Carol Hatchet, 61, stood outside the small office of Miami Soar Mobile Home Park on a blistering hot Saturday evening among around 100 other residents. A familiar face, former park manager Steve Carroll, stood atop a water tank and began to tell the sweaty residents a familiar story: about a new vision for their old neighborhood.
That new vision for their trailer park, bisected by Northwest 82nd Street between Miami Court and First Place, calls for a massive residential, office, retail and hotel development whose centerpiece would be a 50-story tower, far taller than anything currently nearby. It will obliterate their community, consisting of rows of small, aging, pastel-colored trailers, a longtime refuge for retirees, immigrants and families with young kids.
“The park is not closing tomorrow. Do not panic. You’re not being thrown out,” Carroll told the gathering.
Not yet. But it’s coming.
Relics of a different era, South Florida trailer parks have been bought up and shut down for decades, setting their occupants adrift. As the real estate market has grown hotter and hotter, the pressure to re-purpose the land beneath them has become relentless.
It happened at Little Farm, roughly a mile away in El Portal. And at Pembroke Park Mobile Home Park. It happened at the municipally owned Florida City campsite. And at the Sunny Gardens Mobile Home Park in Hialeah. Biscayne Breeze, a smaller mobile home park behind a Biscayne Boulevard strip club, is also under threat of closure.
Since 2011, at least 183 Florida mobile home parks have closed, according to what is self-reported and likely incomplete data from the Florida Mobile Home Relocation Corporation and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Being displaced is never easy, but having it happen today is particularly brutal. Rents have spiraled, affordable housing units are scarce and the wait lists for federal housing vouchers are long.
Not that there aren’t problems at Miami Soar. There are issues with crime, noise, trash, and the high cost ($50-a-month) of parking. The grounds flood when it rains, with water flowing in from Northwest 82nd Street.
A commercial and residential complex anchored by a 50-story tower would surely boost tax revenue and lift property values.
A letter to the county’s director of regulatory and economic resources says the proposal will “bring a new activity center to an under-served portion of the county,” and will “help spur renewal and rehabilitation both within and surrounding the district.”
But progress also brings pain.
‘Helpless and hopeless’
The people in Miami Soar are easy to overlook. Commuters heading to Interstate 95 zoom past on 82nd Street, a popular, one-way east-west alternative to 79th Street. From the outside looking in, it appears bleak and blighted.
But there is life there. On a recent afternoon inside the park, a 12-year-old girl and a friend braided the hair of a 6-year-old, and a mother with her baby on her back washed dishes in an outdoor sink. A couple of rows away, two kids pushed a shopping cart carrying two dogs, and another cluster of children played with Barbies. Another kid kicked a soccer ball in the street.
A couple weeks after that sweltering night when Carol Hatchet, 61, learned of the proposed project, she sat in her trailer with her significant other, Freddie Gatlin, 74, ruminating on what will become of them. Gatlin is a military veteran originally from Georgia who as a young man stooped and sweated in tobacco and corn fields. Hatchet came to the United States from Haiti in 1989 for “that lie they tell about the American dream and milk and honey.” She worked as a nursing assistant, but retired when she was injured while helping move an elderly patient so that a co-worker could change the bed sheets.
“When we were working we were paying these taxes, and we were taught to believe that this would sustain us in our old age,” Gatlin said. And so, here they are. The couple live off the $1,066 Hatchet earns from disability and Gatlin’s $872 Social Security checks.
“Helpless and hopeless,” they have no idea what they will do if their park is closed, Hatchet said.
They’ve experienced this before. The two reminisced about life at Little Farm, whose property remains largely undeveloped years after they were pushed out.
Although built along the train tracks, Little Farm was part of El Portal, a rising, tree-lined community. Miami Soar is less idyllic, but still home. The inside of Hatchet’s trailer is tidy, featuring a compact eat-in kitchen, a living area where she and Gatlin watch TV, and a small bedroom and bathroom.
Outside, Hatchet cultivates medicinal plants like moringa and the perennial herb “leaf of life,“ which she uses to make treatments for when Gatlin is sick.
‘Most beautiful place in Miami’
What is now Miami Soar first opened in the 1950s, according to Carroll, who managed the park for 10 years. It went through various iterations, and most recently, in 2019, was sold by Sunnyland and Trinidad Court to the Miami Soar Management Corp. Most residents own their trailers but pay rent for the lots on which those trailers rest, plus monthly fees for utilities and parking. Around the time of the 2019 purchase, rents were raised more than 50%, in some cases to around $750, according to news reports at the time.
Legal Services of Greater Miami has fought these changes, and residents say that as a result of litigation they will get four months rent free. But when and how that will happen is unclear.
David Mordekhay, one of the new owners of the park, says he believes residents are actually underpaying, considering some rent out rooms to earn extra money.
He says he has put more than $1 million into the park, to fix electric and sewage issues and clean up trash. Since the new owners took over, they have also filed 161 eviction notices.
Mordekhay, whose partners are Tom Grinberg and Gary Otto, said his main goal is to “build the most beautiful place in Miami from scratch.”
The proposal, which will require an amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Development Master Plan, is gargantuan compared to the rest of the neighborhood: nearly 4,000 multifamily units, 250,000 square feet of retail, plus offices and hundreds of hotel rooms. Parking and green space are included.
One way or another, there will be compensation for residents in exchange for getting out of the way.
According to Florida law, if a trailer cannot be relocated intact, as is often the case, owners of a single-wide are eligible for $1,375, with $2,750 for a double-wide. That requires turning over the title and promising not to sue. The amount is more or less a month’s rent in Miami. The money comes from a trust fund fed with state money and direct payments from the owners who are closing the park.
