Nightmare In Tin

There Are Horrendous Human Consequences When A Neighborhood Goes To Hell. And Here's What Tucson Officials-And Some Good Landlords-Are Doing To Stop The Rot.

I thought somebody got her hooked on drugs or something over there and she went to sleep in that dumpster. I reached in and picked her up by the back of her neck, by her shirt, but she was stiff as a board. I knew right away she was dead.

-- Ivan Tinkle, stepfather of Brandie Collins, 15-year-old murder victim

IVAN AND CHERYL Tinkle and their surviving children know what it's like to live in a slum. In the middle of Tucson. In 1999.

Their "home" looks like something out of a low-budget Mad Max rip-off. An ancient, battered recreational vehicle, an equally dilapidated travel trailer and the condemned, busted hulk of a grungy single-wide, are all drawn up in a circle to keep out predators. It's a makeshift fortress augmented by rough wooden pallets -- the kind cement blocks are stored on -- plugging the gaps at the corners.

Total monthly rent: $319.

They live in the near-westside Crystal Mountain Trailer Park -- a sadly ironic name at best.

It's just south of Holy Hope Cemetery, where Oracle Road warps off its north/south axis into what's left of Tucson's once glittering Miracle Mile, which soon peters out past a sinister porno palace, a few other decaying motels and a mammoth metallic scrap heap hard by Interstate 10.

For Brandie Collins, this neighborhood was nothing less than the end of the world.

She died a few weeks ago. Shot in the head, police allege, by registered sex offender Alvin Williams, who was staying at a neighborhood apartment complex. Investigators say Brandie was apparently walking to a nearby convenience market to make a phone call when she encountered Williams.

But this isn't about the Amphi High School student's murder, which the daily press has already covered extensively. This is about where Brandie Collins lived -- a socioeconomic factor which, arguably, had as much to do with why she died as the sociopathic impulses of the pervert who blew her brains out and then dumped her young body in the garbage.

Even in the best of economic times, which certainly includes the last decade in America, Tucson is a low-wage town, notes former city councilwoman and current Democratic mayoral candidate Molly McKasson. "And the disparities between rich and poor are growing."

According to Deputy City Planner David Taylor, the city's official statistical wizard, there are no numbers available for Tucson proper.

But state figures indicate Arizona's bottom fifth in terms of income ($7,200-$7,300 annually) and top fifth ($103,000-$392,000) "are diverging more rapidly than any other state," says Taylor, citing research by UA economist Marshall Vest and others.

That's on top of the fact that Arizona has "one of the widest income gaps of all the states," Taylor adds. Furthermore, he points out, real incomes for the bottom fifth on Arizona's economic ladder fell by about 37 percent during the past decade.

"Ultimately, of course," McKasson says, "the way to clean up Tucson's pockets of poverty is with decent-paying jobs," a cause she's been championing for several years now.

In the meantime, though, for people like Ivan and Cheryl Tinkle, cheap-end trailer park living has become a grim inevitability.

"I had no choice. I had nowhere to go. I didn't have the money to go and rent a $500-a-month apartment," says Ivan Tinkle of his April decision to move his wife and five children, including Brandie, out of a rundown motel and into the dusty hellhole that is Crystal Mountain.

"I just didn't have the money," he laments. "Just didn't have the work. We were down to bein' stone broke. We moved in here and then what'd we have? Twenny-five or $30 after we paid the rent and got the electric turned on."

Cheryl Tinkle works as a school monitor for the Amphi District. Her husband is a chronically unemployed mechanic-turned-dumpster diver, which explains how he happened to find his stepdaughter's body that morning.

"I'm havin' trouble sleepin' at night," he says now. "All I can see in my eyes is my little girl layin' in there dead."

As the Tinkles talk about their lives and their loss, a drug addict wanders over to their compound from the general direction of the porno motel to inquire whether anyone wants to buy a credit card. Ivan Tinkle angrily orders him to get the hell out.

"There's hookers that walk up and down the alley here," Tinkle says. "There's drugs everywhere up and down the streets around here. Rock cocaine. A man stopped right out in front of my house the other day, dropped a rock on the pipe and starts to smokin'. I told him to get outta here, and he reached up and flips me off like he belongs here and I don't."

In the middle of Tucson. In 1999.

THE EFFECTS OF a place like Crystal Mountain Trailer Park on the surrounding neighborhoods are disastrous, says Tucson City Councilman Jerry Anderson.

