Trailer trash. Rats. Imbeciles.
That's how the residents of the Florida City Camp Site and RV Park feel they've been treated by Florida City officials as the city pushes them to vacate the place they've lived for years.
Earlier this month, residents were given a flyer from the city telling them that the land the RV park sits on, which is owned by Florida City, was sold to a private company. The notice said they had six days to leave before they would be considered trespassing and become subject to removal.
After the notice was passed around the park on March 11, the residents filed a class-action lawsuit, arguing they weren't given proper written notice of eviction with enough time. About a week later, they won an emergency order from a Miami-Dade County judge that bars the city from immediately removing them.
The city intends to fight back. During a recent meeting, commissioners voted to hire a law firm to represent Florida City in the suit. In the meantime, residents are in limbo, unsure when they'll be forced to leave.
Many of the park's residents are retirees, disabled persons, or military veterans who live at the RV park because it's all they can afford. Most rely on Social Security or other government assistance to pay their rent, which runs about $400 a month. The pending eviction has caused a whirlwind of anxiety for many residents, some of whom have fallen physically ill on account of the mounting stress.
Damian Nuñez De Villavicencio has been living in the RV park for about five months. Nuñez, who is physically disabled and prone to nervousness, has a pacemaker and takes a slew of medications to maintain his heart health. He attributes a recent medical episode to the stress of being told he had only a few days to pack up and leave the RV park.
"People from the government were saying I've got to move. I went crazy. My heart went crazy," Nuñez tells New Times. "I started breathing heavy and I collapsed. When I woke up, [the paramedics] told me I had two heart attacks."
Nuñez subsists on food stamps and uses his disability check to pay for the $480 rental space where his trailer is parked; after that, he just gets by as best he can. He relies on the kindness of his neighbors in the park, but if he's forced to leave, he says he doesn't have a plan B.
"I got nowhere to go. I'll live in the middle of the street if I have to," he says.
That sentiment is shared by other park residents. Jesus Victores hasn't slept in days, thinking about how he and his wife, Lissette Gonzalez, will have to leave the place they've lived for 18 years. After a work accident many years ago, Victores lives with physical and mental disabilities.
On March 17, the date the city's notice gave as the deadline to vacate, Victores had to go to the hospital for arm surgery. He says he wasn't sure if he'd have a home to come return to when he was discharged.
"I thought I'd return to nothing. I brought a pillow and blanket with me in case I needed to live in the street. I left the dogs tied up by the trailer because I had no one to leave them with," Victores says, fighting back tears. "It's not easy."
Victores was unaware of the emergency injunction, but he still expects to be evicted at any time. He and Gonzalez have been looking for another camp or plot of land to take their RV, but so far, they haven't found anything they can afford with their joint income from Social Security and disability checks.
"We went all the way to the Everglades looking for some kind of camp or farm to go. We haven't found anything," Gonzalez says.
Other residents are bound to the park for medical reasons and have no idea how they're supposed to leave. JR Tindell, a 75-year-old Vietnam War veteran, has chronic lung disease. He can't walk the few feet from his bed to his chair without wheezing, but he's nonetheless made the trek to other RV parks to see if he can find a new place to live. He says other parks are either full or will only accept newer trailers less than five years old, and he can't afford to replace his decade-old home.
"I don't know where I'm gonna go. On the street, probably," Tindell says.
Dennis Wells, another Vietnam veteran, is confined to bed and receiving hospice care. His wife, Patty, who calls him her "soldier boy," says he's lost the ability to walk, and she has no way to move him if they're evicted.
Florida City has promised the land to a developer called TREO Group, which lists the RV park property on its online portfolio under the name "TREO Crossings." Renderings depict plans for a large-scale hotel and residential buildings.
Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace signed a contract in February 2019 to sell the land to TREO Group for $6.8 million. Part of the agreement requires that the city remove all tenants before the deal can close. Wallace tells New Times the company has already paid $900,000 toward the total price. (A copy of the contract is embedded at the bottom of this article.)
New Times left multiple voicemails seeking comment from Rolando Delgado, a managing member of TREO Group whose name is listed on the contract. Neither he nor TREO Group has responded.
Wallace, who has served as mayor of Florida City since 1984, says the property in its current state is a burden because the city cannot collect tax revenues on it because there are no buildings on the land. He says he hopes a commercial and residential development will create jobs and bolster the economy of Florida City, which is one of Florida's poorest municipalities, with a 40 percent poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data.
"There are no property taxes generated on a campground at all. The only revenue we get is fees paid by the campers," Wallace says. "We could take same piece of land and sell it. We have a rough economy here. We need jobs."
Wallace says the city pays about $20,000 a month to maintain and supply utilities to the campground, and the only revenue the city receives is from approximately 70 tenants who pay around $400 in rent. But he says residents have been leaving the camp and the revenue stream has been diminishing.
When asked if residents may be leaving because the city is pushing them to vacate, Wallace rejected the idea but did not offer an alternate explanation for the departures.
Wallace also claims residents of the RV park have known the land had been sold and says he's given them ample time to find new housing. After the city approved a zoning change to the land this past August 11, Wallace says, he held meetings with the tenants to tell them the campground was being purchased by a developer.
"'The buyers have no intentions of operating the facility as a campground.' That was told to the campers on August 21. Told to them that they should start to look for somewhere else to live," Wallace says.
Cheri Terrazas, a campground resident who is a plaintiff in the class-action suit, says Wallace has said for years that the land was going to be sold, but tenants were never given official written notice.
"Every year since I've moved in, he says we have to move out," says Terrazas, who has lived at the RV park for 14 years. "He never serves notice."
Wallace denies having those discussions with residents. And he says the TREO Group's offer for the land is the first he's aware of.
The alleged lack of legal notice serves as the basis of the court case against the city, according to Tom Culmo, an attorney for Terrazas and the other tenants. The court complaint argues that Florida statutes require the city to give at least six months' notice before evicting residents of a mobile-home park. Because residents were never sent an official letter affording them that much time, their attorneys argue, they cannot be evicted until the city sends out official letters.
Still, Culmo says, there will come a point when the residents will have to leave.
"It's not a matter of if they'll have to leave, but when. Once they're given written notice, then the time starts ticking for the residents to leave," Culmo tells New Times.
The city stopped accepting rent from tenants in January, which Wallace says was done to help residents save up money to find new lodging. But the residents say it's not nearly enough to find a home in Miami-Dade County's housing market.
"Where are we gonna go? Ninety percent of us are disabled. Eight hundred dollars isn't enough to move everything out, get a trailer, get a home," says Terrazas. "It’s not like we're not trying. We just can't find anywhere to go."