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Mobile home owners putting up a fight

Looking for a stable, lucrative investment? How about owning a mobile home park?

"Low resident turnover . . . Consistent rental increases . . . 1997 total return: 33.9 percent," boasted a recent Wall Street Journal ad for Chateau Communities Inc., a real estate corporation that owns 49 Florida mobile home parks.

"Here's what's in the deal for the park owner. The park tenant typically signs a lease for at least one year for $200 a month, with a 5 percent annual increase on renewal," crowed Forbes magazine in 1996. "Residents have to spend $40,000 to $75,000 for the home. Hauling it elsewhere costs another $8,000 or more, so they are loath to move out."

Now meet Freda Payne, a face behind that revenue stream.

The 83-year-old widow has lived for 33 years in the Heritage Village Mobile Home Park in Largo, but today she is petrified. The park owner soon will inform tenants about this year's rent, and Payne fears she may have to abandon her home.

"If the rent goes up again, I don't see how I could stay here on what I've got," she said in her soft Kentucky twang. "I don't know where I'd go. I suppose I'd have to go with some of my relations."

Payne, whose late husband, William, was a carpenter and highly decorated World War II machine gunner, already knows precisely how she spends her monthly $651 Social Security check.

After all her carefully budgeted expenses _ $241 for lot rent, $123 for food, $4 for church, etc. _ she has $20 left. With the park owner already trying to charge tenants for water and sewer service, yet another rent increase could devastate her.

"In Pinellas County alone, I could find you thousands of other people in the exact same situation," said Don Hazelton, a resident of Whispering Pines mobile home park in Largo and a leader in the Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida, or FMO.

Rent disputes between park owners and lot renters have been going on for decades in Florida, the nation's mobile home capital. But FMO activists say they're seeing frustrations by mobile home owners bubble up like never before.

Even in a year when the industry says rent increased more slowly than past years, Hazelton said, the FMO is being swamped with requests for legal assistance from park tenants challenging increases.

The FMO even has called on the Florida attorney general to investigate illegal collusion it suspects is fueling the chronic rent increases and causing a "consumer crisis" for more than 1-million Florida homeowners.

"We are concerned about park owners either discussing with one another how much to increase rents in their communities or determining market value by setting rates that are charged by other communities. We believe these issues result in a form of price-fixing," FMO Executive Director Charity Cicardo wrote Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

A spokesman for Butterworth said the antitrust division is still reviewing the issue, seven months after the FMO request.

Frank Williams, who heads the industry-backed Florida Manufactured Housing Association, scoffed at the notion of price-fixing among hundreds of park owners.

"That would be like herding a bunch of cats, trying to get them to go in the same direction," he said.

It was more than 40 years ago that the mobile home lifestyle began to flourish in Florida. For an increasingly mobile society, this new and ever-evolving breed of housing offered people the promise of affordable retirements and second homes in the Sunshine State.

Today, more than 1.2-million people, half of them seniors on fixed incomes, live in Florida's mobile homes. Increasingly, their parks are being bought up by massive real estate investment trusts touting steadily rising returns for shareholders.

"These people are promised the world _ lifestyle, affordability, community living, a nice package if you just sign here. . . . But once they're in, they see broken promise after broken promise," said Pete Dunbar, a former Pinellas legislator who lobbies for the FMO. "They feel very captive and very abused."

With the number of mobile home owners in Florida, many of them well-organized and politically active, one might expect political leaders to bend over backward to keep them happy. That hasn't been the case lately, and it appears unlikely to change in the immediate future.

Mobile home issues likely to surface in the upcoming legislative session are mostly safety-related. The FMO has no plans to push for more homeowner bargaining power on rent issues because they say it appears futile. House Speaker John Thrasher is seen as a strong ally of the industry.

Mobile home owners might be able to deliver votes, but the industry delivers money.

Since 1996, the FMO has given $3,000 in political contributions to the Democratic and Republican parties. The Florida Manufactured Housing Association spent more than $280,000 on contributions during that time, including $113,000 directly to the Republican Party and $35,000 to the Democratic Party.

"Campaign contributions by park owners have placed mobile home owners on fixed incomes in jeopardy of losing their housing," said Leo Mazur, an 83-year-old resident of Village Green mobile home park in St. Petersburg. "We're no better off than tenant farmers in the old South. We have no rights, and the park owners can do anything they want."

In fact, Florida offers mobile home owners more protections than many other states.

In 1984, the Legislature passed a landmark Florida Mobile Home Act, which among other things requires that tenants receive a prospectus disclosing how rent can be increased before they move in. But critics say the vague disclosures rarely stopped park owners from raising rent however they saw fit.

In a small victory for mobile home owners, lawmakers in 1997 passed a law requiring that park owners give residents specific reasons for proposed rent increases. Now park owners across the state are handing tenants studies showing higher rents in area parks to justify their own increases.

Critics say the studies are often dubious comparisons and that the Legislature needs to better define "market rent" and give mobile home owners recourse against arbitrary increases.

Residents can challenge an increase and push the park owner into mediation or arbitration. Ultimately, though, only a successful lawsuit can thwart a park owner intent on raising rent.

"You really can't do anything about it, because people in their 80s and high 70s don't have the money or the time to sue," said George Bobrow, an 84-year-old resident of Sunset Palms park in Pinellas Park.

Park owners say residents have more leverage than they may think.

"I can tell you that 99.5 percent of the people that own parks don't want to be hauled into a mediation or arbitration," said Nelson Steiner of Tampa, who owns a dozen parks along Florida's west coast and who said most responsible park owners strive to keep tenants happy. "If you gouge people, if you take advantage of them, you're going to lose them."

For mobile home owners, though, the market is not as free as it is elsewhere.

They may be called mobile homes, but they are anchored to the ground, hooked up to utilities and not easily moved. An apartment renter unhappy with a rent increase can easily move, but a mobile home owner often has to spend $10,000 to move their home.

That's why apartments typically expect a 60 percent turnover rate and mobile home parks expect 5 percent, according to Indianapolis-based industry consultant George Allen.

The other alternative for strapped lot renters is to walk away from their homes or sell them at fire-sale prices. Part of the reason occupancy rates mostly remain well over 90 percent amid rising rents, homeowners say, is that people are willing to pay higher rent for a few years when they've managed to buy a home for just a few thousand dollars.

Williams of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association said vacancies recently have been edging upward, in part because of the depressed value of the Canadian dollar.

The fact that rents have tended to increase more slowly lately is proof that the free market already serves as effective rent control, he said.

"Should these people be insulated from the higher costs every other Floridian has to face just because they're on Social Security and live in a mobile home park?" Williams asked. "Some people have not planned adequately for their retirement and so forth, and I don't know what we do about that."

Counties with the most mobile homes

These are Florida's top 10 mobile home counties, according to the latest Census. Citrus County, with 15,417 mobile homes, and Hernando, with 12,293, rank 16 and 18, respectively.

1. Pinellas: 53,324

2. Polk: 51,155

3. Hillsborough: 41,905

4. Pasco: 40,435

5. Lee: 33,935

6. Marion: 28,873

7. Brevard: 28,552

8. Lake: 26,877

9. Manatee: 26,305

10. Duval: 21,889

Source: 1990 U.S. Census