Mobile park residents seek more rights

Legislative proposals would give mobile home park residents the right

to purchase their park if an unsolicited bid is offered.

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Thursday 31, 2005

When mobile home parks make the news, it's usually a horror story.

The parks have been sold. Unsuspecting residents are served with eviction notices. They don't want to leave, but the law says they don't have a choice.

Now two bills in the Legislature seek to change that.

Senate Bill 2234, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and House Bill 743, sponsored by state Rep. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, would give mobile home residents the right to buy their parks even when the owner receives an unsolicited bid.

Currently, state law only entitles mobile home residents to make an offer on their parks if the owner publicly puts it up for sale. But if the owner has received an unsolicited bid for the park, the residents don't get the option to buy.

"You're talking about senior citizens," Fasano said. "They're worried to death that someone is going to come and buy their park and they won't have the ability of first refusal."

Fasano said he has received hundreds of e-mails from residents expressing these concerns.

The most recent case was the sale of Anchor North Bay in West Oldsmar. More than 100 residents were told this month that they have until September to find new homes. The new owners, Alex Sullivan and Adam Schoenbaum, have said they hope to transform the park into luxury townhomes or condominiums.

Under current state law, the former owner, Hometown America of Chicago, did nothing illegal. The landlord didn't have to tell Anchor North Bay residents anything because the new owners made an unsolicited bid for the park.

The 7.8-acre park on Old Tampa Bay sold for $3.35-million.

There are 3,600 rental and lease mobile home parks in the state, according to the Largo-based Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida, a statewide consumer advocacy association for the protection of mobile home residents. The Florida Mobile Home Act, or Florida Statutes Chapter 723, serves as a mobile home renters' constitution, governing everything from park homeowner associations to grounds for eviction.

Every year, dozens of bills seeking to amend the law are introduced, but few make it out of committee, said Don Hazelton, president of the federation.

It is the first time legislation has sought to change the section of the law regarding mobile home residents' right to buy their parks, Hazelton said.

The effort was initiated by the Bay Indies Mobile Home Park Homeowners Association in Venice. At 1,300 homes, Bay Indies represents one of the largest mobile home parks on Florida's West Coast.

Bay Indies homeowners association president Anthony V. Pinzone sought help from Detert and Fasano after failing to change sections of the law in 2000.

In the years since, Pinzone has sparked a grass roots movement with mobile park homeowners associations across the state. Pinzone's association hired a lobbyist this year.

"It (Anchor North Bay) was sold right from under them and they weren't given a chance," Pinzone said. "If our bill is accepted and enacted, that won't happen again."

Under the proposed legislation, once park owners receive an unsolicited bid, they would have to give park residents 45 days to meet the price, terms and conditions of the unsolicited offer. If the park residents were able to meet the offer they would be guaranteed the opportunity to buy.

"We're not saying it's going to take 45 days, we're saying we want the option available as long as 45 days," Pinzone said. "We're not asking for any special treatment, just a chance to offer a bid."

But Frank Williams said special treatment is exactly what they're asking for.

"In simplest terms, it takes away property rights," said Williams, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, representing manufacturers, park owners, developers, bankers and insurance companies associated with mobile home parks. "If you have a property and someone inhibits your ability to sell that property, it's unconstitutional."

To mobile home residents, the issue is one of security, said Leo Plenski, president of the Bay Pines Mobile Home Park Homeowners' Association in Seminole.

"The people who have been here 25 years should have the right to buy the park," said Plenski, who lives in the 50-acre park. "These are people who look in that paper every day for another horror story, hoping it's not them."

However, the mobile home residents community is not a unified front.

"I think after it gets passed there will be big challenges in the courts," said Hazelton, who added that the biggest issue facing mobile home residents is adequate insurance. "If you get an offer for $30-million, you're not going to want to wait for 45 days to offer it to the residents in the park, and you shouldn't have to."

The residents' financial ability to purchase a park is another issue, Hazelton said, noting the numerous complaints he gets from residents regarding rent increases as low as $10 a month.

Still, Hazelton said that the current law works and that more than 600 mobile home parks have been purchased by residents since the law was enacted in 1984.

Both bills are currently in committees. Fasano cautions that getting the legislation to the House or Senate will be no easy task.

"It's unfortunate that the majority of people affected by this want this bill to pass, but there's an uphill battle dealing with special interest groups who represent a much smaller group: the park owners," he said.