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A mobile-home drive

An incident, an anecdote and the words of a close friend reveal much about John Steele, who does not readily talk about himself: Hours before the New Port Richey man entered the hospital for surgery to have his left knee replaced, Steele, 66, seemed more concerned that his recuperation would coincide with the busiest time of the year for the Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida (FMO)and less bothered by the prospect of a major operation and painful recovery.

As president of the federation's District 11, which encompasses Citrus and Hernando counties and the western portion of Pasco County, Steele said FMO business could not stop, even if he must conduct it from a hospital bed. Most park rent increases take effect Jan. 1, and the time to fight was during his recuperation.

Despite major operations on his back, neck and leg, and triple-bypass heart surgery in 1987, Steele always has returned to a hectic schedule, dedicated to the federation.

Now the anecdote: Steele said mobile homes, anchored with steel beams to concrete foundations, can withstand 120-mph winds. Knowing that, he stayed at the mobile home he shares with his wife and aging poodle, Scruffy, during Hurricane Elena in 1985.

"I was the only one that stayed in this park alone," Steele said, smiling at Scruffy, who is 14. "This little guy stayed with me."

As a volunteer firefighter years ago on Long Island, N.Y., Steele said he weathered worse storms than Elena.

A friend: Chuck Andrazyk and Steele say they are close friends, although much of their relationship revolves around their work for the federation. Andrazyk is the Hacienda Village representative to the FMO. Steele started his FMO career with that job and continues to live at Hacienda Village in New Port Richey.

"He eats and lives FMO," Andrazyk said. "He's always at it. He doesn't have many other hobbies."

Steele acknowledged during a rare moment of talking about himself, that he has no spare time. The Steeles take an annual vacation in August. Occasionally, he watches sports on television. And he and his wife, Lucille, go to monthly Hacienda Village dances at the clubhouse. But talk at those social functions turns to FMO work and mobile home issues.

Certainly, those park owners with whom he has tangled, as well as politicians, wish Steele would take up a hobby with the kind of singular devotion he pays to FMO.

The actions of some park owners and the methods used by some communities with regard to parks dismay Steele. He recently sipped coffee at the kitchen table of his comfortable mobile home and went through the list of offenses. The same park names cropped up, woven in and out of a conversation that jumped topics but always returned to the subject of mobile homes.

The situation between Port Richey and Senate Manor Mobile Home Park irritates Steele. The City Council recently voted, after more than a year of discussion, to provide sewer service to that park and other customers of the park's decrepit sewer plant.

"The Port Richey sewer system is a laugh," Steele said, "because all they have are pipes."

The city, he said, acts as a go-between for Pasco County or New Port Richey sewer plants. The mobile-home park residents have to pay a fee to obtain the service. The state threatened to sue the park if it did not hook up to sewer service through the city or the county.

What bothers Steele most is that state law requires park owners to maintain sewer services, which was not done at Senate Manor and other parks in west Pasco.

Steele is in an ongoing dispute with Port Richey Mayor Keith Kollenbaum over the arrangement, approved in August.

In Kollenbaum's opinion, Steele's opinion probably isn't worth much.

"It's been my experience that his influence is overrated," Kollenbaum said. "As far as Port Richey is concerned, he represents a minority of mobile home park owners."

While it may be different in other communities, Kollenbaum said, "My personal observation is he's just ineffective. I honestly haven't seen him have any effect in Port Richey."

But in May 1988, residents at Senate Manor did benefit from the support of Steele and the federation.

Following a landmark ruling, residents received checks totaling more than $360,000 that a circuit court judge ruled was the extra rent paid over two and a half years. The rent dispute started in December 1984 when residents filed suit against Keller Park Investors, the former park owner.

Steele's advocacy roots took hold during a rent revolt at Hacienda Village, where he and Lucille moved in 1979 from Buffalo, N.Y. Steele was disabled in 1970, and after operations on his back, neck and leg, they opted for a warm climate and retirement. Life was peaceful for a few years.

Then, in 1981, Hacienda Village owners _ who since have sold the park to owners who Steele says are doing a good job _ sent letters to residents saying rent was increasing 33 percent. A year later, rent went up another 33 percent.

That same year, Steele was voted president of the Hacienda Village unit of FMO. In 1983, the Steeles sued the owners of Hacienda Village and 150 park residents added their names to the lawsuit and pitched in for legal fees.

An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1984. Steele was chosen vice president of the federation district. He was chosen district president a year later. His most recent advance was in December 1989 when he was voted a director-at-large for the state, which has nearly 240,000 FMO members.

While Steele was inspired by the settlement in his park, recent developments in another long rent dispute bring a grim look to his otherwise cheerful face.

Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court refused to review a rent case at Club Wildwood Mobile Home Park in Hudson. The federation supplies legal fees to parks involved in such lawsuits, supporting the effort until the end.

As chairman of the federation finance committee, Steele watches the money as it goes to fight such battles. As of Aug. 31, the federation had doled out $270,000 for legal fees, $20,000 more than was allocated in this year's $1.511-million budget.

"We have cases in some of the mobile home parks, some of the older ones, where people don't know what their rights are," Steele said. "Too many elderly people are getting hurt because people in charge aren't familiar with Florida Statute 723 (which governs mobile home parks)."

Steele then turned to an analogy he has stuck with for years: "They become prisoners of the park."

It costs $15,000 to $20,000 to move a mobile home that is on a foundation, Steele said. Most people cannot afford that after they have settled at a park.

To make them aware of their rights, Steele travels extensively throughout the districtand urges park residents to learn the law and their rights.

He also spends "days upon days" in Tallahassee when the Legislature is in session. Often, bus loads of federation members arrive to lobby legislators.

State Sen. Karen Thurman, D- Dunnellon, probably doesn't need to be lobbied. She is sold on the federation, Steele in particular. He makes her job easier by keeping her informed about mobile home park residents and their concerns.

"One of the things that John has been able to do is to mobilize the mobile home residents, which is not always an easy thing to do," she said.

His approach works, too. Steele speaks softly and looks people directly in the eye. He comes across as a kindly, sincere gentleman.

When Thurman gets a call from a mobile-home resident with a problem, Steele is one of the first people she contacts.

"John will make a point of getting in touch with those people. He makes the attempt to help," Thurman said.

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