The bulldozers were the worst. The noise and dust bothered the residents of Little Farm Trailer Park — a 15-acre low-income community just off Biscayne Boulevard in El Portal — and so did the newly vacant lots. They were a stark reminder of the fate residents feared awaited their own homes.
On a sunny weekday afternoon in late December, a rumor circulated that Little Farm's mysterious new Chinese owners were onsite for a business meeting. Marleine Bastien, a feisty Haitian-American activist with a loud voice and big heart, led a small group of residents to the manager's office. On the way, they passed an enormous rubble pile — what was left of Sofia Alexandre's neighbor's place — and continued for a few minutes along a dusty road where flocks of ducks roamed freely and trailers of various colors and conditions were spaced amid the dense tropical foliage.
At the manager's office, a shiny silver BMW was parked in the driveway, and several residents were already outside, chatting in Kreyol. They too had heard the rumors. Bastien walked to the door and knocked assertively. After a few seconds, the property manager, Addys Dominguez, a blond woman wearing a leopard-print shirt, opened cautiously.
"Hey, Addys," Bastien said.
"Hi," Dominguez replied, seeming nervous.
"How are you?"
"I'm doing good... I'm in a meeting."
"We understand that the new owners are here. Is that true? We've been trying to meet with them for a long time now."
Dominguez said the owners weren't there. Bastien was unconvinced: "I think she's lying."
The residents had been trying to meet the park's new owners for months, eager to learn what was really happening with Little Farm. They decided to wait. For half an hour, a dozen or so people lingered outside the manager's office. They were still outside when four police cars pulled up and parked alongside the BMW. Four officers got out and approached the front door like bouncers. Two middle-aged Asian men in dress shirts exited the office hastily.
"Sir!" Bastien shouted. "Do you know there are people here who are trying to get their money back?"
Avoiding eye contact with the crowd, the men descended the steps of the manager's office. They got inside the BMW and pulled away. The residents erupted in Kreyol.
"They're cowards," Bastien said of the businessmen. "Look at these homeowners standing up. These people should have at least had the decency and the courage to stand up and talk to them!"
It wasn't always like this. Until just last year, the residents of Little Farm, a decades-old mobile home community of several hundred low-income tenants tucked just west of Biscayne between NE 83rd and 87th Streets, felt secure. Some paid monthly rent for the land they lived on, but most owned their modest homes, often having invested their entire life savings from years of working low-paying jobs. They fixed up kitchens and maintained tidy gardens. They raised their families there and had no intention of leaving — and nowhere else to go: For years, as Miami's real-estate market has skyrocketed around it, Little Farm has existed among the city's last nongovernmental, low-income communities. It's a place where, until recently, working-class Hispanic and then Haitian immigrants could still afford to establish roots.
One day last February, everything changed. Little Farm was sold for $14.25 million, and Wealthy Delight, a company based in Coral Gables but whose owners are difficult to trace, took over. Soon it became clear the Village of El Portal had agreed to forgive more than $8 million in liens on the site if the new owners paid $575,000 and razed the mobile home park.
A few months later, Wealthy Delight offered residents small settlements to vacate promptly and issued a February 28, 2016 removal deadline for the entire park. If completed, it would be among Miami's largest evictions in decades — and a stark example of the real-estate transformation that's been consuming the city for years.
The village maintains it's essentially a third party and is committed to assisting residents. A representative for Wealthy Delight says the company is actually doing more for Little Farm than the law requires. A legal battle is ongoing, but for months the park has been engulfed by uncertainty and fear.
"What really hurts me is that we are all human beings," says Alexandre, a mother of two young children who has no idea where her family would go if evicted. "They treat us like garbage."
Gentrification is nothing new in Miami, where wealthy newcomers have been buying up property and driving up prices since the city was founded more than a century ago. There was a housing boom in the 1920s, driven in part by lax local Prohibition laws, and another in the '50s and '60s, when air conditioning attracted wealthy northerners and revolution delivered hundreds of thousands of Cubans. The influx contributed to the displacement of thousands of African-Americans. In the '80s, cocaine money fueled five-star hotels and luxury developments, transforming previously modest neighborhoods.
But nothing has changed Miami quite like the past 15 years, when two housing booms cemented the city's status as one of the nation's hottest real-estate markets — and among its least affordable cities. "In Silicon Valley, they make technology," says local real-estate expert Peter Zalewski. "In South Florida, we make condos and we make real estate. That's really what we do."
In the early 2000s, the whole country plunged into a housing boom, but Miami surged earlier and faster than just about anywhere else. The city's burgeoning connection to Latin America contributed to the rush, as did South Florida's exploding population; politicians also created a hyper-growth-friendly climate.
