A Double-Wide Life

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

Whatever its attitude now, Dade paralleled the rest of the state in the early days of trailerdom; vacationers with Airstreams in tow were a common sight along Biscayne Boulevard and the Tamiami Trail. Parks accommodated both middle-class snowbirds and working-class folks. The Magic City Trailer Court at 6005 NE Second Ave., with its tiny bungalows and some 90 trailers, dates back to the early 1900s. Silver Court, at 3170 SW Eighth St., was once the winter camp for the Ringling Bros. Circus. Several parks in the northwest and Hialeah attracted rabid gamblers who spent day and night at Hialeah Race Course.

World War II changed the nature of trailers. The industry got a boost from the need for portable, affordable housing for wartime factory and public-works laborers. After the war, while some trailer companies continued to produce travel trailers and recreational vehicles, others branched off exclusively into low-cost housing. Thus more of Dade County's parks became hosts to the next generation of portable living -- mobile homes that tended to find lots they liked and stay there. Throughout Dade County, trailer parks gained more permanent residents, usually either retirees or young, working-class (or working-poor) families.

The evolution of mobile home parks in Dade County stalled at this stage, thanks to the explosive urbanization of the Sixties. Subdivisions, townhomes, and shopping plazas soon hemmed in the parks on all sides, and the rising cost of land ruled out the building of new parks. Mobile home courts moved northward in the state, into rural counties with cheaper land. Thus, apart from exceptions like the sprawling, well-maintained University Lakes Mobile Home Park far to the west on SW Eighth Street, the modern mobile home park never really had a chance to take root. Multisection manufactured homes, commonly seen farther up the peninsula, are rarely seen here.

Today Miami-Dade County's trailer parks must adapt to urban realities or face slow extinction. Most have adapted; those that haven't are now running afoul of increasingly vigilant county code enforcement inspectors. In the older parks, these inspectors have no problem finding violations -- the result of negligence and/or ignorance by both park owners and residents, compounded by years of lax enforcement. The pressure on park owners to get out of the business can be great; every year a few give in, closing down and clearing the way for either commercial or residential development (which can be quite lucrative).

For those who are renting trailers, it is all very unfortunate. For those who own their mobile homes, it can be devastating, especially if the home is no longer mobile. Though Florida law protects the rights of mobile home owners, these residents can still be faced with losing both their trailers and the money they've put into them when a park closes.

In 1997 residents of two decrepit trailer parks on SW Eighth Street -- Villa Fair Trailer Park and Tall Pines Trailer Park -- were caught in a web of county building codes, fire safety regulations, and state law that threatens to cost them their entire investment.

Zealous enforcement, the "conspiracy" by which Helen Prater and others feel victimized, is not a conspiracy at all, but it is consistent with the county's statewide reputation in the mobile home industry for "hostility" toward trailer parks.

Rogelio Paz, el abuelo del campo, is offering a guided tour of the brown puddles and broken asphalt lanes of the Villa Fair Trailer Park.

The blue-eyed, freckled 81-year-old Cuban American is wearing a Radio Paz cap. He rearranges his crutches to make room for a passenger in his EZ-GO electric golf cart. As his cart rolls up the first cracked asphalt lane ("This is the best one," he says disdainfully, negotiating a bump), he occasionally removes the cigar from the rounded notch at his mouth's left corner to point out particular affronts.

The cart reaches the end of a row and Paz takes the corner as tight as he can. The little vehicle teeters near the curb of busy SW Eighth Street before completing its turn and sloshing through a deep, grassy puddle. "Carajo," he mutters.

He eases past a knot of youths at a chessboard set up on a table between two trailers. "Excuse me, boys," he hollers in his hoarse Spanish. "I have a reporter here looking at our case."

He guides the cart around potholes. The trailers are old, most dating from the Sixties. They range from habitable to squalid; a few wear "For Sale" signs. Ramshackle appendages abound; these add-ons are fashioned from everything from wood and tarpaper to brick, cinder block, and plaster. The vast majority of these additions are illegal and are among the main reasons Paz and his fellow residents face eviction.

At the moment, however, Paz is less concerned with possible tragedy than with the condition of the driveways.

"Two or three times I demanded that they paint lines, but they didn't do it," he laments, pointing at a blank slab of asphalt. A little farther along: "Here we had washing machines, pay phones. They demolished it."

All the problems Paz indicates are, to his mind, the park owner's responsibility to correct. And he believes it's the negligence of the owners, not the residents, that has placed the park on the brink of extinction. Despite the park owner's attempted eviction, this fifteen-year resident of Villa Fair is not going gently.

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