Since he was elected to represent Ward 3 a year and a half ago, he's worked hard to clean up such places, including the infamous -- and much larger -- Sleepy Hollow Trailer Park located three or four blocks south of Crystal Mountain. Although neighborhood association types strongly praise Anderson's efforts, as well as those of Michael Crawford before him, Anderson expresses nothing but frustration:

"We've had a lot of dead weight (on the city staff) that's been around for many years in this type of enforcement business," Anderson complains. "And they seem to have a laissez-faire attitude about the situation."

His complaint is echoed by Crystal Mountain resident Maria Collins (no relation to Brandie Collins), who says, "I'm tired of city employees coming around here and just laughing at the situation, doing nothing."

A year and a half ago, Collins claims, she saw a city worker in a marked city truck pick up a neighborhood streetwalker, "and then he drives around the block once, and he drops her off at the corner again (a common practice among johns receiving quickie blow jobs). He just looks up at us and he laughs. I was like, man, what's going on with this guy."

Anderson says there's one city worker he refuses to deal with because it's apparent the man has an "arrangement" with a well-known local slumlord.

Collins sees the result of such laxity and alleged corruption firsthand.

Her complaints about Crystal Mountain range from the relatively minor, such as neighbors bathing and urinating outside because of the park's poorly functioning water system, to the major problem of a known heroin dealer living there, apparently free from police scrutiny, even after one of his junkies reportedly died of an overdose on the premises.

Meanwhile, outside the park, a nearby neighbor who runs a beautiful, highly rated nursing home says Crystal Mountain has degenerated so badly in the last year or so that he's finding it difficult to interest new clients in his top-flight care facility.

"People drive by, and they take one look at that mess across the street, and they think there's no way they're putting mom in this sleazy neighborhood," says the man, who prefers anonymity.

He adds he's had to lay off three full-time caregivers, each of whom made $8 an hour, just to make ends meet in the face of the trailer park's decay and the fear it engenders in potential clients.

The business he and his wife have worked so hard to nurture is headed straight for the dumpster.

KEVIN DAILY IS president of the Flowing Wells Neighborhood Association.

He's still a bit miffed by what happened in November, when he and other neighborhood activists attended a City Council meeting to speak in favor of the recommendations of the Tucson Housing Commission.

The Commission, whose all-volunteer members were appointed by the Council, had spent a year preparing a report which called for the city's roughly 93,000 rental units -- apartments and trailers on about 22,000 properties -- to be assessed a nominal monthly fee, with the money going to hire additional inspectors and to beef up health and safety code enforcement.

At the November meeting, Mayor George Miller ignored Daily and his grassroots contingent, refusing to recognize their desire to speak.

Miller appeared to be in a rush to bow to pressure from the politically powerful Arizona Multihousing Association, whose membership of apartment complex and trailer park owners opposed the fee.

The Multihousing Association argued the vast majority of Tucson's good landlords shouldn't be inconvenienced just to take care of Tucson's substandard rental units. For the purposes of the discussion, substandard units were estimated to include roughly 10 percent of the city's total rental units (although officials are quick to admit nobody really knows the true extent of the problem).

To that Daily argues, "All other small businesses are regulated. They've got to have a business license. But you don't even have to have a business license to operate a rental unit. These are businesses being operated in our community, and we feel they have a greater responsibility to our community, since they are businesses."

Besides, Daily says, the proposed fee, which he estimates would have amounted to a mere $18 per unit per year, "certainly wouldn't have put any tenants out on the street, even assuming landlords had chosen to pass it on to them. And it would have been for the tenants' protection, after all."

But Councilman Steve Leal, who for years has consistently pushed for more powerful laws and programs to deal with slumlords and substandard housing, says proponents of the license fee ignored the fact that landlords pay property taxes, just like regular homeowners. Those taxes cover a wide variety of services, including inspections.

Furthermore, Leal cautions that city officials should proceed carefully when dealing with relatively scarce low-rent trailers and apartments, lest they inadvertently drive up costs for the city's high proportion of impoverished citizens (roughly 20 percent of the population, or more than 130,000 Tucsonans).

Some Tucson officials and Housing Commission supporters point to Kansas City, Mo., as a prime example of what can be accomplished with an aggressive anti-slum program. But during one recent year, Kansas City officials knocked down more than 300 substandard housing units, Leal says.

"With figures like that," he warns, "one has to question what the real purpose of the Kansas City program is. And I don't think we want to do that to Tucson's poor."