"Now is the time we stop talking about potential," Mayor Manny Diaz famously boasted in front of a crowd at the Coconut Grove Convention Center in 2005. "Now is the time to take our rightful place as one of the world's greatest cities."
By then, construction cranes filled the skyline. In May of that year, the Miami Herald reported that 114 major projects were in various stages of development in the urban core. Developers were proposing more than 60,000 new condo units. "You have a wave of development underway here in Miami that is unprecedented," Charles Hales, a transportation consultant, told the newspaper. "Bigger than anything, bigger than Hong Kong in the boom years of development."
The growth created a glittering new skyline — "an instant city," one analyst called it — but the benefits weren't shared equally. Nearly all of the projects were "financed, planned, developed, and constructed by Miami's Latino bourgeoisie," university professors Sharon Navarro and Rodolfo Rosales write in their 2013 book, The Roots of Latino Urban Agency. Some middle-class residents temporarily benefited, but many were simply priced out. And when the bubble burst in 2006, "it was the city's working-class Hispanics and African-Americans who bore the burden of 10 percent of unemployment and had one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates," the authors wrote.
Around 2009, Miami began experiencing another real-estate boom — this time driven almost entirely by wealthy foreigners who paid in cash. Brickell, the epicenter, was transformed again by Latin American millionaires who saw South Florida real estate as a kind of gold rush. "This is the modern version of cowboys trying to go out West and settle it," Zalewski says.
The new boom has now rivaled or even eclipsed this century's earlier one, the analyst says: More than 415 new condo towers have gone up since 2009 in South Florida, and prices have shot through the roof, evidenced by projects such as the ongoing $1 billion Brickell City Centre and the record-breaking sale, in early 2014, of a tiny undeveloped Miami River parcel for $125 million. "That marked the peak," Zalewski says.
The dramatic effect of so much building is hard to overstate. In just 15 years or so, Miami has essentially reinvented itself as a new city: Once-gritty Wynwood is an internationally known arts district; the Design District, now home to Fendi and Louis Vuitton, is among the nation's most luxurious shopping districts. But so much new development has inevitably huge consequences. For much of the city's population, the neighborhoods where residents have lived for years are no longer affordable — a problem compounded by low wages and a shortage of rentals.
For years the gentrification has been moving north, through Wynwood and then Edgewater and midtown. The next neighborhood to transform, analysts agree, is Little Haiti — the area just south of the Little Farm Trailer Park. Given the extent of the county's housing crisis, says Hugh Gladwin, a Florida International University professor and former Village of El Portal council member, the relocation options for the park's residents are particularly bleak.
"The bottom line is they're screwed."
Clemencia Charles was born on the Haitian island of Tortuga in 1956, the year before notorious dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier was elected president, and grew up nearby in the large city of Port-de-Paix. Charles' father had a farm in the country with sweet potatoes, beans, figs, and various animals. He also had ten children by four women, and when Clemencia was a little girl, her parents split.
Growing up in Haiti was simple, the soft-spoken Charles remembers. She would go to movies for a penny, study with other kids under the glow of streetlights, and happily buy groceries for her mom. When she was a teenager, she moved to Port-au-Prince to study, living in a house with about ten of her cousins. But after years of corruption and poverty under Duvalier, Haitians were fleeing en masse for better opportunities, and Charles' relatives began leaving too, for places like Montreal and New York.
Eventually, the big house in Port-au-Prince felt lonely. When she was 17, Charles visited an uncle in Miami. Once she arrived, her extended family decided it was best for her to stay.
Initially, Charles thrived. She worked odd jobs and soon fell in love with another Haitian expat, David, who had a large boat and established a successful business transporting goods to and from Haiti. When Clemencia was 21, she and David had their first child, Lee. A couple of years later, they had another son, Steve. But David died, and Clemencia's life became a struggle. She lived in a house in Little Haiti, near Toussaint L'Overture Elementary School, but commuted to work long hours as a hotel cleaner or restaurant cook, doing everything she could to scrape by.
"After he died, I went through a period of a really harsh time," Charles says. "I was the mother and the father... I had to bring the children to daycare before I had to work, and I had to travel far."
But she persevered. Lee and Steve graduated from high school and began college, and in 2003, Charles fell in love with a new home, at the Little Farm Trailer Park, which felt peaceful and secluded. She paid $18,000 to buy a large trailer with pretty white latticework. It was near the edge of the park, next to a home owned by another Haitian woman — one of few who lived there at the time — on a quiet street with palm trees. "It was like a village, very beautiful," Charles says. "That's why we came here."
