By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Two years after Lake Worth Beach code enforcers targeted poor migrant workers in a mobile home community, the city is now coming after another trailer park filled with low-income senior citizens.
The ongoing crackdown is part of an orchestrated campaign to gentrify Lake Worth Beach and drive out the city’s neediest residents, locals and housing advocates allege. The seven-square-mile city’s desire to move on up even led voters, at the urging of city leaders, to separate itself from unincorporated area and its higher crime statistics by adding “Beach” to its name on March 12, 2019.
Since August, Lake Worth Beach code compliance inspectors have descended on the Palm Beach Mobile Home Park at 300 Cypress Drive, a 55-and-over community, issuing citations to residents of nearly 100 mobile homes ranging from minor infractions such as removing mildew and trash debris to significant violations such as unpermitted additions and renovations that residents claim were done legally.
Jerri Greene, president of the mobile home park’s association and a resident for almost 39 years, told Florida Bulldog in a phone interview that inspectors have come into the community in waves over the past eight months. “They came after me for three additions to my home made in 1981 and 1982,” Greene said. “At the time, my parents owned it and the permits were issued by Palm Beach County, not Lake Worth.”
According to Lake Worth Beach’s online code compliance database, Greene was also hit with citations for not having permits for a shed, a fountain, an air-conditioning unit she replaced and a four-foot-high privacy fence around her patio. She was also cited for taking down three awnings and is facing a $150 fine for each of the six violations if she doesn’t correct the citations, which involves tearing down the additions and removing the fountain and shed, or redoing the permitting process through Lake Worth Beach, Greene said.
“I live off Social Security and make $16,000 a year,” said Greene, adding that she can’t afford to do all the stuff the inspectors want done. “At 74 years old I shouldn’t have to deal with this bullshit.”
Lake Worth Beach criticized
Greene said most residents of the trailer park also are living on fixed incomes. “We do have some homes that need fixing up, but 90 percent of them are well kept.”
In a statement, the Palm Beach Tenants Union, an advocacy group for low-income residents in the county, said the code enforcement campaign in the Palm Beach Mobile Home Park mirrors a similar sweep in 2019 against homeowners in the Holiday II Mobile Home Park, in which a majority are migrant farm workers.
“This is pretty much in line with what the city’s administration has been doing,” the tenants union statement said. “They typically target immigrant communities, but we are now seeing it with this elderly community. As a tenants union, we support code enforcement when it is used to crack down on slumlords, but not when it’s used to displace people.”
Mayor Betty Resch, who was sworn in on March 16 after defeating three-term mayor Pam Triolo in this month’s election, said she could not comment on the Palm Beach Mobile Home Park code enforcement crackdown.
“I will certainly take a look at it,” Resch said. “In general, mobile home parks are disappearing and that’s sad. This is one of the last semi-affordable housing left in Florida.”
City Manager Michael Bornstein and Erin Fitzhugh Sita, assistant operations director for Lake Worth Beach’s Department of Community Sustainability, which oversees code enforcement, did not respond to Florida Bulldog phone and email messages requesting comment.
2018 workshop set up crackdown
Elected officials laid the groundwork for Lake Worth Beach’s offensive against the city’s poorest residents during a city commission workshop on July 24, 2018. During the four-hour meeting, then-city commissioners Scott Maxwell and Omari Hardy, at the time the city’s only African-American elected official, made it clear they wanted to push out low-income residents and discourage people who didn’t fit their preferred demographics from moving in.
“We have to change the demographics, but no one is willing to say it,” Maxwell said. “Lake Worth is the default repository for the poor and indigent.” He also said the city should avoid creating an environment “where we welcome folks who are not supposed to be here.”
Hardy added that he wanted the city to focus on attracting individuals earning $60,000 or more annually, preferably with a college degree. To achieve this goal, Hardy suggested at the workshop that it could use code and law enforcement as “the stick” to go after owners of dilapidated properties.
“We do it through law enforcement, through code enforcement and through land development regulations that can encourage someone to sell their property for a lot more to someone else who can build something on top of it,” Hardy said.
Maxwell, who lost his reelection bid to Sarah Malaga, and Hardy, who won a state House seat in the November election, did not respond to Florida Bulldog phone and email messages seeking comment. City officials used a $300,000 federal community block grant to fund its code enforcement sweep that “red-tagged” 593 vehicles in a two-month span and resulted in numerous violations against the owners of nearly half of the 70 trailers at Holiday II.
Lake Worth Beach goes after elderly poor
Greene said Lake Worth Beach is issuing citations for non-conforming uses as a result of a zoning change to the property in 2013. The city commission voted to change the designation from a mobile home park to an industrial park of commerce. Greene alleges that she, her neighbors and the mobile park owner Riverstone Communities never received public notices for the rezoning hearing. Representatives for Riverstone, which owns and operates more than 60 manufactured home communities throughout the U.S., did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Greene found out in 2014 after emailing then-Planning and Preservation Manager Maxime Ducoste about why the city was refusing to approve permit applications for screen enclosures submitted by some residents, she said.
According to Ducoste’s response, the rezoning resulted in the mobile home park becoming a nonconforming use and that additions or improvements to the trailers were unlawful. “The present use of the property and the buildings are deemed nonconforming,” Ducoste wrote. “Therefore, the permit application for the screen enclosure as it was submitted, constitutes an increase, in both, the nonconforming use and the nonconforming structure, which is the reason for not approving the permit.”
Greene alleges code enforcement personnel are now using the rezoning as the pretext to issue citations for additions and improvements to mobile homes made many years before the rezoning of the property. “They have issued over 100 citations and continue to issue more,” Greene said. “They gave you 30 days to fix it or you get fined $150. Next thing they do is place a lien on your property.”
Jose Antonio Dominguez received a code violation stating that he needed to tear down an enclosed addition to his mobile home built in two days or face fines. The addition was built by a previous owner. Dominguez speaks no English and was unaware he could contest the violation. Instead, to comply he used his handyman skills and tore it down in two and a half days. He rents to own and has a balance of $7,000.00 on the home.
The crackdown was one reason another of Greene’s neighbors, Denise D’Anjou, decided to sell her trailer and move out of Lake Worth Beach. The 71-year-old former trailer owner received citations in November and December for an un-permitted shed and an un-permitted air-conditioning unit, D’Anjou said.
“Both were put in in 1996 and 1997,” she said. “But I got a letter from Riverstone stating that the city had determined the shed and the AC were not up to code. If I paid the city $150 for each violation, then I would be fine. I wasn’t going to give them $150.”
D’Anjou said some of her neighbors either paid the fines or dismantled the improvements that were cited. “One of them took apart their Florida room that had been there since I bought [my trailer] in 1995,” she said. “I sold mine. Naturally, I lost money. It was worth more because of what I had put into it.”
With her daughter’s financial assistance, she purchased a condo in Greenacres, a city about five miles west of Lake Worth Beach. “It was my time to leave,” D’Anjou said. “I had enough.”
Melanie Bell contributed to this story.