Trailer Trashed

Serge Leon sits on a step in his recently renovated mobile home. He has clear plastic tubes running into his nose and a rather dazed, faraway look in his eyes. Then it changes to something like defiance.

"I love my house," says the 64-year-old Haitian immigrant before slapping his hand on the new linoleum. "I fix it very good. But it gone."

Leon still has a bit of fight left, just not much. He's one of the last holdouts at Tower Mobile Home and RV Park, across the street from Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino. His landlord is demanding that he abandon the home in which he's sunk everything he had.

The deal stinks. With help from relatives, he paid $12,000 for the trailer three years ago and put another $6,000 into fixing it up. The landlord is only willing to give him a $5,000 relocation payment. That payoff won't go far and, with a monthly income of just $615.60, he simply can't afford another place.

The stress is taking its toll on him.

"I not sleeping," he says in his choppy English (though he speaks Spanish and French just fine). "My mind working all the time."

Now the landlord is putting the screws to him. If Leon hasn't abandoned his home by March 31, the payment is cut to $3,500. With each month thereafter it goes down $500 until there's nothing at all. All residents must be out by October.

Leon is not alone in staying put. About 20 other homeowners in the park, which once held 85 residents, are in the same predicament. Among them are a disabled woman, a terminal cancer patient (and decorated World War II veteran), and a retired Hallandale police officer with Parkinson's disease. They are the hardcore holdouts, the desperate ones with nowhere to go.

And the cutthroat landlord? It's not some greedy developer or faceless corporation — it's the City of Hallandale Beach, which has made one bad move after another leading up to this sad final showdown with some of its own most vulnerable residents.

"We're just as bad as the developers now," says the city's vice mayor, Bill Julian, who regrets his vote for the project. "We've become them."

Refreshing truth from a local politician, but even Julian isn't sure how to remedy the situation (though he has some interesting ideas). And even as the city is low-balling the homeowners, it wildly overpaid for the land, which is located next door to City Hall off Federal Highway. The city bought the 4.5-acre park last year for the obscene amount of $10.4 million. Could hardly have picked a worse time for the purchase, just as the land and housing bust began in earnest. The tract of land today might go for half that.

The stated reason for buying the tract was to expand bordering Bluesten Park. Why the athletic park needed to be enlarged, however, is a bit of a mystery, since the city still has no plan for what exactly it will actually do with the land.

So you have millions of wasted dollars and a half-baked plan. On top of that, the city's move only adds to one of the worst problems facing South Floridians: the dearth of affordable housing.

To expand the park, the city needed to get rid of the residents. Needless to say, the people at Tower (so named because it lies under the shadow of Hallandale's water tower) weren't pleased with the development.

Most of them had spent anywhere from $12,000 to $30,000 for their mobile homes, the vast majority of which were impossible to move. That makes the $5,000 (which is actually a bit more than the state-mandated payment) more an insult than an offer. And at $380 a month rent for their spot of land, there wasn't a less expensive place to live in Hallandale.

So they banded together. Every beaten-down group fighting City Hall needs a leader, and the Tower holdouts have a notable one: Joe DeFalco, AKA "The Outdoorsman."

The mustachioed DeFalco is unique at Tower in that he has enough money to live in an oceanfront penthouse condo if he wanted to (and has, at Parker Plaza in Hallandale). The Long Island-bred DeFalco made his name in the hunting game, doing cable television shows and writing a book titled The Complete Deer Hunt, which he initially self-published and which sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

His exploits not only gave him a moniker but also earned him a bit of celebrity. In 1983, he was the subject of a six-page feature story in Sports Illustrated headlined "Hey, You Wanna Deer?" He's hunted with Mickey Mantle and George Foreman and taught Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight to use the bow for their roles in the classic film Deliverance. He has an album of photos of himself posing with a slew of celebrities, from Alec Baldwin to Katie Holmes.