By then, Little Farm was already more than a half-century old. The first structure on the site that appears in Miami-Dade property records was built in 1945, although it's possible some kind of mobile home park existed even before that, on land that had likely once been a poultry farm. For decades the place was mostly white and middle class; in the early 1980s, when Gladwin, the FIU professor, moved to town, there were several other mobile home parks in the area. Little Farm, the professor says, was "pretty well integrated" with surrounding El Portal.
Later that decade, El Portal Police Sgt. Jack Schaufele and his wife bought the property for $2.73 million, and for several years it continued attracting more middle-class residents, particularly Canadians. "It looked like an elderly community from Palm Beach," El Portal cop Ronnie Hufnage told the Biscayne Times in 2010. "But then it just went to hell."
In 1996, the Schaufeles sold to a real-estate investor, who went bankrupt just three years later; in 2006, Little Farm was bought again, by the firm Biscayne Park LLC. By then, the place had become mired in problems: The septic system was a disaster, crime and break-ins were becoming common — Little Farm accounted for virtually all of tiny El Portal's police calls — and several trailers burned to the ground due to electrical fires.
Throughout the '00s, as the real estate became increasingly valuable, a few prospective developers, including Walmart, considered buying the site. They ultimately pulled out after arsenic was found in the soil and zoning issues proved problematic. Biscayne Park was a neglectful owner, and the Village of El Portal continued issuing code violations and liens in an effort to force owners to improve conditions for residents. "People were living in deplorable conditions," says Village Attorney Joe Geller, also a Democratic state representative from North Miami-Dade. "We went to court to try to coerce them to clean it up."
Over time, residents became increasingly low-income. They were primarily Haitian and Hispanic immigrants who had often invested $10,000 to $20,000 to buy the trailers. (They own the homes, most of which are not actually mobile, but pay several hundred monthly to rent the lots.)
Most planned to stay for years. Many had no idea the park was almost sold and redeveloped a few times or that last winter it was sold again, to the Coral Gables-based company Fullview International Group, which would quickly set up Wealthy Delight, an LLC for the park's future development. "I was shocked," Clemencia Charles says of when she finally learned through the resident grapevine that the park had been sold. "Everybody was shocked."
The $14.25 million sale was finalized last February. Soon, Evian White, an attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami, began getting phone calls from people who had heard rumors. Was it true the residents would be evicted?
White filed public records requests with El Portal and learned something startling — the village had been in on the deal. There was a signed settlement agreement among the buyer, seller, and the village: Whoever owned the property, the agreement stated, would have to demolish the park within 14 months and pay the village $575,000. In exchange, the village would forgive about $8 million in code enforcement fines and liens.
Geller says it was a good deal for El Portal. The liens were heavily contested, and the village was lucky to come away with $575,000, he says.
To activists, the agreement was outrageous. "There was no mention of any concern or thought about the welfare — or any kind of compensation or anything — of the fact that people live there," says Kian Fredericks, an advocate with the South Florida Voices for Working Families. "You wouldn't know it, reading this settlement, that there are human beings living on this property."
To Legal Services' White, the agreement also appeared illegal. State law requires that before any government agency is involved with a mobile home sale that results in the removal of residents, it must determine that alternative housing is available. The village failed on its obligation, White argues. She filed a complaint on behalf of three residents in April.
A judge dismissed the case in July. Geller argued the village hadn't facilitated razing the park, so no study was required. The court agreed.
White was crushed. "Not for me personally — I'm going to go home at night — but I worried about the hundreds of families that are affected by this," she says. "It was very disappointing."
On August 28, residents found six-month eviction notices on their front doors. Little Farm was sent into a panic. Most people were already financially stretched, and many would have nowhere to go. They organized, holding weekly meetings and attending village public hearings in droves. In late September, a couple dozen stood in front of El Portal Village Hall and chanted, "Poor people matter." Later in the fall, a group, waving signs and chanting, rallied in front of a downtown law office affiliated with Wealthy Delight. The lawyers walking by in fancy suits were unmoved, says Bastien, the activist.
In an effort to facilitate the property razing, residents say, Wealthy Delight began evicting residents it claimed hadn't paid rent. They say the property manager also harassed them about leaving, and representatives from the company persistently dodged the residents' efforts to meet.
Wealthy Delight, through its attorney Howard Kuker, offered cash to residents to vacate voluntarily. Many, particularly undocumented immigrants, accepted the offer and left. But to others, the offer amounted to an insult. "They offer me $2,000," says 72-year-old Clairmise Blanc, who's lived in her trailer for nearly a decade. "What's $2,000 going to do for me? Nothing! Nothing!"
Kuker, who's also acting as the company's spokesperson, is adamant his client has acted ethically. He points out that the offers of $2,000 to residents were double what state law requires and that since Wealthy Delight assumed ownership, the new owners have made several improvements, including regularly pumping out the previously overflowing sewage system. He says he and Wealthy Delight are sympathetic. One effort by the firm to provide individual counseling to residents fell through, he says, but representatives have joined the village in offering housing help and workshops. "I don't belittle or dismiss [residents'] claims," he says, "but that's not my client's problem."
