A Double-Wide Life

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

He reflects on the satisfactions of ownership: "For us, it's a joy to have had this. To be able to live, and create a family with few resources."

A mobile home has always been an accessible route to home ownership. Depending on the unit's age and size, it can cost anywhere from $5000 for an older trailer to $45,000 or so for a modest new home. The most common arrangement in Miami-Dade is one in which a resident owns the mobile home and pays rent on the lot space, which can range from $150 per month to $350 or more. The whole package is cheaper to buy than a condominium, cheaper to rent than any comparable-size apartment or home.

Robertson emphasizes that the county has tried to help find other housing for Calderon and his neighbors -- none of which would offer them the pride of ownership. "If they had been willing to walk away from their investment, which of course they're not, they could have found available low-income housing."

The one-year notice given by Penabad to Villa Fair expires this month. Edol, the county, Legal Services, and Legal Aid are still involved in settlement negotiations. Barbara Lanshe, the residents' counsel at Legal Services, says she's hopeful that an equitable solution can be worked out before the end of the month. If not, she says she will seek an injunction preventing the eviction of her clients.

Last week Edol made another move, issuing five-day eviction notices to tenants for nonpayment of rent. Lanshe says she hopes this new development can also be worked out in mediation.

Penabad maintains that his court battles with the county have actually bought the residents more time to find someplace else to live. "I've been, with them, supernice," he insists. "It's not that I'm fucking them to make money. Of course I'm going to do something else there. Of course I'm going to sell it. It's my property. I paid for it."

Forty blocks east of Villa Fair on SW Eighth Street lies another small, old, troubled park: Tall Pines Trailer Park. Tall Pines's ongoing difficulties are much like those at Villa Fair, but technically they have been resolved. In November the residents, the county, and the park owners -- Overseas Properties Trust, Inc. -- accepted the terms of a settlement agreement that, in essence, gave both the park and the residents a year to come into compliance. The main obligation for the residents: Get rid of the unlawful additions.

Francisca Artigas is a retired grandmother whose trailer is enlarged by a tile-floor cabana room. And for her the obligation of the owners, agreed to on her behalf by the lawyers, is onerous.

"Who is guilty of these additions?" she asks."We are the victims; I moved here thirteen years ago and bought this one with additions."

The owners of Tall Pines want to continue to run it as a trailer park. Indeed, in recent years a few local trailer park owners have made concerted efforts to bring their older, cramped facilities into compliance and to continue running them as mobile home parks.

This attitude bucks the trend in Miami-Dade County. More common is the move to convert aging parks into enterprises far more profitable. A Pep Boys is going up next door to Elliot Asbel's Sunnyside Motel and Trailer Park at SW Eighth Street near 60th Avenue, on land where Asbel once owned another small hotel and trailer park. In the newly incorporated city of Pinecrest, the owners of Fowler's Trailer Park at SW 124th Street and 82nd Avenue were disappointed in November when the village council refused a change of zoning that would have allowed the park to become the site for a new Publix. The owners of the Opa-locka Mobile Home Park, a 41-space nest of code violations on NW 135th Street, have declared they are looking for a commercial buyer.

The potential profit to be made from selling is one factor driving a few park owners out of the business each year. The county's stance of vigorous code enforcement is another.

"In many cases the nitpicking becomes very frustrating," says Asbel, who retired this past January. "The paperwork becomes mind-boggling, aggravation mounts. So you have park operators saying, 'I don't need this.'"

Capt. Maria Figueroa of the Miami-Dade Fire Department, who until recently worked in the department's code compliance office, notes that mobile home parks were made a priority in an initiative begun in 1995. "That's not to say they hadn't been inspected before," she explains. "Trailer parks are very problematic, with electrical and propane-tank violations." And, of course, failure to meet the separation requirements.

Figueroa is cognizant of the impact that strict code enforcement can have on residents of old parks rife with violations. "I personally sympathize with those people, but I don't think they're completely aware of the grave danger they're living under," she says. A mobile home, she points out, can burn to the ground in a matter of minutes; the spacing requirements are intended to keep one burning trailer from taking its neighbors with it.

Figueroa says that Hurricane Andrew did have some galvanizing effect upon the county's enforcement of codes -- at mobile home parks and elsewhere. But she emphasizes that the most egregious violations at the older parks are not necessarily related to hurricane safety. The hurricane wiped out about a dozen parks in South Dade. Two people were killed in their trailers after they ignored orders to evacuate. Only a few Miami-Dade County parks escaped unscathed.

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