About 70 residents of a low-income trailer neighborhood in Florida City could be homeless by Wednesday because they are being evicted by the city.
Florida City has owned the 15-acre lot at Krome Avenue and Northwest Seventh Street for decades and is working to close a $6.8 million sale with developers the Treo Group, according to the city’s mayor.
The last stipulation of the contract, Mayor Otis Wallace said, is to make the land void of its occupants as well as their trailers, campers and recreational vehicles.
“The deal can’t close until the campsite is empty,” said Wallace, who’s been mayor of Florida City since 1984.
Since the residents aren’t being told to leave because of their inability to pay rent, they aren’t likely to be helped by the federal moratorium on evictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which the Biden administration has extended until the end of the month.
Although the community is called the Florida City Camp Site and RV Park, most of the people there are permanent residents, and many have been for more than a decade. Many are elderly and have physical and mental health problems that make it difficult, if not impossible, to work.
Some of the younger people have small children, including Lisette Ruiz, 35, who is raising seven kids alone on government assistance.
“She has seven children and she has to find an apartment, and we can’t find one,” her teenage daughter, Jamie Ruiz, said.
The city sent letters Thursday to residents stating that they and their homes had to be gone from the property by March 17.
“Please be advised that the Florida City Campgrounds has been sold to a private owner and is closing down. As a result of this sale, the City will be no longer operating the Florida City Campsite/RV Park,” the letter, signed by City Attorney Regine Monestine, reads.
“All residents, guests and visitors must vacate the property immediately along with your property, including RV’s motor vehicles, and personal property.”
Monestine said that anyone still on the property after Wednesday will be deemed to be “trespassing on private property and subject to removal under law.”
Residents pay around $450 a month to live on the campground. This includes their utilities. Some trailers and campers are more habitable than others, but no one in the community is living in what most people would deem comfortable standards.
Beverly Diaz, 58, has lived on the Florida City Camp Site for nine years with her 70-year-old husband. They live off his Supplemental Security Income checks, which haven’t been enough to fix the damage done to their trailer by Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
“How are we going to pay lights, water and rent? My trailer’s no good anyhow. Irma destroyed it. My trailer inside is completely full of mold,” Diaz said.
The residents say they were blindsided by the letter.
Yamil Soltura, 17, is a senior at John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall. He moved in with his father, who has the same name, about a year ago to take care of him after the elder Soltura had a complete digestive system transplant.
“And, he just can’t do any job because of his health, and I can’t just just do any job. We just can’t come up with the money to go somewhere else on such short notice,” the younger Soltura said. “If they gave us 90 days, at least we’d be able to work with that, and we could figure out what we’re going to do, work some overtime or something, I don’t know.”
No one in Florida City Camp Site is anywhere near well off, but some say they appreciate they are not suffering as much as some of their neighbors.
“There’s 20 families in here that are just so poor, and their trailers are so,” Barbara McDonald, 81, said, trying to find the right words. “I don’t know how they stand up.”
Wallace maintains the city has been telling Florida City Camp Site residents to make other living arrangements since 2019, and that the only reason the evictions haven’t happened sooner is because talks with the developers have been delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said the city — one of the poorest in Florida, with 40% of its residents living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census — needs the money.
“I’m very sympathetic to the campers, but as the mayor of Florida City, I’m sympathetic to the taxpayers, too,” he said.
Wallace said the Treo Group plans to build a mixed-use residential/shopping complex with market rate rental apartments. Representatives from the Treo Group cold not be reached for comment.
The mayor acknowledged that the recent letter was the first time the city informed residents that there was a set date in which they had to be gone. He maintains, however, that no one should have been surprised.
“This was not something that just popped up all of a sudden,” Wallace said.
Wallace said he met with residents several times in the past two years, warning them that they’d eventually have to leave the campground.
But, residents say the last official communication with them on the matter was a Nov. 13, 2020, letter signed by Wallace in which he said the city still planned to sell the property. That letter, however, stated the city was giving residents “as much time as possible” to find other homes.
Wallace said in the letter that he sent it because of rumors going around that the plans to sell the land had changed. At that time, however, the deal was not finalized, according to the letter.
“The city is still in the process of selling the park and you must make living arrangements elsewhere. The city has been very reasonable in this matter, and we are giving you as much time as possible. Please use the time we are giving you to make alternative living arrangements,” Wallace wrote. “If you hear any rumors to the contrary please contact the Park Manager, Kathy Hale. “Should anything change, you of course would be the first to know.”
Cherie Terracas, 62, has lived on the site for 14 years. She said she came there to retire because 45 years working as a hairdresser left her with carpel tunnel syndrome, nerve damage, arthritis and back problems.
“My hands don’t work,” Terracas said, showing how they shake when she holds them out in front of her.
She and other residents who have been living there for more than a decade thought they’d never have to leave. Most residents the Miami Herald spoke with last week said they were told when they moved there that the land’s original owners deeded the property over to Florida City before they died in the 1980s with the agreement that it would stay affordable housing for 100 years.
“I’ve saved a little bit of money, but not enough to go anywhere,” Terracas said. “Plus, I’ve looked and looked, and no one wants to take anyone in now because of the pandemic.”
The Miami Herald was not able to immediately verify if there was such an agreement between the city and the original land owners, George and Mildred Cole, who died in 1984 and 1982, respectively. Their gravestones are located on the property.
Wallace said no such agreement exists.
“I have no idea what they are talking about,” he said.
For now, residents desperately hope that something will happen between now and Wednesday that will at least give them more time to find another place to live.
One woman, who did not want to give her name, suffers from severe mood swings due to bipolar 1 disorder. She said Florida City Camp Site is far from the slice of paradise that comes to mind when people think of South Florida. But, it’s the only home she and her husband have known for years and the one they thought they’d live in for the rest of their lives.
“This is the last place we want to be, but it’s all we can afford,” she said.