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Mobile home bills offer owners rights

But one industry official says the state is hostile to park owners and the proposed changes would make a bad situation worse.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers are considering a bundle of measures to bolster the rights of more than 1.2-million Floridians who live in mobile homes.

Half of them are seniors on fixed incomes, who can be particularly vulnerable to abuses by the mobile home park owners from whom they rent lots.

To strengthen the homeowners' hand, some lawmakers want to make park owners work harder to justify rent increases and force them to tell new buyers about annual increases before they sign a lease.

The changes also would mean homeowners could stop paying for park improvements that don't serve their homes.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala, a longtime advocate for mobile home owners whose bill includes most of the changes, calls them "major-league stuff."

"It's the most comprehensive reform of the rights of people who live in mobile home parks since I've been in the Senate," said Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican elected in 1994.

Industry leaders, who oppose the changes, say Florida's mobile home laws already favor homeowners. And the industry enjoys a powerful ally in the House -- Speaker John Thrasher, a pro-business Republican from Jacksonville who has blocked similar changes in the past.

Because of that alliance, the most controversial proposals face the toughest battles.

One change would prevent park owners from passing on the cost of water and sewer hook-ups to homeowners, a one-time cost that ranges from $1,500 to $3,000 per lot.

Park owners also object to a change that would force them to give homeowners the first chance to buy a park, even if the park owner doesn't solicit the offer.

Most of the other changes enjoy better chances of approval by the Senate and House. All are subject to Gov. Jeb Bush's veto pen. Bush has not taken a position, his spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Other changes include:

New language and emphasis in rental agreements that alerts buyers to annual rent increases, and a requirement that park owners keep the agreements on hand and available.

State law already requires park owners to justify rent increases by proving that competing parks also are raising rates. But nothing prevents park owners from choosing parks in others cities or states, a comparison that has little bearing on local markets. Lawmakers want to limit park owners to comparisons within 25 miles.

Real estate agents could sell mobile homes, a change from current law that homeowners say would protect them from unscrupulous park owners who undercut tenants' attempts to sell their homes.

State law allows park owners to divide the total cost of some park improvements among homeowners, even if some lots are vacant or undeveloped. A measure sponsored by state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, would force park owners to pay the costs for those vacant lots.

Latvala's bill, which encompasses most of the changes, was scheduled for debate in a Senate committee Wednesday but was postponed until next week. Bilirakis' measure has cleared two of four House committees.

Florida already is hostile to park owners and the proposed changes would make a bad situation worse, said Frank Williams, who heads the industry-backed Florida Manufactured Housing Association.

Yet homeowners say the changes are necessary to ensure that residents, particularly seniors, don't become victims.

"(Residents) don't want to bring lawsuits and have attorneys. They want to relax," said David Stearns, a Lakeland retiree who lives in a mobile home.

Stearns is vice president of the Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida, based in Largo.

"If we can pass (the changes) in (their) entirety, we would be doing the homeowners a great service," Stearns said. "It would help them immensely."

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