Indeed, if tomorrow officials were to shut down a Crystal Mountain, with its 50 or so spaces, or a Sleepy Hollow, with about 300 spaces, Tucson Community Services Director Karen Thoreson admits there would be no way for the city's emergency shelter programs -- conducted through Travelers Aid, the Red Cross and other charities -- to find motel rooms for everyone put out on the streets.

And when it comes to long-term, federally subsidized Section 8 housing for the city's poor, Ivan Tinkle complains there's a two-year wait.

Thoreson confirms that, but she notes there are non-federally funded options available, too, including 250 units scattered about the city in the El Portal program. The city owns these units outright, leasing half to low-income people, and assigning the rest to agencies serving special needs groups. The program pays for itself thanks to the leasing operation.

Again, however, the wait can be "anywhere from six months to three years, depending on the unit size you need," Thoreson admits. "If you were looking for an efficiency, we could do that fairly quickly. If you need a four-bedroom unit, it will take a long time."

THE GOOD NEWS is that the bureaucratic "laissez-faire attitude" Councilman Anderson rails against appears to be changing, although perhaps not as fast as many local neighborhood association leaders would like.

At its controversial November meeting on the substandard housing issue, the City Council ordered Development Services director Paul Swift to conduct a massive evaluation of all Tucson rental properties. It's a year-long project currently underway in Anderson's Ward 3 and Leal's Ward 5.

In addition, after years of discussion and Council prodding from Leal and others, personnel from various city departments are now being cross-trained for a broad range of inspection duties.

What this means in practical terms, Swift explains, is that instead of four Development Services inspectors narrowly focused on building-code violations, there are currently 16 people, from many different departments, learning how to look for all sorts of violations -- from traffic safety, to electrical, to solid waste, to fire, to building codes.

"It's not a new or novel concept," Swift says of the idea of non-specialized inspectors who see a problem and deal with it until it's solved. "It's done in small towns all over the country. But we're a big town, and we're getting back to the small-town mentality."

The program essentially costs no additional tax dollars, Swift says, because the participants are already on the city payroll and are learning their new skills while still responsible for their original duties. During the evaluation phase, the cross-trained personnel with go out in teams to examine rental units. Development Services will translate their reports into a database of the city's rental properties, which Swift says will be used to improve code enforcement.

All of which prompts some critics to complain the city is merely going to study the problem of sleazy trailer parks and substandard apartments to death.

Councilman Leal disagrees. It's possible, he says, that Swift's database will indicate a need for a licensing fee, just as the Metro Housing Commission recommended. But, he adds, it's necessary to collect the data first, a point even critic Daily now concedes.

Meanwhile, Swift pledges, "I'm going to identify what the problems are." But he's also quick to add, "Am I going to be able to solve them all? Honest to God, no."

It takes the will of the people, the neighborhoods and the community's political leaders to stay on top of the substandard housing problem, Swift says.

"It's a complicated problem, but we're dealing with people, so we have an obligation, we have a responsibility," Swift says. "We have a town and it's a town of neighborhoods, and we have a responsibility to protect them. And we have to be smart enough to get ahead of the curve. I hope we can do that."

STAYING AHEAD OF the curve is precisely what good mobile home park management is all about, say Judith and Baron Bedgood.

This cheerful, no-nonsense mother-and-son team operates La Plata Mobile Home Park, 219 W. Plata, located in a near-westside neighborhood that's had more than its share of problems with drugs, hookers and violent crime.

But despite on-going problems in the surrounding neighborhood, a stroll through the 70-year-old La Plata is like, well, an old-fashioned stroll through the park. In stark contrast to dead-end trailer trash heaps like Crystal Mountain and Sleepy Hollow, La Plata is clean and neat, the residents open, friendly and quick to smile.

But it wasn't always so.

When they took over in 1993, the 48-space La Plata "was a slum," says Judith Bedgood. "We were afraid of the people in here at that time."

"And these people had guns," adds her son. "We had tenants threatening us, saying they were going to blow us away."

Their solution?

"I sent out a memo to everybody," Judith recalls. "And I said this is how it's going to be: there's not going to be any more crime in here; there's not going to be any more fighting; no more drinking in the streets. And those of you who don't like it can leave. And in the meantime they decided they didn't want to leave, so we just evicted them."

So Lesson No. 1 from the Bedgoods is this: zero tolerance for crime and criminals.

The Bedgoods have high praise for the Tucson Police Department, whose beat officers, Denise Wilson and Annette Moody, are quick to tip them to potential problem tenants.

