'This is my home'
By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- For some it's a dream. For others, it's just the best they think they'll ever have.
Patty Dougherty finally worked her way up to a double-wide and hung a sign over the door: Trailer Sweet Trailer. She knows it's not as good as what other people have, but it's exactly what she has always wanted.
"This is my home," said Mrs. Downey, 74. "I need to stay here."
What the people in four mobile home parks on Clearwater-Largo Road have in common is a fear of losing what they have, even if outsiders don't seem to think what they have is worth saving.
The city has targeted Rainbow Court, Belleair Village, Keystone and Skyview for redevelopment. To beautify the area and boost the tax base, the city wants to change the land use and density allowed at the dilapidated parks to make them more attractive to apartment and condominium developers.
It's happening all over the state as Florida real estate becomes more valuable while the mobile homes that cover so much of it deteriorate. It's a growing issue in crowded Pinellas County, where the only way to build something new is to tear down something old. The easiest thing to tear down is a mobile home park.
For Largo, which has 14,000 mobile homes, it has become a community relations problem.
"It's a reality problem," said City Manager Steven Stanton. He's seen kids crying and people lying in front of bulldozers when parks were sold. "This is not going to be easy on anybody."
It doesn't mean the people will have to move, at least not right away. But it raises the odds that the parks will be sold in a matter of time, and no one can say how long.
The city has slowed its plans while it designs additional protections for the people who live in the parks, for the day progress pushes them out.
State law already requires six months' notice for mobile home owners. A city task force is considering offering them replacement value for their homes, and the city is building affordable apartments so they will have someplace to go.
None of which makes the residents of the targeted parks any less nervous.
For them, what started as a swelling unease erupted this month, when hundreds of ominous and mysterious fliers appeared wedged into doorways. "This is your last chance," the flier said in bold letters an inch high.
Marilyn Baty got the flier, right after she'd put up new wallpaper. She wonders if she should have bothered. "I got a note in my mail saying, 'You're going to lose your home,' " she said. "I was sick to my stomach."
The flier turned out to be a scare tactic by someone who never stepped forward, but residents remain confused. It is election time, and one set of politicians tells them not to worry while another set tells them to be afraid.
"You hear so many rumors," said Baty, who lives in Belleair Village. "You just don't know what to believe."
The residents of Belleair Village are proud of their homes. It's a retirement community where people watch out for one other. They have bingo and potluck dinners and birthday parties. They share a clothesline. People there paint, put down mulch, grow tomatoes.
Patty Dougherty and her friend Jayne Morris planted irises and tulips and hung pictures of their daughters on the wall of their mobile home. It has a kitchen island and lacy pink curtains, two little bedrooms and a screened-in porch. In the evenings, they sit on the porch and watch the stars.
"Isn't this fabulous?" Dougherty said. "What's there not to like?"
The Belleair Village residents do not like to have their community called a blight.
"We didn't call it that," said Ruth DeWire, sitting on her front step surrounded by friends. "They call it that."
The city points to crime and prostitution as reason for redevelopment, but the residents at Belleair Village say they feel safe.
They don't want to live in apartments or condos. They like their tiny yards. They like owning their roof and their walls, even if they rent the dirt underneath for $195 a month. It's Florida living, they say.
"They're going to have to take me out in my rocking chair," said Sandy Graham. "I happen to like my little tin can."
But even they look down at their neighbors in Rainbow Court, just next door across a skinny ditch. Its entrance is dotted with tiny old cottages painted -- not recently -- in rainbow shades.
There are no well-off people here. But even in this most flimsy, most affordable of Florida housing, there is a good and a bad side of town. In some corners of the park are week-to-week renters and mattresses in the yards. But in the rear, children ride bikes and play in clean streets.
The worst of it, it seems, is closest to the road. Yards are littered with grocery carts, rusty bicycles, moldy cushions, a toaster. Windows are covered with T-shirts, aluminum foil, magazine covers. "Sizzling senior sex pots," one window reads.
It used to be nice, said Skip Ferguson, who has lived for seven years in a white and red Suncoaster built in 1976.
"Now it's Sanford and Sons," said his roommate, Wayne Peterson.
Ferguson and Peterson still keep their place neat, even as the trash piles up around them. There's no trash in their yard, not one stray beer can. The carpet is brown as tobacco and splotched with stains, but cared for. "Don't walk on it," Peterson said. "I just raked it."
They've got southern accents and bloodshot eyes, and they wear work boots and deep tans from roofing houses rather than cavorting on a beach.
Ferguson doesn't want to lose his home because the renters won't pick up after themselves or because code enforcement or the police or the park owner can't stop the decline.
"I tell you what, I'll stand here," he said. "And if they bring the bulldozer, I'll stand here. Ain't no damn way they're taking my place." Mike Palm would rather the bulldozers come later than sooner, but he knows they are coming, and he has decided not to care. He has made the most of his mobile home, filling it with candles and crystal and lacy curtains and dozens and dozens of china dolls.
"It's not what you have," he said. "It's how you keep what you have."
But he is disgusted with how the park has changed. He calls the police a couple of times a week. He lives with his brother; their mother lives next door. They are embarrassed to let friends know where they live.
He keeps to himself, and while he has worked hard on his landscaping, he doesn't let it get so nice that it would attract burglars. And now that he has heard about the redevelopment, he won't do any more.
"It can fall out from underneath me," he said.
His family members will be fine, but they worry about Mrs. Downey and people like her. They look out for her and help her with her groceries. Someone has to.
Mrs. Downey hopes she makes it to 75, but doubts she will if the bulldozers come first. "This is my house," she said. "I fixed it up. I put a roof on it. I put in new windows and a porch."
She bought her place almost 20 years ago, but since her husband died, she can't take care of it by herself anymore. It needs paint, but she can't do it and can't afford to pay someone. The last time it was painted, she and her husband did it together.
She keeps it tidy inside, with a dollhouse in the living room and a cat named Scooter. She understands the need for progress. "But what about us?"
At all the parks, some owners are putting off improvements they had planned. But some of the residents at Belleair Village are desperately cleaning up.
Now that rumors are spreading, neighbors are pitching in to help the older residents with maintenance. It's a longshot, but they hope maybe they can get off the "blighted" list, or at least prove it wrong.
"Maybe they won't notice us so much," Dougherty said.
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