If they want to relocate their trailers and the units are sturdy enough to survive the move, trailer owners can get $3,000 for a single-section and $6,000 for a double.
A housing study, required by law and submitted as part of the development proposal, found that there are no trailer parks to which the residents could relocate their homes and zero apartments in the surrounding community that the residents could likely afford to rent.
Chris Klein, who works for the consulting firm hired to do the housing study, said he “cannot remember how many times he has sat in a hot mobile home park with an elderly man and woman and helped them fill out a Section 8 application.”
The city of Miami’s Section 8 housing website, part of a federally funded voucher program, is “not accepting new applications.”
In their application, the developers promise to meet with every Miami Soar resident to offer “relocation counseling,” provide referrals to social service healthcare providers as needed and “walk them through” applying for the county’s emergency rental program, which provides rental payment assistance for up to 18 months.
Mordekhay said he hopes that all of the trailer park residents might ultimately be able to live in the new complex’s less pricey units. But the application to the county does not make any specific promises about subsidizing the rents of the trailer park residents in the new development, or indicate what the cheapest units might cost on a monthly basis.
Nejia Calvo, an attorney who previously represented trailer park dwellers in similar straits while working for Legal Services, laughed ruefully at the idea that these residents could afford units in the new development.
Ultimately, it could be up to Miami-Dade County to impose requirements on the developers in regards to ensuring the residents are compensated or re-housed after they are displaced.
At Little Farm, the now-closed El Portal trailer park, residents who remained were ultimately given $8,000 to go away.
The project, if approved as submitted, would forever alter the face of the area. Miami Soar is situated at the north end of the neighborhood known as Little River. The development site, larger than just the trailer park, is bounded by 83rd Street to the north, 79th to the south, Miami Court to the east and Northwest First Place to the west.
Little River saw an in-migration of Black residents in the 1960s, before which Miami-Dade communities were rigidly segregated, according to Dr. Paul George, a resident historian at the HistoryMiami Museum.
Later came an influx of Haitians, many of whom settled in the nearby area now known as Little Haiti, due south of the trailer park.
The park’s population is largely Haitian and Hispanic, including people like Maria Eva Nunez. A retired house cleaner, she has lived at the trailer park for 26 years. The 78-year-old tends to her plants and small dog and did her best to stay cool during the sweltering summer despite lacking AC. Life is a struggle, as her rent has climbed while her $743 monthly Social Security check has not kept pace.
Nunez said she pays $825 a month for the lot and $49.50 for water and sewer. Because that is more money than she brings in, she has to rely on her daughter, who is also struggling, for help.
Seeking an affordable place to live after one of her three daughters was diagnosed with epilepsy, Rosa Martinez thought she’d found an answer when she purchased a trailer at the park for $30,000, using all of her savings.
It was horrible timing. A month after the purchase, she came crying to her neighbors, an elderly couple from Nicaragua, after hearing that the park might soon close.
“They said they are going to take us out. Where are we going to go? All our savings are gone,” said Martinez, who works as a cook in a local hospital.
One 45-year-old man has lived in the trailer park for 20 years. And for most of those years, he has had plenty of work as a roofer. But on a recent hot Wednesday afternoon, he was jobless, perched on a lawn chair in the shade outside his trailer.
Originally from Honduras, he said he once paid $250 a month for the lot his trailer is on. Now it is more than twice that amount. Parking and utilities are extra.
His struggles are compounded, he said in Spanish, by Florida’s crackdown on undocumented workers like him. Now, he said, bosses are afraid to have him work for them.
In the proposal submitted to the county, park owners say the project would be done in phases, with residents on the north side of the trailer park able to move temporarily to the south side, where the developers say dozens of units are being kept vacant.
The dearth of inexpensive housing
Few places have such a dire shortage of affordable housing as greater Miami. A study by the University of Miami found that the area has the highest percentage of renter households in the country spending over half their income on housing costs.
The burden of solving the lack of affordable housing has been placed on cities, counties and state governments, as federal funding has decreased since the late 1970s. But the impact of efforts at the state and local level has been limited.
Florida has loan financing for affordable housing developers and a trust fund, called the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund. But a large portion of the trust’s money has been reallocated in recent years, according to the Florida Policy Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for economic mobility.
A new law in the state is meant to make it easier for developers to build affordable housing. But critics say it doesn’t address the needs of those in the lowest income brackets — folks like those living at Miami Soar. Financially, they may be a notch below those who can afford “affordable housing.”
Although the future is cloudy for residents at Miami Soar, nothing is imminent. Developments like this one “could take months if not years” to go from plan to approval to fruition, said Peter Zalewski, an expert on the condo market.
‘Where are we gonna go?’
Steve Carroll, the former trailer park manager, has shown residents a TV news clip featuring a statement from Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in which she speaks generally about her support of affordable housing.
Because of this video, some residents were under the impression that Levine Cava was working directly with the developers. According to her office, that’s not so. She is aware of the development and will ensure all the laws are followed, but is not working directly with the developer.
As for trying to advocate for the residents of the park, Carroll says: “I’m not going to waste time arguing with the developer. He’s going to win.”
Since the Miami Herald began reporting this story, there has been one change: Developers hired a public relations firm. It says the developers have the interest of the residents at the top of their mind.
Some of the residents are anything but convinced. Carol Hatchet says she will have nowhere to go if forced to leave and that she and her significant other, Gatlin, have been so stressed out that sometimes Gatlin is unable to sleep at night.
“They have already shown the proposal of what they want to build,” she said, “but nobody has shown anything of where we are gonna go!”