Booted

These folks want to stay, but soon they'll have no choice

Lucy Delgado's American Dream is about to die.

The petite, talkative mother of four, together with her husband, Ervin, moved to Miami from Managua, Nicaragua, in 1990. After two years of saving, the family bought a home — an $8000 trailer at Blue Lake Mobile Home Ranch on West Flagler Street and 98th Avenue. It wasn't much, but they painted their name on the mailbox and moved in.

"We lived tranquilly," Delgado said recently as she cradled her sick one-year-old, Daniel.

Lucy Delgado (center) and other  residents of Blue Lake Mobile  Home Ranch face a bleak future
Jacqueline Carini
Lucy Delgado (center) and other residents of Blue Lake Mobile Home Ranch face a bleak future

The tranquility is gone now, and Delgado is contemplating her children's future beyond June 1, the deadline for Blue Lake residents to evacuate the property. "We don't have a plan," she said.

During Super Bowl week this past February, journalists from around the world descended on the ramshackle trailer park as part of a tour hosted by the Miami Workers Center. On display was the underside of Miami's glitzy image — the displacement of the working poor by a steamroller of development and criminal mismanagement of housing funds.

Reporters arrived at Blue Lake in a chartered bus, having already visited Umoja Village, a homeless encampment in Liberty City, and watching homeless people clash with police in Overtown. The Miami Herald's Pulitzer Prize-winning series "House of Lies" had put a spotlight on the housing crisis, costing several county officials their jobs and leading to the arrest of prominent developer Oscar Rivero.

The trailer "ranch" was opened on the western edge of development the year Richard Nixon resigned and the Dolphins finished their perfect season. Named for the rectangular lake at its northern end, it was a sleepy place for years. As Latins flooded the area, Blue Lake became more diverse, and evidence of any Western theme faded away. The park grew from a few scattered trailers to 279 spots, occupied by construction laborers, landscapers, and restaurant workers, mostly from Central America. The value of Blue Lake's land — stretching from NW 98th Avenue to NW 102nd Avenue and between West Flagler Street and NW Fourth Terrace — grew steadily from its $35,000 purchase price in 1973 to $5.3 million today, according to property records.

Little changed for most of the time Delgado lived at Blue Lake. Then in April 2006, the park's owner, Bruce Rapee, sent out a missive that shocked many. "To all the wonderful residents of Blue Lake. It is with great sorrow that we need to write this letter to you." He reported that almost all of the park's homes had been deemed unsafe by county inspectors. "Your families are in danger from electrocution, fire, and structural collapse." Attempting repair would only worsen the problem. Everyone would have to move out.

Desperate, 87 residents including Delgado hired attorney John DeLeon — a well-known civil rights lawyer and at-large ACLU board member. Two-thirds of them applied for permits to repair their homes. Some received extensions. The Delgado family spent $260 (almost half what Ervin makes in a week at his job as a garden supply store supervisor) removing a small addition to the trailer — a bedroom for her three boys.

Then in July the county directed Florida Power and Light to cut off power to the park. That angered many, who say that county inspectors had rarely ever visited the park in years past. DeLeon questioned whether Miami-Dade County Commissioner Javier Souto was in cahoots with Rapee, helping him clear the park for redevelopment. Souto shot back, describing Blue Lake as a crime-ridden, overcrowded "shantytown or slum" that posed a threat to its residents. "[It] looked like something you don't expect to see in Miami-Dade County in 2006," Souto said.

Later that month DeLeon won a temporary injunction to keep power flowing, but an appellate court reversed the ruling in August, leading to a wave of power shutdowns. Clients of DeLeon kept their power, but dozens of their neighbors lived without air conditioning, refrigerated food, and light; others left Blue Lake.

In sworn testimony, dozens of residents told DeLeon they had received support and even guidance from Rapee when they installed their illegal additions. Responds Rapee's attorney, Larry Goodman, did not return calls seeking comment.

Rapee distributed another letter in September 2006. This time there was no "wonderful residents" salutation. He intended to change Blue Lake from a trailer park to "some other use." In bold, the letter stated, "You are hereby advised of your need to secure other accommodations by June 1, 2007." (Rapee and another man sold an apparently unrelated parcel of land for $3.9 million in January 2006, public records show.)

Frightened residents soon began packing cars with duffel bags of clothing and kitchenware. Few could afford moving trucks, so they left behind sofas, beds, and more. One particularly impoverished woman rolled her belongings away in a shopping cart, according to Serena Perez, an organizer with South Florida Jobs With Justice.

On a recent weekday morning stray cats prowled the overflowing trash cans at Blue Lake and backhoes churned the soil. A majority of the trailer sites had been raked clean. Then there was Elsa Vega's manicured little lawn, filled with cacti and flowering bougainvillea. The feisty 80-year-old Cuban immigrant has lived in her tidy double-wide for the past eighteen years, taking obvious pride in its upkeep. She is one of the lucky ones. Come June, Vega will move into her daughter's duplex in Doral.

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