Yet even Kuker insists he doesn't know who is really behind the firm that hired him, or the company's development plans. There is, however, speculation. Fullview International Group, the company that spawned Wealthy Delight, has affiliations, via shared agents and one identical mailing address, to the United States' EB-5 visa program — also known as the Immigration Investor Program. It allows affluent foreigners to gain American resident visas if they create jobs by purchasing property at a high price.
The vast majority of EB-5 visas have been awarded to Chinese. Wealthy Delight's managing member is Wu Fu Jing, also known as Leo Wu, who is strongly linked to the program. The name "Wealthy Delight" also appears to have been chosen to appeal to well-off potential Chinese buyers.
The connections don't amount to explicit proof of anything, says Fredericks, the activist. "But it's all one soup, and it is fair to make the assumption that this is EB-5 money." Particularly ironic for Little Farm, she points out, is that the EB-5 program is designed to bolster immigration, but in this case the newcomers are being granted citizenship at the expense of other immigrants who have toiled for years. While the EB-5 program allows the wealthy to skip the line, "these hard-working immigrants who have done everything we've asked of them... lose everything."
Throughout the fall of 2015, tension in the park grew. More residents were evicted over nonpayment, although they often disputed the claims. At one point, Wealthy Delight brought in machinery, and a piece of equipment was burned in an apparent arson. Residents adopted slogans and chants: "We will not give up! We will not give in!"
Village Manager Jason Walker says El Portal has been generous in offers of support and services, and insists the loudest Little Farm residents don't represent the majority, who are appreciative of the help. Kuker, Wealthy Delight's attorney, accuses the activists of escalating the tension. "I'm not trying to paint my client as an angel, because nobody will buy that," he says. "But my clients are doing the best they can in what is becoming a very bad situation."
Charles was awakened one night in October by knocking at her door — a forceful, aggressive boom-boom-boom.
"Who's there?" she asked.
Outside she found multiple village cops and Addys Dominguez, the property manager. The officers said they were evicting her for failure to pay her mortgage. Charles was dumbfounded — she had always paid on time, she says, and showed a receipt for the prior month's payment to one of the officers.
She says the officers looked at the receipt and concluded they couldn't follow through with the eviction. The officers left, but then Dominguez placed a padlock on Charles' door anyway. "She said that if I need to get back in, I have to call her."
(Kuker, the attorney for Wealthy Delight, which contracts Dominguez, acknowledges problems with record-keeping but defends the eviction, maintaining that Charles was in fact behind on her rent.)
After she was locked out, Charles visited Bastien, who notified the Village of El Portal, which then offered to pay for a hotel temporarily. Charles refused. "I'm a homeowner," she told the village. "I don't want your charity."
By December, the bulldozers were rolling, as Wealthy Delight acted on its legal right to raze a structure 30 days after it had been left vacant. Some trailers had been turned into enormous rubble piles. Some residents left; others — even the most adamant — began packing up. The uncertainty had brought everyone together, Sofia Alexandre says, but it was also stifling.
"I'm scared," her 10-year-old son told a reporter, "?'cause we don't have no money, and we don't have no place to stay. If they kick us out, we're going to be sleeping on the floor."
On January 13, the Third District Court of Appeal heard Miami Legal Services' case against the Village of El Portal. This time the judge ruled that by not conducting a relocation analysis, the village had, in fact, violated state law. For the Little Farm legal team, it was a vindication. Some residents celebrated by marching and chanting through the trailer park.
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But the appeal victory did nothing to bring clarity. The judge ruled that the case be sent back to the lower court for another hearing, but as of presstime, the February 28 deadline was still intact. Kuker says that on March 1, Wealthy Delight will "prepare to file the evictions."
After the initial excitement, residents were left really not knowing what to think. "I'm happy," Clemencia Charles says of the decision as she sits on a plastic chair on her neighbor's porch in late January. She smiles, but only for a second — mostly she's still worried, she says, and hurt.
After Charles was evicted, her trailer was broken into and several thousand dollars' worth of jewelry was taken, she says. Someone also stole a piece of the home's pipes for the aluminum — a fairly common occurrence at Little Farm — and it had caused a huge water leak that ruined many of her belongings. The padlock on her door was later removed after a judge intervened, and she was allowed back in, but her home was unlivable. For months she's been staying with her neighbor and sleeping on the sofa. Her savings have been depleted from the fiasco, Charles says. At this point, she has no idea if or when the park will be razed or where she'll go if it is.
"I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen," she says in a soft, resigned voice. "Only God knows."