. Their deaths caused a new wave of unwanted attention to the Polancos, which now faced renewed scrutiny. The county again began to issue mass eviction orders.

Polanco community leaders ask for help

In desperation, Polanco community leaders approached the local Catholic Diocese for help. The bishop convened a community leaders, local governments and area nonprofit organizations to respond to the crisis. This marked the beginning of a decades long effort to improve living conditions and expand economic opportunity in the Polancos. The debate continues about how that should happen.

Around this time in the Eastern Coachella Valley, Carranza began to work in community development housing. Even though he worked for a nonprofit organization in the area, he didn’t know just how large the Thermal, Oasis, Mecca and North Shore Polanco communities were. Pueblo Unido estimates that the population was at least 15,000 at the time, which contributed $430 million a year in agriculture to the region.

“Through the years, I realized that this is the largest population of farmworkers living in mobile home parks in California, if not the United States,” Carranza says.

As Carranza began to learn about the parks, he found that the dominant goal in both the public and nonprofit sectors was to demolish the parks and move the residents. But the residents opposed surrendering their land, which had passed down generationally by this point. No one entertained the idea of rehabilitating Polancos. Even worse was what Carranza described as the “demonization” of Polanco residents. To Carranza, the residents were the heroes. To save the parks they bought the land first and then approached the diocese for help.

Carranza felt limited by this paradigm, so in 2008 he created Pueblo Unido with the express goal to invest in the Polancos rather than replace them. While his resources were modest, with the right partners he saw solutions to the parks’ challenges.

“I realized that the issue of affordable housing has been so powerfully institutionalized with certain conventional approaches, there was no room for any alternatives. So, all the funding programs are controlled and give preference to the conventional way of housing,” Carranza says.

Polancos receive technical assistance

Some years earlier, Carranza met RCAC’s then chief executive officer, Stan Keasling. Carranza says Keasling immediately grasped his vision for what would become Pueblo Unido. The two began to discuss investing in the Polancos through technical assistance. Water and wastewater were the parks’ two immediate needs. The drinking water had unsafe arsenic and fluoride levels. There also was a serious lack of access, which created an overreliance on sugary drinks and bottled water in the Polancos. The California Endowment (TCE) had recently funded RCAC to launch Agua4All to facilitate point-of-use filters and bottle filling station installations in underserved communities. TCE prioritized South Kern County and Eastern Coachella Valley. It was a perfect opportunity for RCAC and Pueblo Unido to collaborate. RCAC’s technical assistance providers facilitated the filter and bottle filling station installations in six area schools, community centers and parks. Drinking water advocates later worked to make the funding permanent, collaborating to secure budget funds to create the State of California’s Drinking Water for Schools Program, which now funds projects across California.

It was a huge win for the Polancos and Pueblo Unido, but before the project was even complete, the team wanted to bring the full weight of RCAC’s programs to bear on the many remaining issues. Regulators continually issued warnings and fines to Polanco residents for everything from permitting issues to infrastructure. Carranza says Pueblo Unido will focus on each in order of importance but is frequently fending off regulators. Carranza is proud that the community determines Pueblo Unido’s priorities, including board members who are from Polancos.

Pueblo Unido and park owners increase capacity through training

In 2016, RCAC’s Building Rural Economies (BRE) program hosted a workshop series for park owners. Rural Development Specialist II Elizabeth Bernal still remembers travelling to the Eastern Coachella Valley to meet and plan with the team at Pueblo Unido. The organization had just three staff, including Carranza. But what they lacked in workforce they more than made up for in passion.

“Sergio [Carranza] was very ambitious and a great asset to that organization. His passion is strong, deep and very committed,” Bernal says.

BRE worked with Pueblo Unido to host workshops in Eastern Coachella Valley. Park owners had operated for years with minimal record keeping or financial planning. The workshops started the long-term process to coach park owners on various topics, such as compliance, managing water and wastewater systems and fiscal planning for sustainability. In addition to supporting the communities, RCAC also worked closely with Pueblo Unido to help establish internal policies to support its growing operations. Carranza says this support has helped Pueblo Unido keep pace with its rapid growth, “RCAC has helped us to build our internal organizational capacity. We are better trained, better equipped, and we have more sound protocols and better strategies.”

Bernal and her community development team also worked with Pueblo Unido to draft a five-year strategic action plan, the first Pueblo Unido has ever created. Bernal says it’s one of her proudest accomplishments from RCAC’s relationship to Pueblo Unido, “This was one of my favorite things. Pueblo Unido’s board members did it virtually. We provided them with a monitoring tool so they could go back every six months or annually, it’s up to them, and make sure that those goals and objectives are being met, or possibly change because the environment changed.”

The strategic plan focuses on attracting more investments to alleviate the various compliance issues still outstanding in the Polancos. Carranza laments that residents themselves cannot secure bank loans because they have little to no records to support underwriting and risk assessment. RCAC is stepping in to assist with this as well. RCAC’s Loan Fund provided a $100,000 line of credit to jump start infrastructure investments in the parks. Pueblo Unido eventually secured funding from TCE to establish the Rural Communities Investment Fund, a revolving loan fund for small business lending. To date, the Pueblo Unido loan fund made seven micro-loans to park residents and owners, mostly to resolve critical compliance issues.

Park owners take steps to improve infrastructure

RCAC’s housing team also is working with the Polancos and helped to pass through $75,000 from its Department of Labor Farmworker Housing grant to support Pueblo Unido staff. Using the grant funding, Pueblo Unido worked with park owners to make headway on the long list of infrastructure improvements, often by helping them secure grants of their own to conduct assessments and prioritize needed upgrades. RCAC Housing Director Dave Ferrier remarks that Pueblo Unido and RCAC have evolved into a true partnership, “We recognize the important work that Pueblo Unido is doing to house some of the most important and most vulnerable households in America. We will keep supporting them as they grow and evolve. Their success is our success.”

Although there are many accomplishments to place in the win column, the work is just beginning even after more than 10 years’ collaboration. Every progress mark comes with a whole new set of to-do items. Carranza is realistic, yet hopeful. He says RCAC and other partners’ support gives him confidence knowing that he is part of a team. As Bernal says, the feeling is mutual, “I’m real proud of Pueblo Unido. I feel like I’m almost part of the staff. I started with them very early on. It’s been very rewarding to see all of the improvements they’ve made to both their communities and their own organization.”