MODESTO — Virgin sewer pipes, newly stacked throughout south Modesto's Parklawn tract, are putting cautious smiles on neighbors' faces.
Some have waited many decades for this sight, signaling an end to periodic sewage backups in yards and bathtubs.
Many find it hard to believe that this poor, unincorporated, mostly Latino neighborhood with no sidewalks and few streetlights could finally enjoy what most city folks take for granted when they flush, run the washer or use the kitchen sink.
"I'll be happier when I see that it's done," said Rosario Cedeano, who has put up with substandard service for 27 years.
She's right to approach celebrating with reservation.
Although crews are preparing to lay pipes in a couple of Parklawn's primary streets, Stanislaus County doesn't have near enough money to finish the $5.5 million project. Before houses actually can hook up to the extension of Modesto's sewer system, the county will have to secure a hefty state grant, and neighbors must vote to take on higher taxes.
Why tantalize people with a $1.2 million first phase with no promise of finishing?
The mere act of starting is providing some hope. Also, the county is bound by a lawsuit settlement.
"We've been at this for years," said Hortencia Franco, a 40-year Parklawn resident. "We're finally getting justice."
Parklawn is among hundreds of underserved communities throughout California, home to about 1.8 million people, many going without services such as public sewers, streetlights and sidewalks.
In Modesto alone, about 14,000 people live in 27 disenfranchised islands, all a quick drive from the city's busy downtown and $55 million Gallo Center for the Arts. Ceres and Turlock add 10 more such areas.
Most, like Parklawn, sprang up in the Great Depression, providing alternative housing close to urban jobs but unburdened by building standards. Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s and '40s snatched up cheap lots and eventually transformed shanties into homes fashioned out of scavenged materials, usually relying on septic tanks instead of municipal sewers.
Many transformed over the decades; 83 percent of Parklawn's 1,450 residents are Latino. Their 328 homes are just east of Highway 99, south of Hatch Road.
Septic tanks must be pumped out every two or three years at a price of about $275. The more people in a house, the more often you need to pump; some large families have to do it every four months, Franco said.
"That's a heck of a lot of money," Franco said, "especially in a neighborhood of low-income people."
Some divert sink and washing machine flows to their yards, but that can attract rats, mosquitoes and cockroaches.
Soil softened by overtaxed leech lines has caused home foundations to shift, producing stucco cracks and listing floors.
People wonder why others, sometimes just across the road, don't have the same problems.
"We've been trying to get (officials) to listen to us for a long time," Franco said. "They're not listening, yet they're taking our taxes."
Districts filed lawsuit
Nine years ago, a few representatives of Parklawn and three of Modesto's other underserved districts Rouse-Colorado, Bret Harte and Robertson Road brought a discrimination lawsuit against the city and county, with help from some nonprofit legal groups.
"These places are invisible," said Juan Carlos Cancino, a San Francisco attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance's Community Equity Initiative. "They built them so you pass by at 50 mph" and never notice, he said.
The county spent $2 million in legal defense before settling in 2011. Terms reset priorities for upgrading some tracts.
Officials came up with a plan to designate $32 million in future redevelopment money for sewers in Parklawn and the unincorporated half of Modesto's airport neighborhood, plus a second storm drain phase in Empire. But last year, California leaders dissolved all redevelopment agencies throughout the state.
County officials contended that they must continue collecting redevelopment tax money to abide by terms of the lawsuit, plus another brought by CRLA in 1991 over housing in poor districts. But the California Department of Finance rejected that stance, and the county handed over $10 million to the state in December.
"It's devastating," said Matt Machado, the county's public works director.
And that's a drop in the bucket. Bringing the county's other disadvantaged communities up to standard could cost an additional $1 billion.
To comply with the settlement, county leaders in December used a federal community development block grant to award Parklawn's first-phase sewer contract, even though millions more dollars are needed before neighbors get relief.
"We'll go 'til we run out of money," Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said.
Costs seem daunting
Median household income is $19,000 in Parklawn, where 94 percent of families are considered low-income. Against that backdrop, future sewer costs seem daunting:
Fees for permission to join Modesto's sewer system: about $5,000 per house.
Hiring a plumber to do the connection: about $2,000 per house.
Maintenance fees: about $15 per month.
The last requires that a majority of property owners agree to form a new taxing district. California Rural Legal Assistance, Self-Help Enterprises and volunteers surveyed the neighborhood and found 97 percent in favor; 62 percent reported having septic problems.
"I think people will support it," said CRLA community worker Enid Picart, who was raised in south Modesto. She senses renewed hope now that people can see and touch new sewer pipes stacked throughout the neighborhood, awaiting installation.
"People used to say they'll probably be dead before it happens," Picart said. "Now they see that something's actually getting done."
Franco stooped to peer through a pipe, and straightened up with an appropriate analogy for her neighborhood.
"It's like you're in a deep tunnel," she said, "and you're coming out and seeing the light."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.
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