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Court backs mobile home rent limits

Published Oct. 6, 2005

For years, people who lived in mobile homes felt like sitting ducks.

Their landlords imposed rent increases and there wasn't much they could do except pay.

But an appellate court ruling this week enhances the ability of mobile home owners to fight rent increases, said Peter Dunbar, an attorney for the Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida.

Many mobile home owners rent lots, and the ruling concerns the money they pay to lease those lots. The ruling has widespread effect in the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida, which has some of the highest concentrations of mobile homes in the country.

It does not mean that a mobile home owner can wish away any rent increase. But it does say that mobile home owners can fight rent increases that are proved to be "unreasonable."

Dunbar said the ruling is helpful to mobile home owners because it upholds a law which says rent increases can be considered unreasonable if they are above the market rate for that area.

But in some cases rent could be considered reasonable even if it is higher than the market rate. For example, a mobile home lot that overlooked Tampa Bay might carry a higher-than-average rent because of its prime location. The law allows park owners to defend their rates in court.

Mobile home park owners fought the market-rate provision on the grounds that the law did not provide enough guidance on how to define "reasonable."

The law also means that rents can be considered unreasonable if the mobile home owner is lured into a park with the promise of rock-bottom rental rates, and the rates later skyrocket, Dunbar said.

The law is a big improvement for mobile home owners, who previously could fight only rent increases that a court found to be "unconscionable," said Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, who fought in the Legislature to pass the law that was upheld this week.

That's an extremely high standard, he said. In one Pasco County case, a mobile home park raised rates 16 percent, even though its rates were well above others in the area. Nonetheless, a court found that the rate increase was not "unconscionable."

"I think it's a tremendous victory for the residents of mobile home parks who have seen their rent increased in the past," Kiser said.

"It's a major decision for the mobile home owners of Florida," said Dunbar, a former Pinellas County legislator.

An attorney for the mobile home park owners could not be reached for comment late Thursday. It was unclear if the decision would be appealed further.

The ruling this week from Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal upheld an earlier decision by the Leon Circuit Court. Several mobile home park owners had filed suit against the state, claiming the rent regulation was unconstitutional.

Both courts rejected that argument, but agreed to strike down another portion of the law.

That portion would have prevented mobile home park owners from evicting tenants without paying to have the tenants moved to another, similar park within 50 miles or purchasing their mobile homes.

The lower court ruled, and the appellate court agreed, that those provisions of the law would be so expensive and cumbersome that they would essentially take the use of the land away from mobile home park owners.

To allow that provision to stand would be "in effect coercing mobile home park owners to surrender indefinitely their rights to possess and occupy their land."