Home Truths

After decades of living month to month in trailer parks, some South Dade migrant workers have found a permanent address

Federal officials had discussed plans to build subsidized housing for farm workers in the Homestead area since 1971. Finally, in April 1981, Metro-Dade's Department of Housing and Urban Development ("Little HUD") began construction on 66 permanent homes on the Everglades site, using $3.15 million in grants and loans from the federal Farmers Home Administration (now the Rural Housing Service) to finance the project. County officials subsequently applied for federal money to build 96 more houses on the site, but that request was denied. The existing structures are now managed by ECA.

Also in 1981, a freeze wreaked havoc with the local tomato crop, resulting in hardships for both growers and migrant workers. To make matters worse, officials in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana were trying to prevent an overflow of migrants coming from Florida; they warned workers not to make the trip unless they had written confirmation of a job and lodging. Many migrants decided they'd do better to stay in South Dade and attempt to get by on their savings. County officials, who had agreed to keep the Everglades Camp open year-round for the first time in 1980, said they would not do it again because the previous year's summer months' expenses had amounted to $100,000. They also argued that the Everglades Camp was not public housing for farm workers living year-round in Dade; the facility was intended only for seasonal migrants. But the desperate workers would not take no for an answer. They staged a "live-in" at the camp, demanding that the county let them stay in the trailers for the summer. The workers triumphed, and since then some families have lived there throughout the year.

But county officials continued to complain about running the camp, maintaining that it was costing more than $300,000 a year in public funds. In June 1981 the county announced it would close the facility that October. By July, local growers, who had an obvious interest in keeping farm workers in South Dade, announced a plan to take over management of the camp. And migrant advocates, sensing the potential for exploitation if farm owners controlled living conditions, announced their own plan to operate the camp.

A series of meetings between growers, workers, community organizations, and government officials ensued, with the cooperative Everglades Community Association emerging to take over management of the trailers and the site's HUD housing; the association was run by a 21-member board of directors that included representatives from migrant groups, county government, church organizations, growers, and local bank officers. Under its first director Enrique "Kiki" Vazquez, the ECA eventually lifted the Everglades Camp out of the red, operating it on a break-even basis with no funds other than rents collected from residents.

"It was a combination of a good crew and good management," explains Vazquez, a former migrant farm worker from Puerto Rico who has lived in Florida since 1955.

In 1990 the ECA hired Steven Kirk as a development consultant. A self-described "poverty expert," Kirk, 42, relocated to South Dade from Washington, D.C., when he became the association's director last year. He previously lived in South Dade from 1982 to 1985 when he served as the founding director of COFFO. Once onboard in 1990, Kirk and then-ECA board officer Steve Mainster (Juanita Mainster's husband and founder of Centro Campesino, a migrant-rights organization that assists farm workers in buying their own homes) worked to come up with a plan for replacing the trailers at the Everglades Camp with permanent houses.

"The strategic plan at that point was that we'd probably get two and a half to three million dollars from the federal government for phase one," Kirk recalls. "We'd be building 60 units at a time. We thought it would take us a decade to build and that we probably wouldn't get more than 300 units."

Hurricane Andrew sped up the process; the Everglades Labor Camp was almost totally destroyed by the storm. "When the hurricane happened, it placed the need for migrant housing development higher on everyone's agenda," Kirk points out. "Because South Dade was devastated, the growers were putting real pressure on the government. They were prepared to plant, but the workers needed somewhere to stay."

After the hurricane, about half of the 400 trailers that had been destroyed at the Everglades camp were replaced using insurance monies (those trailers now stand on the Royal Colonial site). Also, as a temporary and partial solution to the post-hurricane housing problem, the county purchased 532 additional trailers and created the Andrew Center on land next to the Everglades camp. Then in the fall of 1993 the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to allocate $41.2 million to create the first phase of permanent housing on the Everglades and Andrew sites.

Once it had received the go-ahead from the feds to build new housing, the ECA needed somewhere to place the farm workers who had been living at the Everglades Camp. The Royal Colonial, which had been abandoned after Andrew, seemed a likely choice. But the residents of several condo buildings and mobile homes near the Royal Colonial made it clear they did not want poor migrant laborers as neighbors. In 1994, after a fierce battle between migrant advocates and Naranja Lakes residents -- who were backed by then county commissioner Larry Hawkins -- the Metro-Dade Commission voted to purchase the devastated Royal Colonial facility for four million dollars from owner Thomas Vellanti, then turn around and lease it to ECA for three years. (The county has plans to make the site a public park when the ECA lease is up).

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