Mobile Homes at a Crossroads

Times Staff Writer

Wayne Banta steered a visitor through the jumbled living room of his two bed-two bath doublewide, listing aloud the possessions he would have to leave behind.

"There's the china closet in walnut," the licensed nurse said. "Reminds me of my second wife."

He motioned toward a beige sofa.

"My mother spent a lot of time on that couch," Banta said. "Now I must give it away."

Coral Lake Mobile Home Park -- a longtime nuisance to authorities in this South Florida town but still home to the 64-year-old Banta, his three cats and 40 other households -- is fading fast.

A victim of Florida's rising land values and real estate boom, the park is supposed to be history by the end of April.

The 28-acre site northwest of Fort Lauderdale will be bulldozed and redeveloped as a community of town houses and apartments. That will mean a property tax bonanza for the municipality and more disposable income spent at local businesses -- but no affordable housing for people of modest means.

It's a familiar Florida story, one with a painful twist for Coral Lake's 233 households, most of which have already decamped, leaving their mobile homes behind. For though state law assures homeowners of financial assistance if the land their mobile homes sit on is sold out from underneath them, as happened at Coral Lake, the payment is often not nearly enough to cover moving costs.

Moreover, even if homeowners like Banta have the means, they might not find another mobile home park in the vicinity that will take them.

In the densely populated communities along Florida's coastline, said David Ahrens, Coral Lake's property manager, "mobile home communities are going to be a thing of the past."

The upshot for Banta, who's lived at Coral Lake for 18 years: "I have to move whether I have a place to go or not."

The Florida Manufactured Housing Assn., a trade group, reports that about 1.3 million people live in approximately 3,000 mobile home parks in the state. About 45% of them rent the concrete pads their homes rest on -- and could one day find themselves in the predicament of Coral Lake residents.

"It does no one any good to have these people thrown out on the street," said Frank Williams, the association's executive director. Florida law provides $3,000 in financial aid if mobile home owners have to move a singlewide, Williams said, and $6,000 for a doublewide.

If owners abandon the homes, they are paid $1,375 or $2,750, respectively.

It's not very much for families who may have no option but to leave behind a residence in which they've invested tens of thousands of dollars in loan payments. (Banta estimated that he has made $40,000 in payments for his mobile home.)

The reality is that many of the homes, for financial or structural reasons, are not all that mobile. There are few parks that will take older homes.

One bill in committee in Tallahassee would require cities to do a more complete job at locating alternative housing. Because municipal governments authorize the conversion of mobile home parks to others uses, the bill sponsored by Republican state Sen. Michael S. Bennett would require them to help cushion the financial blow for people evicted because of rezoning.

Shortly after paying off the $46,440 loan on his doublewide at Coral Lake, Robert Perkis received his eviction notice. As required by state law, the developer and city of Coconut Creek provided the store manager and the other residents being evicted with a list of alternative home sites.

In an e-mail to The Times, Perkis said he found the list wanting: There were no vacancies at some parks, and others wouldn't allow his two cats.

Except for the compensation payment from the state of Florida, plus a $4,000 incentive from the developer to get owners to leave before the six-month notice expired, Perkis' investment in the home where he had lived since 1991 evaporated.

Perkis managed to find an older, storm-damaged mobile home in another park in the next town, but it will need expensive repairs. Those costs are on top of the loss he's taking by walking away from his Coral Lake home.

He accused the city of Coconut Creek of conniving with developers to close Coral Lake, and politicians of encouraging the conversion of mobile home parks by paying "pennies on the dollar" for residents' losses.

Two other residents are fighting back in the courts, but the litigation is not expected to delay the mobile home park's demise. One owner, the single father of two children, has sued in state court over the list of alternative home sites.

"My client and another woman who lives at the park actually called all those places," said Janet R. Riley, the lawyer representing the father. Some said they couldn't take anything built before 2000; some said nothing before 1995.

"Bottom line: that meant that none of the homes in Coral Lakes could be moved there," Riley said.

The lawsuit has effectively ruled out any payments to Coral Lake homeowners from a special indemnity fund of about $1 million created by the developer and city. Those payments were contingent on there being no litigation. That proviso sparked a lawsuit in federal court by a five-year resident who is alleging a breach of her 1st Amendment rights.

Marilyn Gerber, mayor of this city of 50,000 residents, said local government had done all it could to help ease the homeowners' pain. "Remember, the fund was above and beyond what we were required to do," Gerber said. She said the former owner of the mobile home park had let the site get so run down that city inspectors had levied $450,000 worth of code violations.

At Coral Lake, streets like Pine Avenue that once teemed with residents -- speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese and Creole -- are quiet. About 20 homes were so damaged in October by Hurricane Wilma that they were marked in orange paint with "demo" -- for demolish. Two of the homes have burned, apparently the work of arsonists. All homes not removed by evictees or purchased by investors for resale elsewhere will be destroyed.

Banta paid about $500 a month to rent his 50-by-100-foot lot. Because he has cats and a motorcycle, he said, other mobile home parks don't want him.

His exit strategy came to him as he slept.

"I just woke up one night after saying my prayers and said, 'I can live in a travel trailer.' " Since then, the New Jersey native has been downsizing to shift to a two-room trailer. But he's not sure he'll be able to get a loan to buy it.

"I may be joining the homeless," he said. "People in this country need to wake up so laws for mobile home owners change. Now the only people who make out are the developer and the seller."

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