Sunday, June 16, 2024

Residents of a Florida mobile home park left displaced after closure


Mobile Home Park Closures Displace Hundreds in Tampa Bay

The news that would upend Griselda Cano’s life came casually. The same letter was tacked to every homeowner’s door that balmy September day. Its message, packed with legal jargon, spread quickly: The owner of their Clearwater mobile home park had new plans for the land. In six months, they would be evicted.

“One never imagines such a thing,” said Cano, 34, in Spanish. “It’s such a big place, with so many families.”

But what was unfolding at Capri Mobile Home Park has become a familiar story. When land for development is scarce and a housing market is hot, mobile home parks are particularly vulnerable to closures, housing experts say. Over the last decade, dozens have shuttered in Tampa Bay and across Florida — displacing hundreds of people as affordable housing has become harder and harder to find, a Tampa Bay Times analysis of state records shows.

Housing advocates say there’s no end in sight, and at least one additional park is slated to close in Tampa Bay this fall.

Florida has a larger share of mobile homes at risk than the national average. Mobile homes make up roughly 8% of the state’s housing, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Residents often own their houses but not the land underneath, making them still susceptible to the whims of landlords. Park owners can sell the land to developers for hefty sums, while residents, who tend to be older or make lower wages, often have little recourse.

Their houses may be mobile only in name: Structural vulnerabilities or prohibitive relocation costs often make it impossible to move a manufactured home. Few residents can afford to buy a new home after losing one, and bloated wait lists for area low-income apartments heighten the challenge of securing new housing.

Homelessness advocates say it’s part of a “sad new trend” as real estate becomes increasingly desirable — and increasingly scarce — throughout the region.

Capri Mobile Home Park provides a window into how hard it can be to find new housing — even with advocates there to help. Nearly 200 people, the majority of them Latino families, were evicted from the park when the community closed in March.

Some scattered to stay with loved ones or wound up in emergency homeless shelters. Others left the state.

Some remained in hotels for months, struggling to find affordable long-term housing in Tampa Bay.

“Everything is expensive and everything is occupied,” Cano said.

Future plans for the land where the mobile home park once stood remain unclear. The president of Capri Mobile Home Park Inc., James C. Goss, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the closure.

But former residents believe history — and context — could offer some clues about what could happen to the park. They had watched as a neighboring mobile home community, which records show was also run by Goss, shut down four years ago and a developer later bought the land. Ivory-colored luxury apartments now stand in its place, welcoming one-bedroom renters at $1,850 a month.

“All the time, parks are closing”

The Sunshine State has boomed in popularity in recent years. More people moved to Florida in 2022 than any other state.

But some of that growth has been upending. More than two decades ago, the state Legislature founded the Florida Mobile Home Relocation Corp. to address this very problem. The public corporation, which is working with several Capri families, provides compensation to mobile home residents who are displaced when parks close.

Homeowners can receive up to $6,000, depending on the size of their mobile home, to help with the cost of relocation.

But often, former residents abandon their homes — signing the title over to the park’s owner — because the structures are too costly or old to move. All of the Capri families the organization is aiding gave up their houses. They’re eligible for up to $1,375 in compensation for the loss of a single-wide, or $2,750 for a larger home, the organization said.

“That amount has not kept up with inflation, rent costs and food prices,” said Kristopher Sauer, assistant executive director of the Florida Mobile Home Relocation Corp.

At least 182 manufactured home communities in Florida have shuttered over the last dozen years, according to the Times’ analysis of records from the relocation organization and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Tampa Bay has seen 38 park closures since 2011, including 10 over the past four years. All but one of the recent shutters were in Pinellas, the state’s densest county, where development has stretched available land thin.

Housing experts say the numbers are almost certainly an undercount.

“All the time, parks are closing and we aren’t told,” Sauer said.

Park owners are legally required to notify the Department of Business and Professional Regulation about closures. But that doesn’t always happen, Sauer said.

The state agency, for example, learned of Capri Mobile Home Park’s shutdown after a resident sent the relocation organization a copy of an eviction letter.

As news of the park’s impending closure spread, the city of Clearwater eventually stepped in. Through a local foundation, Clearwater gave the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas $250,000 to help Capri families who would be displaced.

”This is happening all over the country,” said Monika Alesnik, chief executive officer for the Homeless Alliance. “But it’s particularly scary for residents in Tampa Bay — our housing market is terrifying.”

“Not enough places”

After residents got word that Capri Mobile Home Park would close, Cano and her husband, Edgar Figueroa, scrambled to find a new place to live. The couple had until March 14 to leave their home of two years. They entered a housing market that had dramatically changed.

In the last two years, Tampa Bay rent prices rose faster than any other metropolitan area in the nation. Rents have increased by nearly 40% in cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg since 2018, the Times recently reported. Yet more than half of the large, multifamily housing projects started or completed during that time period were luxury apartments.

Days flew by as Cano and Figueroa searched for somewhere to go. Wait lists for affordable housing were long. Rent was often double, or even triple, the $850 a month they paid for their lot.

With two young kids in tow, the couple checked into a hotel, using aid from the Homeless Alliance. The family hid their cats, Mancha and Minina, from cleaning staff for over a week.

They knew, from conversations with advocates and former neighbors, others also hadn’t found housing. One resident Cano spoke to was considering moving back to the Dominican Republic, she said, because he couldn’t find a place in Tampa Bay.

As recently as mid-May, more than a dozen former residents remained in hotels and without stable housing, according to the Homeless Alliance.

“We did everything that we possibly, possibly could,” Alesnik said. “But the reality of it is, there are not enough places for these families to go.”

After 10 nights at a Howard Johnson hotel in Clearwater, Cano’s family moved into a temporary rental in Wimauma. But the clock was still ticking. They needed to be out within two months.

Before their deadline, Cano and Figueroa were able to move their trailer — a rare feat — into Gulf To Bay, another manufactured home community in Clearwater, using aid from the Homeless Alliance and the park itself.

Within a few weeks, all of the Capri families the Homeless Alliance aided will have stable housing, the organization said.

But Cano and Figueroa worry that their new park will also close someday.

“After living through this, I have those thoughts sometimes,” said Figueroa.

He paused. “But I hope not.”

It’s hardly an unfounded concern. Across the bay, another Tampa Bay mobile home community, Skylite Trailer Park in Tampa, is slated to close this fall, records show. Residents will be evicted in September.

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