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They bought a dream but not the land to hold it

Published August 25, 2005

The common estimate is that 50,000 people or so in Pinellas County live in mobile homes. That is not hard to believe, if you pay attention to the number of mobile home parks along the streets and highways.

The Golden Lantern Mobile Home Park, to single out just one of hundreds, sits on the south side of Park Boulevard just outside Pinellas Park, amid a stretch of car lots and strip malls.

This park's 160 or so homes are in various states of repair. Some are perfect and manicured, with shady screened porches, and flower beds filled with hibiscus and purple queen. Others have seen better days.

For some residents, this represents all they will ever need: a roof over their head, a grill under the awning, a place to park the car and six months of mild weather. It is exactly the retirement they envisioned.

For some, it is all they can afford, especially in a county where even young professionals, schoolteachers, cops and public employees can't find a decent house they can buy. What hope for them otherwise?

There's one other thing you notice in the Golden Lantern these days: "For Sale" signs. "For Sale," one window sign says, adding hopefully, "Make Offer."

The fact is that many if not all of the residents of Golden Lantern are worried. The plan is to convert the property to 162 townhomes. The redevelopment market in nearly built-out Pinellas is just too hot.

This means residents will eventually have to leave, just as others might have to leave in several other mobile home parks now slated for redevelopment across Pinellas. Thousands more will certainly have to follow if this market keeps up.

But moving is easier said than done. Sometimes it is physically impossible. I have heard outsiders say: "Well, didn't they know what they were doing? Who would buy something you couldn't move that was sitting on somebody else's land?"

Well, gosh, they're sorry. Next time they'll be sure to buy a $1-million condo on the coast.

If you are a displaced mobile home owner in Florida, you are entitled to moving expenses: $3,000 for a single-wide, $6,000 for a double-wide. But moving a mobile home can cost thousands more.

And if you can't move your mobile home, you're entitled to a kind of buyout clause: $1,375 for a single-wide and $2,750 for a double-wide. You are expected to sign over your home and walk away.

"A double-wide that somebody has $150,000 in," Charles Plancon complains, "can basically be stolen for $2,750." He is the president of the Golden Lantern homeowners association, and has become, like many other presidents, quite the activist. He wants Pinellas' patchwork of local governments to tackle this problem.

What we have here is the front edge of a public policy crisis, another facet of the affordable-housing crunch that is driving out apartment dwellers, tenants of lower-end boat slips and mobile home residents.

What, if anything, should Pinellas do? If the answer is "nothing, the heck with them," then we have to understand the impact on the county's character. It would be quite the irony for Pinellas, which labored so diligently for decades to escape its old retirement-village stereotype, in pursuit of a declining median age and a diversified workforce, to leapfrog its way right to being Condo County. Presumably the maids and gardeners and store clerks would commute over the bridges or down U.S. 19 each day.

The Pinellas County Commission is thinking about this. In a couple of months its staff will produce a report that is sure to kick off debate. Options range from requiring developers to include affordable housing in their projects (which will never be enough by itself) to a dramatically expanded public subsidy.

This is no comfort in the meantime to the Golden Lanterns of the world. Their occupants staked out the life they could, only to have the rules and the land change beneath their feet. There may come a day when the market turns, and when owning a piece of land and having a few hundred people paying rent seens like a good business to have. I wonder if by then, however, it will be too late.

[Last modified August 25, 2005, 00:43:08]

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