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Trailer Thrash

Errol and Kathy Wyrick are occasionally scared awake in the middle of the night by rocks pelting the side of their trailer in the Royal Plaza Mobile Home Park. Vandals and vagrants have begun to hang out in the abandoned trailer next door, with its aluminum siding ripped off for scrap and its small windows broken out. Nobody should be living inside, but more often than not, someone does.

Most of the park's 156 trailers have already been condemned and hauled out of there, leaving behind blankets of broken glass, hastily dumped couches, and sandy plots full of trash. The handful of trailer shells that remain teeter on cinder block foundations or have pitched a corner into the dirt.

The Wyricks have watched their once quiet neighborhood off SW 27th Avenue north of Davie Boulevard slowly deteriorate over the past seven years and eventually evaporate last spring. They own one of the few up-to-code trailers and had elected to stay in Royal Plaza until the park owner announced in July that the city of Fort Lauderdale wanted to buy the land. Because the city wants to turn the nine-acre lot into a neighborhood park and playground, its offer was good only if the land was vacant. Even though the Wyricks own their mobile home and have lived in Royal Plaza for thirteen years, they rent the space, and if the owner says move, they have to move.

But the Wyricks aren't moving. They have decided to fight, with the help of a lawyer if they can find one, for a piece of the $1.5 million the city plans to pay Hart Finance Corp. for the land.

"We didn't ask to be moved out of here," says Errol Wyrick, age 49, his gaze involuntarily floating back to Wheel of Fortune blaring from his color TV. "We didn't ask for the park to close and the land to be sold out from under us. The law says they have to compensate us for a move."

True, but just how much that compensation should be is up for debate. Most people who live in trailer parks own their mobile homes but lease the land on which they park them. According to Florida Statutes chapter 723, when use of that land changes, the owner of the trailer park either has to relocate a tenant or buy the trailer at market value plus a percentage of the actual value, depending on how long the tenants have lived there. The Wyricks don't want to be relocated and figure Hart Finance should buy their mobile home for $15,000.

Hart Finance representatives laughed at their math, Errol Wyrick says. A few former tenants said they got closer to $2000 to sign over their titles. Others who were moved into one of Hart Finance's two other mobile home parks in Broward County -- Western Hills Estates at SW 130th Avenue and SW 5th Court, and Orange Blossom Mobile Home Court off Griffin Road near University Drive -- would not talk about their experiences, worried that doing so would cause them trouble in their new homes.

Shirley Wagner, a 64-year-old widow, moved out of the park in November after ten years there and asked Hart Finance for $4000 for her trailer. She got $2800, and says she feels lucky to have gotten it because she knows of other tenants who didn't know they were entitled to compensation and got nothing for their homes.

Richard Baird, a 53-year-old man with muscular dystrophy who is bound to his wheelchair, is the only other tenant left in the park. His trailer is infested with termites and cannot be moved, and he refused to relocate into a newer trailer in one of Hart's other parks because they are too far from his doctors. He has a lawyer and has been able to turn Hart Finance's $2000 offer to abandon his trailer into $10,000 toward the purchase of a nearby house. The city's Community Development Department is tossing in about $40,000 in grants and no-interest loans to help pay for the rest of the house and make it wheelchair-accessible.

The city is helping to relocate Baird in part because of his handicap and in part because he's parked right where the city wants to build a playground. The Wyricks' trailer is tucked on the eastern edge of the property and isn't in the way. Victor Volpi, the city's real estate officer, says he plans to close on the property this month and will build the park with or without the Wyricks' lot.

Royal Plaza had been open since the '50s, and when the Wyricks moved there in 1984, it was the kind of place where Kathy Wyrick could walk her two dogs late at night without fear. When the park manager's husband died in the early '90s, maintenance was neglected, rules violations were overlooked, and record-keeping slacked off. The place slowly turned into the city's worst mobile home park, attracting crime and undesirable tenants.

Neighboring homeowners and park tenants began complaining, and by May 1995 city building inspector Wayne Strawn had discovered 40 trailers, including the Wyricks', parked on a city right-of-way that borders the Hart property. Strawn and his code enforcement team began snooping around Royal Plaza and eventually wrote hundreds of citations for everything from illegal additions and fire code violations to rickety roofs and unsafe floors.

"Each trailer was a nightmare of violations," Strawn says, noting that a dozen citations per trailer was not uncommon.

But the Wyricks' trailer was safe. Twenty-five years old, but safe. Hart Finance moved it off the city right-of-way to the eastern edge of the park, because the company planned to reconfigure the park and keep it open. Then the city offered to buy it, and all tenants had to be removed. According to the Wyricks, when Hart Finance General Manager Audrey Naber offered to relocate them, they refused because the other Hart parks are too far out west. When Naber pointed out that company records showed they owed six months' rent, Kathy Wyrick rifled through her files and checkbook ledgers for receipts to prove the rent had been paid. Now, Hart Finance is offering the Wyricks $4000 to sign over title and abandon their trailer, and the Wyricks are insulted. The couple wants enough money to move to a new place, preferably near Kathy's parents in Lake City in north central Florida.

"You don't move from one home to another just like that," Errol Wyrick says. "I paid $15,000 for this trailer, and I would like to get some of my investment back. If we were just in it for the money, why don't we ask for $100,000 or a million? They're moving us out of our home."

So the Wyricks hope to sue, though they have been unable to find an attorney who'll take their case. If the Wyricks fail in their legal efforts, they say they will just wait it out. The law says they get a year to relocate after receiving notice from Hart Finance of the land use change, which came October 31. After that, Hart Finance can start eviction proceedings, which can take as long as another year.

"Basically, we're just hanging in there," Errol Wyrick says. "We can't just walk away.

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Lucy Chabot

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