Leaning against the wooden gate in front of the mobile home she boarded up and painted herself, Brandy Sarut realizes that, at 24, she’s facing the threat of eviction for the second time in her life.
The first time was when she was still a kid, growing up in Miami-Dade County. But this time, Sarut is a caretaker. She works just three days a week as a waitress at a nearby Denny’s and has a 3-year-old girl, Mariana. Her father, who lives in a trailer behind hers, is retired and disabled.
What little she makes at the diner goes into paying her $600 monthly rent to live in a small trailer, about the same amount paid by the 30 families living in one of the few non-subsidized affordable housing options left in the city. And, as of now, homeowners are likely to lose the bulk of the investments many made on their trailers decades ago.
Residents of the Paradise Park Mobile Home Park, west of the 27th Street bridge near fast-growing Allapattah, received a six-month notice of eviction last November, just a few days after the trailer park was bought by Miami-based developers for $15 million and about a month before one of South Florida’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks. Although the park has survived the threat of evictions and demolitions in previous years, this time it’s likely all residents will have to find new homes.
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“I don’t want to be a statistic and this type of stuff makes people statistics,” said Sarut, who has lived at Paradise Park for two years. “This is what’s been keeping me stable, been keeping me afloat. And for somebody to just come with all that money ... and snatch it from all of us, it’s not fair.”
River Rapids Partners LLC, a company that owns the majority of the park’s land, is the latest to buy up the 3.83-acre property along the Miami River — part of what developers perceive to be one of the last desirable waterfront areas ripe for redevelopment in Miami-Dade County. The New York-based Jacques Leviant 2004 Descendants Trust owns a third of the land. According to the land’s price history on Zillow, it last sold for $1.6 million in 2000.
Attorneys for the River Rapids Partners LLC did not return a request for comment.
According to the notice, the trailer owners were told River Rapids Partners LLC were “changing the use of the land” and all the families would have to leave by the end of May. But on the last day of May last week, Paradise Park residents were still awaiting word from the landowners on whether their evictions would proceed as planned.
Davalyn Suarez, the attorney representing the park’s Homeowners Association in a lawsuit challenging the evictions, is hoping to reach a deal for more time and more money to find new homes. She says the case of the Paradise Park residents is crucial because they aren’t able to take their most valuable possession with them: their trailers.
“Our position is that we’re challenging the park closure and we’re challenging the park closure specifically because when an owner buys land they have to give a relocation package to these residents,” Suarez said.
While their homes are considered “mobile,” they cannot be physically moved from the land beneath, which they all rent from the owners. Some residents told the Miami Herald the landowners offered them about $4,500 to leave in January.
But the money offer has since dwindled to between $1,300 and $1,500, which Paradise Park homeowners argue is not enough to rent in most places in Miami-Dade County. Residents also say the owners have so far refused to pay for their trailers, which cost some residents up to $18,000 several decades ago.
“All this money that you’ve invested in your home stays there,” said Suarez, who is a lawyer with Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. “This is happening too often and affordable housing is just more and more rare. ... The trend is they buy the mobile home land and they build condos, or they build apartments and they’re able to rent them out to a lot more people and they’re able to make more money.”
The Allapattah area has appealed to developers in recent years who hope new condos attract potential residents from the nearby Miami health district. In the past 10 years, since 2011, typical home values in that neighborhood have more than tripled in price, from $88,500 to $287,000 in April 2021, according to data from Zillow. In the past year alone, home values have risen by 11.7%.
But the trend Suarez is referring to is not limited to mobile home parks.
About 200 tenants of the Hamilton on the Bay apartment complex in Edgewater, which a Denver-based development company bought during the pandemic, are being evicted in 60 days in what attorneys call a “bait and switch,” the Miami Herald reported on Tuesday. Residents said they were asked to sign a new lease with a longer 18-month agreement, but it included an early termination clause to end the lease.
“It’s a business decision and they have rights as property owners. The tenants can find something. It’s not going to be as nice or on the water, but they’ve had it nice for a long time,” said one real estate expert, Chris Zoller, broker associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices EWM Realty.
This is not the first time Paradise Park residents have been threatened with eviction. In 2019, the city of Miami wanted to demolish the park, which continues to attract drug dealers and prostitution, citing illegal alterations and unsafe conditions that could not be repaired. But the homeowners successfully challenged the action at the time.
And in 2013, when there were still about 100 trailers there, city and state officials swept the park looking for code violations and drugs, and called the living conditions “uninhabitable.”
The park still struggles with maintenance and safety. According to an amended complaint from the Paradise Park homeowners, residents struggle with pest infestations in derelict homes, open potholes in the community’s roads and wires hanging out of electrical boxes in abandoned lots.
But for many residents, it’s the only place they can imagine calling home. While the physical eviction process could still take months, homeowners have still not reached a final agreement with landowners.
“I want them to give us a solution. They should either pay for our trailers or tell us, ‘Stop paying the rent, start saving.’ Because the truth is they are still receiving our money,” said Silvia Gomez, 55, who has lived for 24 years in the same trailer where she raised her son on her own. She now lives there by herself.
Like Gomez, who cleans homes for a living, many of the residents are low-wage, immigrant families, some of them older people who live alone, and have owned their trailers for several decades. Gomez said she has still struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic, because from the dozen or so homes she used to clean regularly, now she only has two steady clients to depend on.
“If we go somewhere else, they’re going to charge us double that,” she said. “That’s why I’m happy here.”