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Developers moving in on Florida mobile home parks (w/video)

Development surrounds the old mobile homes in Rainbow Court in Zephyrhills on Tuesday. Pretty Pond Road, center, runs along the north side of the recently sold park.
Development surrounds the old mobile homes in Rainbow Court in Zephyrhills on Tuesday. Pretty Pond Road, center, runs along the north side of the recently sold park.
Published Mar. 29, 2015

ZEPHYRHILLS

Not so long ago, Rainbow Court mobile home park was a peaceful, pleasant community of senior citizens.

Today it is a Mad Max, dystopian landscape of broken and abandoned trailers.

Windows are shattered, some hammered over with plywood. Doors open to rooms stripped of everything that could be carted away. All is eerily quiet but for the occasional shouts of one man drunkenly accusing another of stealing what little is left.

Soon, they and the few remaining residents will be gone, too.

Last year, a Dallas-based developer bought Rainbow Court and the neighboring Brightside Mobile Home Park in eastern Pasco County. The motive becomes obvious by looking just beyond their borders.

Behind them is a Bealls and a Tractor Supply Co. Next door is a Walmart Supercenter. Across busy U.S. 301 sits a shopping plaza with Ross, Arby's and TJ Maxx.

Once the trailers have been removed, the eight acres they've occupied for decades are planned to be home to an Aldi grocery and possibly a movie theater.

It's a story playing out all over fast-growing parts of Florida. Mobile home parks that once provided affordable shelter for thousands of retirees and working-class citizens are giving way to shopping centers and more upscale housing.

"Now that the housing market is coming back and the commercial market is coming back, there's more pressure to close under-performing or older parks, and replace them with something that provides a higher and better use,'' said Jim Ayotte, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association.

In Clearwater, the owner of 62-year-old Bayside Gardens trailer park on Old Tampa Bay served notice last month that all tenants must be out by Aug. 31. Up to 300 new condos will rise on the prime waterfront site convenient to Tampa and St. Petersburg.

In southern Hillsborough County, residents of the 63-year-old Yost Retirement Trailer Park wonder how much longer they'll be able to picnic and fish along their scenic stretch of Ruskin Inlet. The 8-acre park is on the market at a price — $2.25 million — that could make it attractive to a developer of waterfront townhomes.

And in cities all across the state, the Florida Mobile Home Relocation Trust Fund has paid out more than $2 million in the past few years to help move residents of more than 20 shuttered parks. Among them were nearly 800 evicted from a Hollywood park owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The tribe hasn't announced plans for the now-cleared land. It is, however, right across the street from one of the Seminoles' gaming casinos.

Mobile homes remain the housing of choice, or necessity, for thousands of Floridians. They account for 25 percent of all housing units in Pasco, 21 percent in Hernando, and 10 percent in Pinellas and Hillsborough. Over the past decade, the number of licensed Florida parks with 10 or more lots has remained steady at about 2,350.

The number of lots, though, has shrunk by at least 2,000 statewide to about 320,000, mostly in smaller parks that have closed. And due to ever-rising land costs there has been almost no new park development in 20 years.

"The biggest problem we run into now as these communities get older is that it's very difficult to replace homes,'' Ayotte said. "Who wants to move a new home in with a community that's 40 years old?''

• • •

The mobile home parks of today have their origins in the period just after World War II. Millions of GIs returning home to start families created a housing shortage that prompted many Americans to hitch a travel trailer to the car and set off in search of a place to put down roots.

As these trailer communities grew, the pejoratively dubbed "tin cans on wheels''' became bigger, fancier and less mobile. Manufactured homes, as they started to be called, proved an attractive housing option, especially for retirees and snowbirds in sunny Florida.

Though it seems almost inconceivable today, it was not unusual 40 years ago to find mobile home parks springing up on the water or in what are now thriving commercial districts.

"A lot (of parks) are in just fantastic locations,'' Ayotte said, "but at the time they were just kind of pushed out from the urban areas to places that were not really prime real estate then.''

For some lucky residents, their waterfront parks began rising in value just as the original park owners decided to get out of the business. Several mobile home communities, including Tampa's Regency Cove with its wide open views of Tampa Bay, were purchased by residents and rendered relatively immune from development pressures.

Many other large parks have stayed rental, though ownership is increasingly consolidated among a few companies. Chicago's Equity Lifestyle Properties, which has a regional office in Tampa, is Florida's biggest player, with 87 parks and more than 37,000 home sites.

"For the most part, the goal is to build and maintain a park, but you get to the point where the community gets so old, it's very difficult to start replacing homes and the infrastructure needs to be upgraded,'' Ayotte said. "You're talking about a large investment of dollars and sometimes the economics don't work. We see it all over the place where you get these old mobile home parks built outside of town but with urban sprawl it's now in a commercial zone and highly desirable.''

• • •

That's what happened to Zephyrhills' Rainbow Court.

"It was peaceful,'' Chris Sparks says of the 46-lot park. "There was nothing on that whole corner" — he gestures toward what is now a Publix shopping center — "but a cow pasture, maybe orange groves.''

On a recent afternoon, Sparks and two friends were hauling the last of his mother's belongings — a few '80s-era vinyl suitcases, some pressboard furniture — out of her single-wide trailer and onto a pickup.

As they worked, it was easy to imagine how tranquil this place might have seemed when Spark's mother, Juanita Rowland, moved in a decade or so ago. Magnificent, moss-draped oaks still shade the grounds, tucked in a hollow where a gentle breeze sends leaves skipping along dirt roads.

But even then, rampant commercialism was threatening Rainbow Court as Zephryhills grew north along 301/Gall Boulevard. A Walmart Supercenter begat a Lowe's, which begat Publix, Staples and Tire Kingdom.

Rowland stayed on as other seniors died off, replaced by a younger, rougher crowd. Last fall, notices went up on all trailers that the park had been sold and residents had until March to get out.

Most of the homes in here are so old they cannot be moved to another park, either because they would fall apart or because they don't meet current wind-resistance codes. By abandoning them and surrendering title, Rowland and other owners are entitled to compensation from the mobile home relocation trust fund — $1,375 for a single-wide, $2,750 for a double-wide.

Created by the Legislature in 2001, the fund gets its money from the $1 annual surcharges that mobile home owners pay on decal fees and that park owners pay on each home site.

Many residents of closed parks move on to other parks where they can rent both lot and trailer. Sparks is going to one nearby, but his 75-year-old mother has moved to Georgia to live with a daughter.

"It's a blessing,'' Sparks said, though a friend, Danielle Bair, says Rowland was "devastated, heartbroken'' to leave what she expected to be her final home.

As they continue loading the pickup, a shirtless man rides up on a bike, crunching through the carpet of oak leaves. He and Sparks exchange angry words; the man is what Sparks calls a "scrapper,'' one of the scavengers who prowl the nearly deserted park in search of scrap metal and anything else they can sell for a few bucks.

"If we don't get this stuff out of here,'' Sparks says after running the man off, ''it'll be gone overnight.''

Though they've been here longer than anyone can remember, Rainbow Court and its neighbor, Brightside, aren't the kind of places a fast-growing city likes to tout when courting businesses and industry.

Gail Hamilton, new director of Zephyrhills' Community Redevelopment Agency, has been asking people what first comes to mind when they think of Zephyrhills.

"Trailer Park City,'' many respond.

They're surprised when Hamilton tells them that Zephryhills hasn't permitted a new mobile home park in more than 20 years.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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