Program aims for more affordable housing

It lets developers offer displaced mobile home owners assistance, but residents are wary.

Published October 26, 2005

Mobile homes account for 10 percent of Pinellas County's housing stock and provide a place to live for retirees and those on modest incomes.

That supply of affordable housing is in jeopardy as developers buy mobile home parks to build upscale housing, displacing tenants.

Under state law, developers must show that "adequate" and "suitable" housing alternatives exist for uprooted mobile home residents.

As part of a larger effort to address a lack of affordable housing in Pinellas, the County Commission has created a program that gives developers a new way to satisfy the state law.

The program may be the first of its kind in Florida.

"We are on the edge here," said Anthony Jones, the county's assistant director of community development. "You are not going to find this model anywhere else."

Under the program, developers could provide displaced mobile home park residents with rental aid of $366 a month for up to two years. That amount is the difference between Pinellas' average mobile home park rent of $400 and the average apartment rent of $766. A lump sum of up to $8,784 also could be given as a down payment grant to those who prefer to buy a home rather than rent.

To be eligible for the money, mobile home tenants cannot make more than 80 percent of the county's median income, which is $41,750 for a family of four.

Those who rent their mobile homes do not qualify. Instead, renters will get relocation counseling from the county.

Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong represents developers seeking rezonings for mobile home parks. Armstrong said he was unsure just how often, if ever, developers would use the new approach.

Because of the economics involved, it may work as an option for some parks but not others, he said.

"But I give the county credit for grappling with a very difficult issue that is critical to the community," Armstrong said. "It's a lot easier just to do nothing."

Nothing is what some residents would have preferred.

Charles Plancon, 42, chairs the Golden Lantern Mobile Home Park homeowners association. The park, which has attracted developers, is in unincorporated Pinellas on the edge of Pinellas Park.

Plancon helps lead a coalition of mobile home parks determined to preserve themselves. To him, the new program is not a way to help those who are likely to be uprooted, but another tool that developers can use to gain approvals.

"Everything that can be done is being done to give developers land to build on. It's just another way to wipe out mobile home parks."

Conflicts have been common between developers and officials over just what adequate and suitable housing for the displaced means, and the best way to show that it's available.

Recently, the St. Petersburg City Council denied a rezoning of the Sanderwood Village Mobile Home Park because members decided the developer had not met the demands of the law. The developer has sued the city.

Developers have tried a range of approaches to satisfy the law in Pinellas. According to county attorney Susan Churuti, in one case developers provided tenants with ample cash payments and other assistance. The County Commission approved the project.

In another case, Churuti said, a developer simply brought a list of cheap, available homes and rentals to the board. Commissioners decided that that approach was not sufficient.

While developers have no obligation to take part in the new program, it gives them another option when pleading their cases before the commission.

The program only applies in unincorporated Pinellas. But officials in Largo and St. Petersburg said they would study the county's model as they try to deal with their own mobile home issues.

Jack Reading, 82, has twice headed the Island in the Sun mobile home park owners association. Island in the Sun, in Largo, is not currently being targeted by developers, Reading said, but tenants fear it's only a matter of time.

Reading thinks the $366 a month assistance is ridiculously low and, like Plancon, views the new program not as a benefit to displaced tenants but as a boon to developers looking to take over the county's mobile home parks.

"Developers are just pushing people around any way they want to," Reading said.

Armstrong, the attorney, argues that mobile home parks are simply not as viable as they once were. Land in Pinellas is valuable and park owners have the right to sell when they get the right offer, he said.