Money

Luxury Housing Is Threatening to Wipe Out Miami’s Trailer Parks

The wealthy city of Coral Gables is trying to take control of some unincorporated land that would likely displace 225 people in a trailer park.

by Alexandra Martinez
May 6 2019, 2:44pm

Image: Zak Bennett

When Miguel Castro moved into his Little Gables trailer home, his backdoor neighbor gifted him a potted schefflera tree. It was a welcome gift, but Castro quickly saw a more practical use for the umbrella tree—he would plant it as a barrier to discourage trespassers.

Today, Castro’s rectangular lot is a tropical oasis from the encroaching concrete on Miami’s southwest Eighth Street. But the verdant refuge could soon be demolished. For the past three years, the wealthy city of Coral Gables has been pushing to annex a 205-acre, unincorporated area of Miami-Dade County that includes the Little Gables trailer park and its 225 residents. It’s a move that would subject them to higher taxes and most likely, displacement—recently re-elected Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli has openly said the trailer park would have to “disappear”, adding that the new development would be built for young couples.

The mayor’s words mirror a national trend of trailer park owners selling their long-time investment to new investors who drive up the rent and eventually wipe the trailer park off the map, adding to a nationwide housing crisis where only 37 affordable homes exist for every 100 low-income renters. And there’s plenty of incentive for local politicians in charge: During the recent election in Coral Gables, Mayor Valdes-Fauli received $29,500 in March alone from developers, real estate firms, contractors and construction companies.

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"It’s not a lot, or maybe people would look at it like it’s poverty, but I don’t see it as poverty. I see it as the best there is in the world," said Miguel Castro, president of the homeowners association. Image: Zak Bennett

The Little Gables trailer park opened in 1931 when the Great Depression plunged the economy into scarcity. Since then, Miami’s population has grown from 143,000 to 2.7 million, and the average rent for a one bedroom apartment has reached $1,700, with only more growth expected. At $500 a month for the lot rental, tenants said the trailer park offers a reprieve. For residents with fixed incomes, disabilities, or who have recently immigrated to this country, there is often no other option—applications for public housing in Miami are closed and people are still being called off a 2008 waitlist intended to alleviate Miami-Dade’s affordable housing crisis.

The annexation would weigh heavily on the residents of Little Gables. Many tenants have spent their whole lives here, and have cultivated a community in those decades. They have families, doctors and jobs nearby, and relocation would upend all of it. Their trailers, which most spent at least $4,500 to purchase decades ago, would be too expensive to take with them, and would have to be demolished. And for those who are in critical health conditions, the physical strain of moving would put them in an even more precarious situation.

Filiberto Llerena, 81, said he doesn’t want to leave. He has owned his trailer for over 30 years. His days are spent taking care of his ailing wife, Julia Edith Llerena, 82, who is confined to her bed after open-heart surgery, a fractured hip, and a stroke three years ago landed her in a fragile condition. “I’m going to wait until they find me somewhere to live if they have to demolish this,” Llerena said.

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“I’m going to wait until they find me somewhere to live, if they have to demolish this. And if not then they need to pay me, because this cost me money," said Filiberto Llerena. Image: Zak Bennett

On a typical day, the residents at Little Gables Mobile Home Park sit on patio chairs in front of their homes, sip café, and check in with their neighbors. Castro’s spot, particularly, is a hub of community. Patchouli incense and Marc Anthony on the radio waft through the air. Inside, his pets create a symphony: parakeets chirp against their cage’s metal bars, ping ponging with the rooster’s crowing. The humble space feels like a slice of his native Cuba.

“Every morning the neighbors drink coffee with me, sometimes we smoke a cigarette here. If I barbecue, I go give them some, we have a sense of feeling, of connection,” said Castro. But that sense of peace is limited—Castro is also president of the homeowners association, formed in response to the sudden onslaught of penalties for code violations.

