Old mattresses, discarded sofas and torn cardboard boxes are piled high in the street. For the children who run and skip around their trailer homes at Soar Park in Miami’s Little River, this is a playground. For the rats and possums that dwell here, this is home.
The two mobile home communities are called Sunnyland and Trinidad Court. While their names connote island resorts, they are anything but for the residents who live there.
A group of investors – Miami Soar Management Corp. – has bought the park and forced tenants to sign new leases at higher rent rates and violated Florida law by not notifying them in writing at least 90 days before the increase.
And while the tenants, many of whom lived there for decades, organize to press for improvements and fight what they say are unfair rent increases on the land they lease, the possibility of sale to a bigger developer hangs over their heads. They fear they could become the next mobile home park to be targeted for redevelopment, as has happened across South Florida and nationally.
For now, Miami Soar says it has no plans to sell. They say they’ve made repairs.
“We wouldn’t have put in all this money to fix this park if we were just going to sell it,” said Miami Soar’s lawyer, Martin Feldman.
But the idea isn’t completely off the table, according to Feldman.
Little River borders Little Haiti, an area that’s been a hot commodity among real estate investors. The neighborhood sits on high land, strategic for future development as low-lying parts of Miami face anywhere from 14 to 34 inches of sea rise by 2060. It also neighbors Wynwood and the Design District, two hot spots where young creatives and professionals flock and development abounds.
Mobile home parks are often the last beacon of affordable housing across the country. Today, mobile homes shelter 1 in 10 families living below the poverty line, according to an article on apartmentlist.com. The majority of the approximately 800 tenants at Soar Park, 8050 NW Miami Court, live on fixed incomes and cannot afford to live anywhere else.
When it comes to renting a place to live, Miami-Dade is one of the most expensive large counties in the nation, with 61 percent of the population spending more than 38 percent of their income on rent. The general standard is that people should not spend more than 30 percent of their household income on housing costs.
Despite their name, mobile homes are often not mobile. While mobile home dwellers often own their home, they usually don’t own the land on which the home sits. They pay monthly rent to the park’s property owner to lease the land.
Mobile home owners can’t just pick up their home and move if rents get too high or their park closes. Even if tenants foot the thousands of dollars it takes to relocate their homes, most of the homes have been around for decades and might not survive the move.
“You can’t move my home. My home has already been here since 1970. It would just crumble,” said Anolan Mallet, 53, who’s lived in Trinidad Court for 25 years and is the treasurer for the homeowners association (HOA).
Faced with few options, mobile-home park tenants are often at the mercy of their landlord when rents rise.
Before the park’s new ownership, Soar Park residents paid $500 or $550 per month for their property rental. When Miami Soar took over in August 2018, they told tenants to sign new leases that raised their rents by $200 or $300 a month based on the size of their lot – a 40 to 55 percent increase in their monthly rents.
Some tenants had to pay their new rent in less than a month or sometimes a week.
By attempting to raise the rent in such short notice, Miami Soar violated Florida law, which requires landlords to give written notice of at least 90 days before any rent increase.
Luis Vindel, 56, who has lived in Trinidad Court for 24 years and is president of the HOA, said some residents signed out of fear of being evicted or reported to immigration authorities. Many emigrated from Latin America and the Caribbean and know little to no English, Vindel said.
Other tenants paid the increase but contacted Legal Services of Greater Miami, a non-profit that provides free representation to low-income people in South Florida. Their lawyer, Nejla Calvo, helped them form two homeowners associations in October 2018: Sunnyland Mobile Homeowners Association and Trinidad Court Mobile Homeowners Association.
Feldman, the attorney for the investors, says this is really about a small group of people trying to avoid making repairs to their trailers.
“They ran to Legal Aid saying that we were bullying them,” Feldman said.
Two-thirds of tenants have agreed to have the HOAs represent them in negotiations to fight the rent increases.
Feldman says “90 percent of people are happy” with what they’ve done to improve the park. The trash that piled high in Sunnyland is gone, Feldman says, and security cameras are up.
Calvo, the lawyer representing the tenants, says not much has changed in Trinidad Court, and some of the fixes have made other things worse.
The potholes were paved over, but the paving formed an incline, leading to water pooling in front lawns during rainy days. Only Sunnyland was paved, and drainage leaks and flooding still plague Trinidad Court.
The entrance to the parks is always open, and the security guard who used to patrol for eight hours a day was let go when Miami Soar bought the property, according to Calvo.
Miami Soar says the new rent increase covers the costs of its improvements, but management hasn’t specified the individual costs of the repairs, according to Calvo.
Miami Soar tried again to raise rents in October 2018 to $750 and $850 by Jan. 1, 2019.
This time, it honored the legally required 90-day notice period. But only tenants who didn’t sign the previous lease were told to pay this higher increase, which residents see as a retaliation tactic.
The HOAs met with Miami Soar and went through mediation led by the state of Florida between November 2018 and February 2019.
“We are not enemies of the owners. We have tried to establish a relationship of understanding,” Vindel said.
They haven’t reached an agreement.
Meanwhile, Miami Soar filed eviction actions against those who did not pay the original $200 and $300 rent increase. The owners also filed eviction actions against tenants who didn’t fix code violations on their homes. Some homes have an additional unit, which many tenants bought that way. Others are not painted the color Miami Soar wants them to be.
Management has tried to get residents to sign a form that says they don’t want an HOA and that they weren’t forced against their will to sign the document. Some tenants say they signed the form to get paint from management and comply with park rules. Others say when they walked into the management office to sign the new lease, they signed the form out of fear of getting kicked out.
“Even if they weren’t directly intimidated, there’s an inherent power dynamic and feeling that they might have a target on their back if they don’t comply with management,” Calvo said.
Most evictions have been successfully fought by Calvo. The HOAs filed two lawsuits in March 2019 to challenge the $250 and $350 rent increase. Court hearings are scheduled for July.
In addition to reaching out to Legal Aid, the residents have also contacted the Miami Workers Center, which advocates for low-wage workers.
“Y’all have to stick together. You have to be singing the same song,” said Trenise Bryant, housing organizer for Miami Workers Center.
Bryant and Adrian Madriz, executive director of Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing (SMASH), met with residents last month to discuss their rights as tenants. They also weighed three options: demand Miami Soar lower rents and improve conditions, buy the property or both.
The options were put to a vote at the meeting, but organizers haven’t released the vote’s results.
“If the landlord knows what their next move will be, it won’t be as effective or there could be retaliation,” Madriz said.
The tenants plan to write a letter outlining their demands and submit it to Miami Soar’s office.
Calvo says the greater South Florida community needs to keep an eye out for communities like Soar Park.
“The trend we’re seeing in mobile home parks and other places across Miami is that people are getting kicked out and they have nowhere to go,” she said. “Everyone has a responsibility to recognize the value in these communities and try to fight for their preservation.”
Copyright © 2019 Miami Herald, Tiana Headley. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. All rights reserved.