A Double-Wide Life

With county officials and neighbors determined to squeeze them out, mobile home owners have become an endangered species

"This park's always had problems, you know," Helen Prater says. "It's an old park, the plumbing's old.

"They say it's an eyesore," she adds, referring to the residents of the neat single-family homes that border the dilapidated Villa Fair Trailer Park on the south and west. "And you know what? To them it probably is."

Prater, her face scored with shallow lines, sits on the end of the navy-blue couch inside her eight-foot-wide trailer. The aging mobile home is painted battleship gray outside and is enlarged by a makeshift wooden addition covered with tarpaper shingles. The addition, which houses Prater's daughter, her husband, and their two-year-old boy, is equipped with a wall-mounted air-conditioning unit that hasn't worked for some time.

Prater's six-year-old granddaughter Cassie fidgets quietly on the deep chair across from the room, her attention wavering between the low-volume Garfield cartoons on the set and the caged ferret a few feet away in the kitchen area. The light is faint and bluish through the bedsheet that serves as a curtain. Prater, 56 years old, sounds resigned as she recounts, in an Ohio Valley twang, the past twenty years of the mobile home park's history.

Her clan figures largely in that history. Her son Eddie lives in an adjacent trailer with his two teenagers, a daughter and a son. Prater's ex-husband, bedridden from his long battle with lung cancer, is also staying with the crowded family, although Prater thinks he might end up in a nursing home.

The family's income is fairly reliable, although not abundant. Prater's daughter works at Eckerd, her son-in-law does odd jobs, and Prater herself collects disability payments because of her bad heart, high blood pressure, and emphysema.

She quietly recites a litany of ghosts, her lost neighbors from a time when "there were a lot of American people in this park." She recalls their names, the trailers in which they lived, their nicknames. She remembers when they died.

"I've seen thirteen of them pass away over the years, and what didn't pass away, moved on, you know?" she says, almost plaintively. "Spanish people started moving in, and others moved away. A lot of them Nicaraguans are really nice people. Nice church people." She pauses. "This trailer park holds a lot of memories," she says. "I think it's a conspiracy, you know, wanting to shut down the park."

You hear it again and again from the residents of Villa Fair and other trailer parks in Miami-Dade County that are facing closure: Government and neighborhoods are conspiring to end the only way of life the park dwellers believe they can afford. And there's some truth to the belief, although the conspiracy is one more of circumstances than sinister motives.

The looming destruction of the 75 or so tumbledown trailers within Villa Fair is nothing so simple as an agreement between government and neighbors. It is rather the result of social, economic, legal, and political forces. If there is a conspiracy going on, it is the one called change.

No one (not even the residents now facing eviction) claims that the 75 or so tumbledown trailers within Villa Fair constitute any sort of historic landmark. But the impending dislocation of Villa Fair's residents, and those of other troubled mobile home parks, is rooted in the considerable history of mobile homes in the state.

From the trailer-towing vacationers of Tampa's Tin Can Tourists Association, founded in 1919, to the denizens of the double-wides and more modern "manufactured homes" of today, those who spend time in at least semiportable housing have always streamed into Florida. The state welcomed more than 17,000 new mobile homes in 1996, the sixth-largest number in America. This is down from the peak years of the early Seventies, when as many as 52,000 new mobile homes a year rolled into Florida. (Industry experts point out that the oil crisis of the mid-Seventies sent the business into recession soon after this crest.)

Though sales are more modest than in years past, plenty of people continue to live in used units. According to the Florida Manufactured Housing Association (FMHA), there were some 5100 mobile home parks in 1996, and a total of 390,000 spaces. In central and north Florida, mobile homes proliferate. Hillsborough County has the most parks in the state: 556. Pinellas County has fewer parks, but they're big ones; that county holds 46,300 spaces. In 1996 the most new manufactured homes were bought in Polk and Marion counties.

South Florida -- Miami-Dade County in particular -- is another matter. Here the number of trailer parks is relatively small, and dwindling. The FMHA counted 111 parks in the county in 1987, in 1996 there were 94. At present there are only about 15,000 spaces.

FMHA executive director Frank Williams notes that all South Florida counties have consistently been "pretty hostile" to the development of new mobile home parks, citing the high cost of land in this part of the state. Plus, the only property taxes a county or municipality collects from a trailer park is based on that park's rental income. In property assessor parlance, a mobile home park is almost never the "highest and best" use of a prime piece of real estate. "And in Dade County, we see the county as being hostile to existing parks," Williams says.

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