"When the police know that you just kill yourself to make an effort to keep your park as clean as you can keep it, you can't believe how they help you," Judith says. "They're just like there" -- she snaps her fingers -- "on the spot for you, because they know you won't tolerate anything. And they really want to help."

The Bedgoods require all new tenants to sign an agreement stating they will not engage in criminal activity. Judith explains how it works: "If I get a police report that somebody's into prostitution or whatever, I can take them to court, get a court order and get them out in 48 hours."

TPD and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall both offer crime-free programs for landlords. In addition, LaWall offers free legal advice for landlords who wish to evict criminal tenants or tenants who allow criminals in their homes. For more information, call 740-5625.

To keep out troublemakers, the Bedgoods require potential tenants to prove they have jobs by showing their W2 forms. They also require photo ID for all tenants.

"You'd be surprised how well the picture ID thing works," Judith says. "When you bring that up, 50 percent of them you'll never see again. They just don't want their picture in your file."

Lesson No. 2 from the Bedgoods is equally important: maintenance, maintenance, and more maintenance.

In the first few years, says Baron Bedgood, they put at least 30 percent of the mobile home park's gross revenues right back into the place, buying up the original tenants' rundown tin shacks and bringing in higher-quality units.

"The first thing that we did when we came in here," he says, "is we paved the street. It cost about $4,500." And they've never stopped spending on improvements:

"Last year we had some roof leaks that I just couldn't trace down," he says. "So we had all the roofs foamed on 16 trailers. That cost like $12,000."

Judith adds, "And we just upgraded our electricity. And our electrician had to get permits from the city, and that ran us another 10 grand. But it's worth it to do things right."

Despite all the expenses and the constant repair work, which the Bedgoods say they do most of themselves because they can't find decent hired help, nobody should feel sorry for them.

"We really make a good living off of this park," Judith confesses. Baron adds that a single mobile home space usually generates between $3,000 and $12,000 annually, according to industry figures.

"We have mobile homes here in this park that we bought for $2,000, invested $5,000 in them and we've made $35,000 off of them over the last five years," Judith says.

Baron adds, "And you figure over a 20-year period most of these mobile homes will make close to $100,000."

Lesson No. 3: It's a business.

"We let everybody know right off the bat that we are management, they're the tenant, and we have nothing to do with their lives," says Judith. "And even if somebody is a very favorite person and they can't pay their rent, we still go through the proper paperwork. We don't get angry with these people, but we do give them five-day notice. Because, again, this is a business, this is not one happy family."

WHICH BRINGS US back, finally, to the sad plight of the Tinkle family and their $319-a-month Crystal Mountain internment in a decaying part of town.

It's precisely because the standards are so lax that Ivan and Cheryl Tinkle were able to set up house there. Even at an old-but-decent mobile home park like La Plata, they'd be paying nearly twice the rent, which they say they can't afford.

But to place the blame for their family's deplorable living conditions entirely on Ivan and Cheryl Tinkle's shoulders -- because they're supposedly not caring enough, or smart enough, or hard-driving enough -- as our society's currently ascendant conservative element would tend to do, would be to ignore the larger situation, which includes:

· A criminal justice system which, despite the best efforts of some very bright minds, will always be imperfect, and which, to a greater or lesser degree, will always allow sex perverts and other criminals relative freedom in our wide-open society;

· Slumlords who, despite ample help available from local authorities, do little or nothing to screen tenants and provide decent, crime-free housing for parents and children;

· A city bureaucracy which, in the past at least, has woefully dropped the ball when it comes to carrying out the good wishes of our elected officials, not to mention attacking the most blatant health and safety code violations.

All of these factors, and more, undoubtedly contributed in some small way to Brandie Collins' savage end in a filthy dumpster. So what, if anything, is to be done?

Says Councilman Anderson: "We've taken some steps to reorganize Development Services, and if that doesn't work, we come back again. And again. And harder.

"Neighborhoods, they're the strength of this community. That power base they're forming has got to be used to offset some of the other power bases we have, in this case the Multihousing Association. So that when this issue comes back the next time, and we're still in the same place, if not worse, neighborhoods will be there in big numbers saying, 'You've got to do something, Mayor and Council, or we're going to get somebody in there who is. And we don't care who contributed to your campaign.'

"And the living-wage issue. Jesus, it's embarrassing the wages that are paid in this community. We're moving to fix that. But again, with the resistance from entrenched interests, it's slow going.

"But, hey, that's how the game works. And first and foremost, you don't give up, OK?"

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