DeFalco was also a developer in New York. On his kitchen table is a signed holiday card from another acquaintance, Eliot Spitzer, which comes complete with a perfectly lighted photograph of the recently disgraced governor with his wife and three daughters.

He lives in the park because it's across the street from the track (DeFalco is a long-time racing aficionado who has invested in racehorses) and gives him privacy and peace. But since the city began running his neighbors out of the park and trying to force him out for a paltry $5,000 (he paid $21,000 and put another $35,000 into his immaculate three-bed two-bath mobile home), his life hasn't been very peaceful.

With the help of Plantation attorney Mitchell Chester, DeFalco is suing his landlord, alleging that the city violated state laws meant to protect mobile home owners from being tossed on the street without a sufficient plan to relocate them. He has signed up the other holdouts as co-plaintiffs, and the case is winding its way through the court system.

It may be the holdouts' last hope for keeping their homes or getting a fair cash offer from the city.

"They think everyone who lives in a mobile home is a piece of garbage," DeFalco says. "We're in this age of bad economic times, and the city is saying, 'We want to grow grass on your properties, and we don't care about you.'"

Chester, who has been involved in similar suits in Davie and other municipalities, is working the case on contingency and hasn't received any money for his considerable labor. "This is the forefront of the housing war in this country," he says. "That's why I'm involved in this thing."

The man at the city who engineered the debacle, the so-called manager of intergovernmental relations, Franklin Hileman, says the city not only has been fair, but it went above and beyond its call of duty for the Tower residents, including cutting the monthly rent from $380 to $190.

"We're paying them well above the statutory requirement [of $3,750], and we're paying for a company, The Urban Group, to help them relocate," Hileman says. "If we wouldn't have bought the park, a developer would have."

So they were screwed anyway you look at it?

"Exactly," Hileman says.

But no developer offered the previous owner more than $10 million for the land. Even Hileman admits that the land isn't worth anywhere near that now.

DeFalco says The Urban Group has done little more than scare people out of their homes and offer them a list of low-income alternatives that aren't cheap enough. Retired Hallandale police officer John Renner, a holdout along with his wife and grown son, says the company wasn't much help.

"They give you a listing and then go," says Renner, his voice tremulous and halting due to Parkinson's disease. "The lowest thing on the list was $850, and we can't afford that."

Even the vice mayor, Bill Julian, says he considers The Urban Group to be little more than "thugs" who give little help for the people who need it most.

"We have a big problem here," he says. "Elected officials need to get off their ass and figure out what to do."

What does he think needs to be done?

"We need to get a private adjuster to come in and figure out what their trailer is worth and give that to them, at the bare minimum," he said. "Let's be a little humane here. We have a moral obligation, even if we meet legal requirements."

But he then quickly changed his mind about that, saying that taxpayers shouldn't have to pay the tab for the Tower residents. Another idea he has is to let the holdouts live there until the city builds truly affordable "modular" housing that they might be able to afford.

When even seemingly good guys like Julian don't know what to do, you know it's a mess. But if the city truly does have a moral obligation to its residents, then it's clear it should withdraw its ultimatum and work to settle with the residents as quickly as possible. If you doubt it, meet William Denham.

Like Leon, Denham is often connected to an oxygen machine. The 84-year-old World War II veteran is dying of lung cancer in his small trailer. And the stress of facing eviction from the city isn't making his final days any easier.

Sitting in a chair in his trailer, Denham says that on his $900-a-month fixed income he can't afford to live anywhere else.

"They never gave me any alternative for a place to go," he says, with great labor. "Now they are saying they are going to cut the money. It's a threat. 'Move out now.' Five thousand won't buy anything. What am I going to buy?"

He says there's no way he's leaving, no matter what happens.

"I don't have anywhere to go," he says. "They can cover me over with a bulldozer if they have to."

Falco, who is visiting his neighbor, assures him.

"It's not gonna happen," he says.

At that moment, you could only hope the Outdoorsman was right.

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