In 2014, the County Regulatory and Economic Resources building department, a local agency that oversees housing, started running random sweeps on the property owned by Burleigh Kaplan of Gables Trailer Park INC and found over 70 code violations in Little Gables, mostly illegal additions to their homes that the tenants rented out for extra income. In an attempt to get the tenants off the land, the agency slapped them with substantial fines and forced them to take down the additions, but the property was finally up to code.

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"We earn our money is based on a service to the people who have money and it’s not enough, we earn very little," said Gloria Romero. Image: Zak Bennet

A year later, when tenants heard that the property owners were interested in selling, they sought out the help of the nonprofit organization, Legal Services of Miami. As owners of the trailers, but renters of the land, they attempted to use their right of first refusal to purchase the park. An angel investor was willing to provide a mortgage, but it wasn’t enough. The property was sold to Jay Suarez of Titan Development Partners LLC, a real estate and property management company.

“After I cleared up the violations, everyone is suddenly interested in the park, I got an offer for $8 million,” said Suarez, who insisted he wanted to keep the trailer park as it is. “The bottom line is, I turned that down. That’s not my interest.”

If the annexation passes, the trailer park would still be subject to Coral Gables’ notoriously strict code enforcement, which includes painting your home a palette of muted colors approved by the Board of Architects, and not parking a pick-up truck in your driveway. The affluent city’s higher property taxes would amount to an increase of $1.21 per thousand in taxable value or $500 to $1,000 annually for homeowners, in addition to $405 more for solid waste removal. Suarez, who already raised the rent $40 in October, admitted that the increases would have to come out of rent spikes for the tenants. Regardless of development plans, annexation would mean stricter regulations and an increase in rent. Relocation would be inevitable.

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“in the long run this is going to disappear, we can be here one year, two years, maybe three more years, but this is going to disappear," said Alberto Agramonte. Image: Zak Bennett

Coral Gables is not waiting for him to get on board. In November 2017, the City of Coral Gables sent out official consent petition forms to see how many residents in the Little Gables neighborhood, which houses roughly 5,400 people, of which the trailer park houses only 225, were actually in favor of the annexation. Out of 1,607 registered votes, they received 400 in support of the annexation. But according to the residents’ lawyer, Nejla Calvo, no one at the trailer park received the notice.

Once they had the minimum requirement to submit the application at a city commission meeting on December 2017, the city retained a planning consulting firm to be available to redevelop the park. And City Commissioner Patricia Keon proposed that the commission pass an ordinance to make trailer parks illegal upon annexation. Other officials advised the Commission to find adequate places for mobile homeowners to relocate, such as Orlando, for example, four hours north of Miami.

This wouldn’t be the first time that government officials in Miami-Dade make a deal with developers to wipe their property clean of trailers. In 2016, Chinese company Wealthy Delight agreed to a deal with the Village of El Portal, a community slightly north of Little Haiti, to buy the Little Farm trailer park on the condition that they demolish the park. Two hundred and forty residents were displaced, some were sent to Orlando, while others remained homeless.

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“Life here is the most peaceful thing, as if I were in Cuba, the people treat you the same way they do back there, it’s great," said Zoraida Leon. Image: Zak Bennett

The Director of Planning and Zoning, Ramon Trias says nothing has been decided and plans are still in a very preliminary, conceptual level. “I think we can have some, let’s say row houses, small apartments, some way to keep the streets where they are but enhance the landscaping,” Trias said. “The idea is not to displace people, but to provide better ways to develop the land. But, is there a willingness to do it?”

For now, it’s a waiting game. The application for annexation was submitted in February 2018. By December 2018, it passed in the County Planning Advisory Board. It will ultimately come down to a vote by the roughly 5,400 Little Gables residents of which the trailer park houses only a fraction of that.

At the end of the day, Castro’s partner washes dishes inside their recently renovated trailer. The couple stripped the walls of mold and redid the kitchen, totaling a near $4,000 investment. Now, Castro’s only hope is that he can keep his labor of love. “I would have to cry and declare a state of misery because where would we go?” says Castro. “That would be like a hurricane coming and destroying everything.”