A Double-Wide Life

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

The overlapping responsibilities of park owner and trailer owner, and the fact that building violations have accumulated over the years, will continue to snarl attempts to resolve trailer park disputes. JoNel Newman, an attorney with the Florida Justice Institute who represented the residents of Tall Pines, believes that the settlement agreement she helped broker is a game attempt at unraveling a no-win situation.

"To be honest, we didn't think there were any good solutions," she sighs. "When something like this is allowed to exist for such a long period of time, there's no equitable way to correct it. And these are admitted health and safety problems. You couldn't say that leaving it alone is good either."

Newman says that, though the Villa Fair and Tall Pines cases are fairly extreme, she expects to see further battles among the county, park owners, and park residents as the county continues to go by the book on building and fire code violations. She even goes so far as to hint at the "conspiracy" Helen Prater feels is at work.

"As far as I can tell, the county has kind of gone down Southwest Eighth Street from east to west," she says. "The county's newfound religion on enforcing the codes has made it move a little faster in terms of converting these parks to commercial property."

The county, of course, stands to gain by replacing mobile home parks with commercial or residential development. These gains would come, potentially, from a substantial increase in property taxes. The tax assessment of most mobile home parks is based solely on their rental income. According to the Miami-Dade property appraiser's office, any permanent development, residential or commercial, would markedly increase the value of property currently rented out for parking mobile homes.

Stringent enforcement at older parks, says Frank Williams of the FMHA, is a way for Miami-Dade County to pursue its true agenda: getting rid of the parks. "Going about it in this way shields the county from being the heavy," Williams says. "We see this game played all over."

Bernardo Escobar, chief of staff for County Commissioner Javier Souto, has been hearing neighbors' complaints about Villa Fair for years. He denies that anyone is playing games with Villa Fair or any other mobile home park, though he does acknowledge that the county is doing a better job with code enforcement overall. "I don't know why, for years, enforcement was lax at the parks," Escobar says. "But you're seeing all these cases finally coming to a head. The county's getting tough, and they're doing the same with residential properties."

Assistant County Attorney Tom Robertson says he does see inspectors becoming more efficient in enforcing the codes but denies that mobile home parks are being singled out for enforcement. "We hope we'll be seeing a gradual improvement in these parks," he says.

Of course, one person's improvement is another's problem. This adage will continue to hold true until the likely outcome: Miami-Dade County's trailer parks will shrink in number because their time is past. It is an outcome that will never go down easy for those who are losing the only home they could afford.

"They told us, 'Get rid of the additions,'" says Miriam Wheelock, a Tall Pines resident. "But we have all our furniture in there, for the living room, the dining room. Where will we put it?

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