NEW PORT RICHEY — Sandi Nelson has resorted to carrying pepper spray on morning walks. Patricia Dew avoids the pool area after glimpsing drunken late-night parties there. And Robert Abbey says too many people in their 20s and 30s are moving to what is supposed to be a 55+ gated community.
"There are no rules and regulations, no background checks," said Abbey, a retired Navy veteran.
Residents of the Hacienda Village mobile home park off Rowan Road say their normally peaceful retirement community is deteriorating because of lax enforcement of park rules.
They blame the office staff of their management company, Equity LifeStyle Properties, and say their complaints aren't being addressed, from mildew on the homes to underage residents, large dogs and loud parties.
Most troubling, they say, is that several ex-cons have moved into the neighborhood despite park regulations barring felons and requiring background checks of all residents.
The problems aren't new but have worsened the past few years, they say.
Mark Nelson, 67, said he and his wife, Sandi, retired from a small town north of Madison, Wis., 10 years ago to what they thought was a quiet, gated community. Hacienda met those expectations for years, but now they say the front gate is seldom closed and park management seems unwilling to enforce its tenancy requirements.
"They just aren't following the rules and regulations that they want the rest of us to follow," Nelson said.
Jennifer Ludovice, director of investor relations at Chicago-based Equity LifeStyle, issued a statement Monday:
"We have identified a very small number of residents who do not meet residency qualifications for the community (unrelated to the age requirement), and are working with local counsel to remedy these situations by all available legal channels. While the legal process may take time, we are committed to enforcing residency requirements."
Unsure what to do, residents have asked their state representative, Democrat Amanda Murphy, to intercede and have staged noisy protests outside the entrance, waving signs that say "No felons" and "Follow the rules."
Dozens of residents attended two protests last fall. About 30 showed up July 7.
At that demonstration, Murphy and legislative aide Brian Goff went to the park's office after watching staffers enter moments earlier.
They found the door locked and knocked several times, "but nobody answered," said Goff, adding that he's also left voicemails for staffers but received no reply.
Abbey said that's not surprising considering he's complained for years without hearing back. He worries that unless action is taken to evict some unwelcome tenants, a confrontation might erupt. Some seniors say they fear being harassed or robbed.
One morning two weeks ago, residents discovered an apparently drunken man passed out on the grass. Roused from his sleep, he gave no explanation and asked where he could find something to eat.
"Now with so many in the park that are riffraff and the drunks that we get, I don't feel safe anymore," said Sandi Nelson, 62.
Park rules allow 20 percent of residents to be between 40 and 54. The rest must be over 55, and no children are allowed except for visits, although that rule apparently is being broken. Some residents report families with school-age children living at the 500-unit community.
In some cases, younger residents are moving in with parents and grandparents or subleasing homes. The influx is causing friction with seniors, who complain about loud stereos and pool parties late into the night. Dew said she once noticed a couple having sex in the pool area.
Ludovice maintains that more than 90 percent of Hacienda's homes have at least one resident 55 or older.
Abbey and other residents say they haven't heard back from the staff despite repeated letters and calls. Goff, Murphy's aide, said he hasn't heard back. Calls by the Tampa Bay Times to the park office last week were not returned.
Even if the park takes action it could be months, maybe years, before any noticeable changes. Stringent eviction laws and judges burdened by heavy case loads can make evictions slow and difficult to carry out.
John Salvucci, president of the Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida, said homeowners targeted for eviction sometimes claim hardships. He said he's seen instances where pet owners produce doctors' notes calling their animals companion or therapy dogs to exempt them from size restrictions.
In other cases, he's heard homeowners argue that their underage guests, including felons, are "caregivers" to get around park regulations.
"It can be very difficult," Salvucci said. "When you go to court, unless it's for nonpayment, you're not going to go anywhere."
Evicting park residents can have broad consequences. State statutes hold lease holders accountable for their guests, so any move to evict an underage or unruly resident can also spur proceedings against the homeowner.
Even getting to that stage can take months, involving several letters to the homeowner and, in some cases, court-ordered mediation. After exhausting those efforts, the case can end up before a judge who sees not an unruly tenant, but a grandmother who looks to that tenant for support.
At Hacienda, most mobile homes are owned separately, but Equity LifeStyle leases the land they sit on.
"Now you're talking to a judge and you're asking that judge to evict a 68-year-old grandmother," said Mark Butler, president of MEB Real Estate Management, a mobile home park manager based in Bradenton.
"Under the law, he has to evict both, and that's tough to do," Butler said. "It's a tough issue. It's tough for both sides."
Staff writer Michele Miller contributed to this article. Contact Rich Shopes at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.