‘Miami’s not for poor people’: The demolition of Little Farm

The bell-shaped water apple, known for its thirst-quenching properties, is hard to find in Miami. But Nelly Shirley’s garden in the back corner of Little Farm Mobile Home is rife with them.

She brought the seeds over from her family home in Costa Rica and planted them 18 years ago. In 2012, she reaped the first harvest of the faintly sweet fruit.

But come July 31, Shirley’s award-winning water apple tree will be bulldozed, along with the rest of Little Farm, by a demolition truck.

“I used to distribute the water apples to all my neighbors,” says Shirley, who has lived in Little Farm for 25 years. “They’ll die now.”

Little Farm opened in 1945 with 240 trailer lots. On a typical day, residents tend their gardens, walk their carritos over to the nearest grocery store, and sit outside and chat with their neighbors. People often don’t bother to lock their doors — it’s that kind of place.

But this tight-knit community that has long gotten by on very little is about to be wiped off the map.

It’s a familiar pattern in Miami by now. Property values rise. Gentrification sets in. The community scrambles for a foothold amid the change and can’t find one.

In this case, the ground was yanked out from under them. When property owner Biscayne Park Acquisitions LLC decided to sell the park in 2015, the Village of El Portal offered them a deal in hopes of getting rid of a property they were consistently losing money on: they told the company would forgive $8 million in debt if the new owner promised to demolish the park.

The Chinese company Wealthy Delight (yes, that’s the real name) and partner Fullview International Group obliged.

The decision might have seemed like an inconsequential business deal for El Portal and Wealthy Delight, but for Little Farm, it’s affected every aspect of their lives.

A paltry settlement

People often think of trailer parks as transient places, but many owners and tenants spent the majority of their lives in Little Farm, investing upwards of $10,000 in perfecting their homes and creating a true community.

For that, Wealthy Delight offered each owner a mere $1,375.

“I know the people around us don’t like the trailer presence because they think we don’t have value,” says Shirley. “But for us, it’s our homes, it’s what we could rent. It’s cost me $25,000 [to maintain].”

Many residents live off of disability or retirement checks.  The average rent is $500, but many trailers are split into rooms making rent even cheaper. In Miami’s real estate market, $1,375 is going to get them very little wherever they head next.

“I’m looking for apartments but they’re expensive,” says Shirley, who lives off her deceased husband’s veteran checks. “I’ll have to move in with my daughter until I find something I can afford.”

Fighting back

But Barbara Falkinburg and Ruby Muñoz, two longtime trailer owners, weren’t ready to let go that easily. With help from Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. and Community Justice Project, they sued the property owners and the Village of El Portal.

What El Portal forgot was that when a government agency shuts down a trailer park (or does something that will force a shutdown, like the deal El Portal made with Wealthy Delight), trailer owners can sue.

“If a government is going to take action that leads to the shutdown of a park, like signing a settlement agreement, they must first make a determination that there is adequate, similar housing for all the residents in the park and the village admitted that it never did that,” says Evian White, attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc.

Legal Services main goal was to stop the shutdown of the park. They couldn’t pull that off. But they were able to postpone the evictions from February to July 31, and bumped the settlements for trailer owners up to $8,000 from the mere $1,375 initially promised.

But easier said than done. The money turned out to have all kinds of strings attached. Only those who hadn’t left by then qualified for the settlement (many were evicted for failure to pay rent, and others left quickly, assuming the eviction was inevitable). They could only receive the full amount upon leaving — depriving them of the very funds they need to move on.

The settlement included a relocation specialist to help tenants find a new home, but the service is voluntary, and was not always available while tenants were home. With just 10 days left, many tenants and owners still have no idea where they will go.

“You can hire the best relocation specialist in the world, but the problem is what are you going to do in Miami?” says White. “There is a lack of non-subsidized affordable housing. To heighten that, the private market is so over inflated that there is no way they can afford housing here. So some folks may end up homeless. It’s very scary.”

A few days before demolition, much of the park is in disrepair. Caution tape lines the trailers that have already been bulldozed, rubble strewn across the street. Shirley’s garden is a tropical oasis in the middle of a demolition field.

Passion fruit trees, orchids, mango trees, and a sweet lemon tree line the perimeter of her home. She’s called the Miami-Dade County agricultural department to see if they can protect the rare water apple tree, but she’s gotten no response.

This Friday, she’ll move in with her daughter in Broward, where she’ll plant her seeds in fresher soil.