By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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?