A Double-Wide Life

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

"They'll have to kill me to throw me out in the street," he says. "Because I'm a man. And I am 81 years old, and I'm an American citizen. From here, nobody moves me."

The crisis at Villa Fair has been mounting for years. In 1989 complaints from nearby residents led to a rash of county fire and building code citations against Edol Corp., which has owned the 50-year-old park since the late Seventies.

"This has not been an anti-anybody action on the part of the homeowners," says Paul Angelo, past president of the Westchester Home Owners Association, which has long been vexed by the conditions at Villa Fair. "It's been a pro-neighborhood action.

"You have a trailer park that's a dump, in absolutely terrible condition, and we're concerned about it. But we wouldn't have a problem with a park that was nice."

In 1990 the county sued Edol for long-standing violations. The primary issue involved the trailers' setback from SW Eighth Street. In 1992 Edol and its president, Novel Penabad, settled after Penabad agreed to pay $25,000 in fines and remove the trailers that were too close to the street.

Penabad got rid of eighteen trailers and paid the $25,000, but the county found that other violations had not been remedied. After more legal wrangling, Edol and the county came up with a new settlement agreement in January 1997: Penabad would close down the park. In February of that year, he gave residents one year's notice. (Florida law requires a year's notice of closure. After the year has passed, the park owner must either pay the cost of moving each unit, or, if a home cannot be moved, buy the unit.)

The one-year notice came as a shock to the residents. Some say they were never told that continuing violations of county codes could lead to the park's closure.

"When I bought my trailer five years ago, the office didn't tell me that there were violations in the park, that the park will be closed," says Antonio Colominas, a Cuban immigrant who works as a security guard. "I have invested $7000 here. Now I'm going to lose it."

Colominas's trailer, like most of its neighbors, has a substantial addition (a porch, tiny living room, and bedroom with linoleum tile and cheap paneling). Add-ons are perhaps the most troublesome violations within the parks; not only are they illegal, but they bring adjacent trailers to within less than fifteen feet of each other. Such crowding violates both building and fire codes.

Residents facing eviction for noncompliant additions is a familiar refrain to housing experts around the country. Ed Kramer, an attorney with Housing Advocates, Inc., in Cleveland, Ohio, has seen plenty of situations like Villa Fair's. He points out that many mobile home residents are poorer people unaware of regulations and of their rights, and that some park owners do nothing to educate them. Residents are allowed to sink their meager savings into trailers with illegal augmentations.

Villa Fair's residents did seek legal remedy, though. In March, Legal Services of Greater Miami filed suit against both Edol and the county on behalf of 35 of the park's residents. The gist of the complaint is that Edol was trying to use its own failure to comply with county codes as a reason for evicting the owners without compensation, in violation of state law. The residents also claim that the county didn't fulfill its obligations: State law requires the county to determine that adequate mobile home park space exists to accommodate the residents who would be displaced if Villa Fair closes.

Though the additions were built by residents, the county targeted the owner for compliance "so we wouldn't have to sue the poor people," says Assistant County Attorney Tom Robertson, who is representing Miami-Dade in the Villa Fair and Tall Pines cases. Once the residents sued the county, Robertson says, the county filed a counterclaim on the basis of their illegal additions.

The complaint against the county may be moot. Even if the trailer owners had somewhere to put their trailers, most of the trailers at Villa Fair have long since lost their mobility, either through simple deterioration or because of the add-ons. Some of these structures became even more entrenched after Hurricane Andrew, when residents used FEMA money to repair and reinforce both their damaged trailers and their additions -- sometimes with concrete.

"It's pitiful, but no one told them not to," says Elizabeth Hubbart, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of the Dade County Bar Association. (Legal Aid is representing a second group of Villa Fair residents in a suit identical to that brought by Legal Services.) "That's part of what's in dispute: who should have told them what, and when."

Eduardo Calderon, who says he's sunk up to $12,000 into adding on to and renovating his trailer in the ten years he's lived at Villa Fair, is pessimistic about the fate of his investment. "They say that we need to get rid of the additions, but that's impossible," says the Nicaraguan-born Calderon. The trailer alone does not have enough room to accommodate his whole family, he says, and the addition represents most of the money the family has saved over the years.

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