The nearly 90-degree heat and searing sun did not keep the 20 residents of the Sunny Gardens Mobile Home Park in Hialeah from gathering to tell their stories.
Some used a cane or a walker. Many are disabled. The majority are more than 70 years old and have been living for more than three decades in what they thought would be their final home.
They are proud of the improvements and repairs they did on their trailers, turning them into true homes and creating a community where neighbors help each other.
Some months back, they could have sold their mobile homes for $60,000.
Today, they are worth nothing. They represent the savings of a lifetime, but the residents are on the edge of becoming homeless.
On Feb. 20, the Sunny Gardens Mobile Home Park LLC, headed by Michael Kemp, sold the trailer park's 10 acres of land for $12 million. The buyers, Hialeah Pura Vida Commercial LLC and Hialeah Pura Vida Apartments LLC, are based in Delaware.
Deadline to move out
Now the 96 families who live in the trailer park, on the corner of 16th Avenue and West 29th Street, near Okeechobee Road, have been given until Nov. 30 to move out.
“Where are we going to go to, with the rents the way they are today? Under a bridge? At this age? It's not right,” said Esther Martin, 78, who cares for a daughter with bipolar disorder.
Martin has lived in Sunny Gardens for 30 years, since the days when Kemp's grandfather urged residents to improve their mobile homes, telling them the trailer park was a “Kemp family patrimony” that would never be sold.
On April 2, the mobile home owners received a notice to vacate the park by Nov. 30. The notice said the new owners want to put the land, now zoned for apartment buildings of up to three stories and industrial use, to other uses.
A request for a zoning change is being reviewed by attorney David Jove at the Hialeah legal department, according to a municipal source who asked for anonymity. Jove did not reply to el Nuevo Herald questions about a zoning change, which if passed, would allow the new owners to build apartment buildings of more than three stories.
Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández did not return Nuevo Herald calls, and council member Isis García-Martínez said the issue has not been discussed at that level.
"It's a little premature to make comments, without having the documentation of the case," said García-Martínez. "No documentation has been presented to us at the Council.''
No money to move elsewhere
Most Sunny Gardens residents own their homes, but rent the land underneath their homes. They pay from $620 to $680 a month in rent.
The mobile home owners say they don't have the money to move out. Many are retired or receive government subsidies. And those who do work say they have invested almost all their savings on the homes.
Naimy Vasconsello, 41, said she bought her mobile home five years ago for $25,000 and spent $20,000 improving it. She earns $18,000 a year and takes care of her son and mother, who arrived recently from Cuba.
“I feel frustrated, with my hands tied. They are giving me no options and I'm fighting to have then recognize my sacrifices,” said Vasconsello, spokesperson for a group of neighbors trying to create an association to represent them.
Vasconsello said she asked a real estate agent last year for an estimated value of her home, which sits on a single lot. The agent said the home was valued at around $45,000, Vasconsello said.
The park's new owners are offering the owners of trailer homes on single lots $5,000 if they move out before June 30. The offer drops to $3,000 if they leave by Sept. 30 and $2,000 by Nov. 30, the final deadline.
Owners of homes on double lots would receive $6,000 if they move out before June 30, $4,000 before Sept. 30 and $2,500 before Nov. 30. Residents must hand in their keys and the home's title to get the payments.
“They are forcing us to sell,” said Vasconsello.
Like most of the other residents, she cannot afford to rent the apartments offered by Professional Management Inc., which administers the trailer park.
Attorney Howard L. Kuker, who represents Hialeah Pura Vida Commercial LLC and Hialeah Pura Vida Apartments LLC, said the new owners are offering residents a “fair” deal.
"They are offering three times the amount required by the law,” said Kuker, noting that Florida laws on mobile-home lots require payment of only $1,375 in relocation payments.
Evian White de Leon, director of programs and policies at the nonprofit Miami Homes for All, said the amounts offered to Sunny Gardens residents are too small compared with the high price of rental properties in Miami.
“The average rent in Miami is $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment,” White de Leon said. The money offered to residents to move out “can only pay for the first and last month of rent, a deposit and maybe another month.”
Trailer parks offer reasonable prices for those who don't receive public assistance, she added.
“When we lose a property like that one, we're also losing homes that are rented at affordable prices and are not being replaced.”
White de Leon, whose organization works with government officials and groups that protect the homeless, pointed out that many of the residents of the Sunny Gardens trailer park are poor. The poverty line set by the federal government is an income of less than $12,140 per year, or $25,100 for a family of four.
Orestes Pérez, 99, bought his mobile home in 1976 and started paying $78 per month to rent the land. Now he pays $630 for the land — almost equal to his $670 retirement benefit — and has little left over for other expenses.
“I will go to live with a niece, or go to Cuba,” said Perez, who now lives on his own.
Health problems drove Francisco Tabarez, 90, and his wife, Bienvenida, 87, to leave their subsidized apartment and move to the trailer park with their daughter, Esther Lamas Tabarez, 65.
“Imagine how I feel. I had to sell and give away everything to live with my daughter, and we were happy because this was almost like our home,” said Bienvenida, adding that neither she nor her husband can work.
The elderly couple have a joint income of about $1,300 per month and expect to continue to live with their daughter, even though she's caring for a husband who suffers from cirrhosis of the liver.
“We've put a lot of work into this trailer. We just put on a new roof for $10,000," said the daughter.
Maricela Marichal said she spent more than $20,000 fixing her mobile home and still owes $27,000 on her $37,000 mortage. Most of the other owners own their homes outright.
“I'll leave with a debt,” said Marichal, 55, as she stood in her renovated kitchen.
Niurka Pavón, 54, said she received her mobile home as a wedding gift from her parents 18 years ago.
“We spent about $40,000 fixing it up,” she added.
She's proud of her wooden deck and the palm trees her husband planted. The couple have jobs, but would need to sell the mobile home to buy a traditional home. Now they have no choice but to look for a rental.
“The owners of mobile homes have no protection. If the owner sells the land and the new owner wants to change the use, they have no right to stay there. What the law provides is a measly amount,” said White de Leon.
One of the Sunny Gardens residents was one day late paying this month's rent and was fined $2. He tried to pay the fine with cash but was required to pay with a money order, said Vasconsello.
For Melba Sánchez, 84, it's a desperate situation. She lives with an ailing son and is raising a grandson, but the family receives only $1,200 per month.
“If they take pity on so many elderly and disabled people, we would not have to pay the rent until the very end. If not, I don't see how we're going to save up to pay the rent and deposit” on a new apartment, said Sanchez, who is hoping for a postponement.