|Years aren't golden for mobile-home residents after park raises rent|
of the ORLANDO SENTINEL
BY Lauren Ritchie
Published June 22, 2003
The rent got too high and the atmosphere at Mid-Florida Lakes mobile-home park too poisonous for Carol Harvey a couple months ago.
So she and her 82-year-old husband signed the deed to their mobile home. She sealed the keys in an envelope and marched down to the management office. Nobody was there, so she left the little package on the desk.
The Harveys gave away the mobile home that they had bought six years earlier for $17,000 -- just to get out.
They're not the only ones. This happens several times a month at Mid-Florida Lakes when someone just can't stand it anymore.
This park to which seniors towed their mobile homes, intending to play golf and lounge by the pool for as long as they're able, is in an uproar.
The owners raised the rent, which prompted the homeowners to start making comparisons. They say the rent at Mid-Florida Lakes is $70 to $90 above other rental mobile-home parks in the area, and that's not fair. Some folks are paying as much as $475 a month in rent. And the maintenance at the park, owned by Manufactured Home Communities, is faltering, they say.
Homeowners sued and started withholding rent.
What has happened since is a portrait in anxiety and a lesson to landlords everywhere about what can happen when you tick off seniors who have time to do something about it.
If the homeowners want something, it seems the park management goes out of its way to see that they don't get it. The lawsuit files reveal astonishing depths of obfuscation, stalling and tit for tat. The two sides are seething at each other through clenched teeth.
Unfortunately, the toll is falling most heavily on those who can least bear it.
Eighty-two-year-old Fran Maclay, a Bethlehem Steel retiree, described the aura of the park on State Road 44 as "family" when she moved there in April 1996.
"The atmosphere was completely different when I came," said Maclay, a widow. "We had a wonderful time. We went to all their special things."
A recent homeowners meeting was filled with readings of legalese letters about the lawsuit. They included phrases such as "spiteful reaction to an adverse opinion," "homeowners' way of creating dissension" and "disruptive and abusive."
By the time the report was over, the whole place looked like the "before" version of a Rolaids commercial. Things have come to this: To hell with the pancake breakfast. Let's obsess about the subpoenas flying around -- they actually called a confused 93-year-old woman to testify! -- and how to boost the legal fund. Car wash? Bake sale?
This is not how your grandma wants to live. It shouldn't be happening.
"My phone never stops," said Fran Arcoleo, the 62-year-old retired office manager who leads the homeowners' negotiating committee.
"I really enjoy my two-day-a-week job. It's the only time I never think about this thing," said Donna Powell, a retired service representative of federal accounts for the state of Indiana and chairman of the park's block captains.
"I can't even go down to the pool and enjoy myself without people asking, 'What's happening?' Same thing if you go to a social event," said Richard Jerard, president of the Village Club & Homeowners Association.
"These people don't deserve to live a life like this. They should just come down and enjoy the rest of their lives. They've earned it," said the 55-year-old retired police officer from Colonie, N.Y.
Instead, little dissatisfactions started to pile up. The homeowners can't have space in a clubhouse for a table; the handicapped stall in the ladies' bathroom has been broken for months; doors that weren't formerly locked now require asking for a key from management; the clubhouse staff was cut; roads aren't repaired; the pooldeck looks as if it were hit by a small missile.
I could go on.
There is a small group of homeowners who side with the management of the park, but many of the other 600 residents have mobilized to investigate conditions at other parks held by the same company. Some are just biding their time, waiting until the lawsuit is over, hoping they can sell for not too big a loss.
Then, there's the Harvey method of solving the problem.
Carol Harvey, 72, who is on medical leave from Wal-Mart, has lived quietly with her husband at Lake Yale Estates, about five miles from Dissension Lakes, since March 14.
Giving up their double-wide with the nice Florida room and shed was a radical way of escaping the chaos that surrounded her, but the Harveys decided that at their age, the cost of peace was worth it. Now they own their house and the land. They're paying $40 a month more than they did as renters.
"No one was happy there anymore," she said of her former park. "We had to get out of that atmosphere.
"We just love it over here. We have a view of the water.
"I feel sorry for those people who have no means to do this."