To a casual observer, the 100 or so seniors clustered around a shelter at Veterans Memorial Park last weekend were just another group having a picnic.
But this gathering was special. The picnickers were all refugees of the Bay Pines Mobile Home Park, which they were forced to leave after developer John Loder bought the property to turn it into high-end housing. The park, just down Bay Pines Boulevard from the picnic site, has been razed.
Where once there were 500 mobile homes — and a close-knit, supportive community — there is now nothing but a few trees and piles of dirt. Like so many others, the redevelopment has been stalled by the housing market crash.
The residents scattered across the state. But many still get together, to socialize with old friends and regret their losses. And there were many: homes where some had lived for 20 or 30 years, homes where many expected to spend the rest of their lives; investments many could ill afford to lose.
But perhaps the biggest loss was the sense of community. That affected everyone equally.
"We had an excellent park," said Eileen Tucker, who still gets together with some former Bay Pines residents for weekly bowling at Seminole Lanes. "It breaks my heart. … I don't wish (John Loder) bad luck. I wish him no luck for what he did to everybody. (The) man has no Christianity. … Everybody's spread all over."
Tucker, a Canadian, said the loss was bad enough for those who winter here. But, she said, the locals were "the ones we bled for. Those were their homes."
The bowling and the picnic are efforts to retain that sense of community. To keep in touch with friends who care and who watched out for each other.
The picnic, in its second year, grew out of the yearly gathering of Canadian snowbirds before they returned north. Last year, the picnic was expanded to include all former Bay Pines residents.
"We adopted a lot of Americans into the Canadian Club," Bill Clipperton said.
"They're still trying to hold onto the community," Arline Ballegh explained.
Many of the Bay Pines residents owned their homes but not the land beneath them, and lost thousands of dollars when they were forced to move.
The state provides that mobile home owners be paid $3,000 for a single-wide and $6,000 for a double-wide to help defray the costs of moving them, but most of the Bay Pines homes could not be moved.
So those owners received less — $1,375 for a single-wide and $2,750 for a double-wide. Had the Bay Pines residents owned the land underneath their homes, there would have been no problem because they would have shared in the sale price. Because they did not own the land, they were left with no real options to stop the sale or to share the proceeds. And because most of the homes were old, they could not be moved without difficulty or being brought up to code.
Some homeowners have sued the property's sellers over the deal, and that suit is laboring through the court system.
Here are three residents' stories:
When Nassif, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, began looking for a home with his caretaker, they first visited Harbor Lights Mobile Home Park. They were told that Harbor Lights might be sold.
"They said, 'This park could be for sale … but there's nothing pending,' " Nassif said.
Soon after, Loder contracted to buy Harbor Lights.
To avoid losing his investment, Nassif went a mile or so west and paid $7,000 for a mobile home at Bay Pines. He says he sank between $18,000 and $20,000 into rebuilding the home, then learned that Bay Pines had been sold two months earlier. The story had been in the newspaper but he had missed it, he says, and no one told him before he bought.
So Nassif looked for a new home again, but the timing was bad. Mobile home parks across Pinellas County were being gobbled up and many displaced residents were looking. The housing market was reaching its height, and developers were looking for land.
He finally found something in Pinellas Park's Sunset Mobile Home Park. The price for the home and the land beneath it— about $80,000.
"I said I would never buy again without getting the land," Nassif said. "But now, I'm in debt for the rest of my life."
The irony — Loder never bought Harbor Lights and the residents still have their homes there.
Jones, from Cardiff, Wales, began visiting the St. Petersburg area with his wife in the early 1990s. They'd come every winter, rent a car and spend six months enjoying the sunshine. In the late 1990s, they decided to buy a car and needed a local address so it could be registered. They paid $12,250 for a mobile home at Bay Pines, in part, he says, because they were given a document that guaranteed it would remain a mobile home park until at least 2020. Jones would turn 80 that year and the Joneses felt they had made a safe deal.
Then, a couple of years ago, just 36 hours before they were to fly back to Wales, they got notice the park had been sold. They could not cancel their plans because their visas prohibit noncitizens from remaining more than six months at a time.
"It was a bit of a shock, I can tell you," Jones said. "In our country, you can't do that."
With no knowledge of U.S. law and no time, Jones sold the mobile home back to Bay Pines at a loss. Had he waited a day and gotten the written notice to vacate, he could have joined the lawsuit. Now, he's out his investment and has no way to try to recoup his losses.
But he's still coming here each year. Jones bought a mobile home, and the land beneath it, at Lake Rich Village in St. Petersburg.
Krouse, sparkly and vivacious, lived in Bay Pines for 6 1/2 years. She says she paid $20,000 for her mobile home and invested another $10,000 in repairs and upgrades. She thought she had it made with her own home, no debt and a neighborhood that looked as though it popped out of a 1950s TV show.
The friends, social life and warm people she enjoyed at Bay Pines can never be replaced, Krouse said. "My home is gone."
Krouse moved to Club Chalet Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg, paying $60,000 for the home and land. That doesn't include moving expenses.
Now, at 71, retirement is a thing of the past. She's in debt again and must work almost daily cleaning houses to augment her Social Security. Sometimes, she cleans more than one in a day.
"So, the American dream," she said.
One of the men added, "So much for that, huh?"