Tears flow as El Portal trailer residents are forced out

By Carol Marbin Miller
Miami Herald
September 29, 2015

Myriam Jules drove her daughter to school Monday morning, and returned to find all her belongings in cardboard boxes and garbage bags outside her trailer. Jules wanted desperately to search the mobile home to ensure all her earthly possessions had been saved. But strangers were nailing plywood across the front door.

“I couldn’t stop them,” the 36-year-old said. “I was trying to go inside. They said if I did they would call the Sheriff’s Department on me.”

For years, Jules and other impoverished residents of El Portal’s Little Farm mobile home park have lived on second chances.

The rundown trailer park has burned through four owners in less than 10 years. There was a bankruptcy and two lawsuits — the latter a last-ditch attempt to save perhaps 150 families from eviction. A previous owner racked up $8 million in code enforcement fines for leaking sewage, overflowing garbage and dangerous electrical wiring.

The Village of El Portal envisions the 15-acre property as an upscale new development, with townhouses, apartments and shops. The park’s new owner, a company called Wealthy Delight, hasn’t said what it wants to build there, the village manager said, though it has become clear that the plans don’t include trailers with poor people and elders.

As redevelopment and gentrification have crept steadily north up Biscayne Boulevard, the residents of Little Farm, at 8500 Biscayne, have run out of reprieves: A Miami-Dade Circuit judge tossed out the lawsuit seeking to protect scores of residents from eviction. And, within the past two weeks, residents who were behind in rent were evicted. Many of them watched helplessly as their belongings were bagged and dumped on the curb.

The rest of the park’s residents have been given until February to leave.

“I am brokenhearted,” said 72-year-old Matilde Retana, who had lived at the park for 17 years. On Tuesday, a pickup truck drove away with everything she owned as her neighbors wailed and screamed “justice” at the driver. Retana quietly sobbed on a neighbor’s stoop. The Village of El Portal will be paying for Retana to spend at least three nights at a nearby motel, she said. But after that: “I am going to be homeless. I am going to be living on the streets.”

Howard Kuker, a Miami lawyer who represents Wealthy Delight, said all the evictions are being done in accordance with state and local laws, and that the residents being removed all have been given ample notice.

Residents with a certified title to their mobile homes have been offered twice the $1,375 in relocation fees required by state law, Kuker said. Some of the residents had owed the landowners months in back rent. One woman who was ousted Tuesday was about $14,000 in arrears, he said.

Under state law, Kuker said, the landlord was within its rights to remove the belongings of renters from their homes and leave them on the curb. The renters are allowed 24 hours to remove their property. After that, he said, “it is considered garbage to be picked up. You can’t allow the stuff to sit there, adding garbage on top of garbage on top of garbage.”

“They all knew it was happening,” Kuker said, adding the park’s owners tried to be compassionate to the residents. “We are trying to make this amicable,” he said.

For many of the mobile home park’s residents, though, eviction will send them on a particularly perilous journey.

Marie Janine Desir, 56, lives in a small, well-kept trailer with her 80-year-old mother, Naleda Desir, and her daughter, Frisline Jeanise Victor. The 16-year-old has cerebral palsy. She cannot walk or talk, and is fed only soft or pureed food. The centerpiece of Desir’s trailer is a hospital bed with a lift that enables Desir to move her daughter from a wheelchair to the bed. Desir shows a visitor a Tupperware container filled with prescription bottles as her mother sweeps the floor.

Desir works a couple of days each week, mostly cleaning other people’s homes. She says she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure.

“I have nowhere to go,” Desir says in Haitian Creole. “I don’t have anybody. I have no husband. Only God.”

Her mother cries softly. “I am going to be on the street, and I am an old lady. What am I going to do? I hurt for her,” Naleda Desir says of her daughter, “but I cannot help her. I don’t know where we’re going to go.”

The mother and daughter say they must leave their trailer, which they own, by Feb. 28.

Myriam Jules was evicted from her trailer on Monday, having returned to her home to find everything she owned on the curb. Jules acknowledges that she owes the park’s owner four months’ rent. She paid $4,000 for the trailer, she said, and owed $375-per-month rent for the underlying land — which she had trouble paying because she has no income. She said she went last week to pay what she owed, but the park manager wouldn’t take her check. “She said they’re no longer taking payments anymore. They just want all of us to leave,” Jules said.

El Portal Village Manager Jason Walker said the park’s property manager told him she had not refused to take checks, but simply suggested they keep their money. She told residents they would be removed from their homes no later than February, no matter what, and that it made no sense to pay off their debts only to lose their homes anyway. “Why don’t you use your money to find another place,” the manager told the residents, according to Walker.

Jules spent Monday night in a motel, courtesy of the village. She expected to spend Tuesday and Wednesday night there, as well. After that, “I don’t know where I am going to go,” she said.

Jules said she is particularly worried about state child welfare workers. “I don’t want to lose my daughters if they find me living in the streets.”

Walker, the village manager, said the village is doing everything it can to help Jules and other residents. The village — it is the smallest municipality in Miami-Dade — is dipping into its own budget to pay motel bills. Walker has scheduled a conference call Wednesday morning with representatives of the county mayor’s office and the Homeless Trust to find housing or relocation money for renters who are being displaced.

As bad as the trailer park looks now, said village attorney Joe Geller, it was particularly “deplorable” in previous years.

Septic tanks overflowed, electrical fires were not uncommon, and “people nearly burned to death in trailers due to faulty electrical work,” Walker said. “Garbage was piled up in every corner.”

As bad as the trailer park looks now, said village attorney Joe Geller, it was particularly ‘deplorable’ in previous years.

The village had to “force” prior owners to improve conditions, and filed $8 million in liens against the property when owners refused to make the park livable, Geller said. When the liens didn’t work, the village filed suit, claiming the park had become a nuisance. Eventually, the village settled the liens for $575,000 “cash on the barrelhead,” and made clear the village would insist on continued improvements.

Among other provisions, the village extracted a pledge from a prior owner that a property manager would be on-site so that residents had a place to go when things went wrong. “It’s a lot better than it used to be,” Walker said.

Since Wealthy Delight bought the property, Walker said, communication with the village all but ceased. “We set up two meetings,” he said, “and they were both canceled.”

At present, Walker said, the village has no idea what Wealthy Delight plans for the soon-to-be-vacant land.