As Land Values Rise, Mobile Home Park Breathes Its Last

A community was dying, and not by natural causes. Weeks earlier, envelopes had been taped to front doors up and down the street, carrying this message: Residents had 180 days to clear out.

SEMINOLE, Fla. — Lake Shore's last days as a mobile home park were peculiar. Walter Golden had to chase off a shrub poacher. Paul O'Connor replaced his picture window with a sheet of plywood. Screen doors, aluminum siding, even imitation-marble porch steps began disappearing -- the wee-hours work of scavengers in pickups.

"Next thing I know," recalls Larry Carter, whose singlewide sat on Lot No. 17, "residents are handing me the keys to their houses and telling me, 'Larry, just sell whatever's left behind at a yard sale.'"

A community was dying, and not by natural causes. Weeks earlier, envelopes had been taped to front doors up and down the street, carrying this message: Residents had 180 days to clear out.

It meant there would be no more Sunday bingo at June and Abe Van Hoven's carport. No more monthly covered-dish dinners, no more happy hours at the neighborhood dock, no more rides around Lake Seminole aboard Bill Ducharme's pontoon boat.

Lake Shore's 3.73 acres had become precious -- enough so that investors offered $2.5 million for the park. On Dec. 7, the owner, an ill, elderly man, took the money.

And what of Lake Shore's 49 residents?

Many were in their 80s. Most were on fixed incomes. Most lived in trailers too old to transport.

Clearly, Dumpsters would be needed.


"Classic mobile home parks are becoming anachronisms" as land values in many places soar, says John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.

There are rare efforts to slow the trend -- such as the Los Angeles city council's 2002 decision to designate as a historical/cultural monument the Monterey Trailer Park.

But park gobbling by developers has become common in the Pacific Northwest and California, across the Sun Belt and, most particularly, in Florida, where 1.47 million people live in manufactured homes -- more than any other state except Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Each day, between 14 and 27 mobile home spaces disappear in the Sunshine State alone, according to Don Hazelton, spokesman for the Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida.

"It's epidemic," he says. "We're losing a park a week."

Henry Butcher and two partners bought Lake Shore.

Butcher is the 59-year-old president of Anglo Consolidated Inc., which builds custom homes on beach properties along the Gulf Coast.

Through a friend, one of Butcher's partners heard that Lake Shore's owner, 80-year-old Robert Tanner, was thinking of selling. The partners formed Lake Shore Development LLP and, last fall, made an offer to buy the property, as it was.

Tanner was ill "and we thought we'd just help him out," Butcher says. The partners, still deciding exactly what they'll do with their new property, expected to run the park as landlords at first, while they drew up building plans and lined up city permits.

But almost immediately, he says, the water and gas mains were found to be leaking. Water bills were totaling $3,000 a month, and leaking gas had become a "hazard," Butcher explains.

"Either you face the closure of a park, or you face a disaster. Somebody had to say, sooner or later, this park is unsafe."

And so, 37 days after the change of ownership, eviction notices went out.

Evictees were given six months to leave -- required under Florida law -- and offered incentives to vacate early. Those who left by April 1 were reimbursed the rent they paid from January to March -- about $1,000, on average. Owners of singlewides who left before April 30 were offered $3,000 for their homes; those who sold their doublewides to the developers could get $4,375.

Under Florida law, evictees are entitled to compensation of $1,375 for singlewides, $2,750 for doublewides.

At least 12 residents moved their mobile homes, Butcher says. The developer hired a relocation service to help the residents, and paid to have their mobile homes relocated to nearby parks.

"I don't expect that we ... won everybody's heart in this," Butcher says. "But we've tried to be fair with everybody."

Hazelton, of the federation of manufactured home owners, says that Lake Shore Development "should be commended for that, for paying more than they had to." But was it enough?

Leo Dougherty, the federation's vice president, says no. "No amount of money can compensate elderly people for the stress of being forced to move," he says. "These people didn't see this place as only a cash investment -- they saw it as their home place."


Nancy and Paul O'Connor once had a big house on Madeira Beach. But it burned when he was 70 and she 66, and rather than rebuild they sold their property and bought a 1969 doublewide for $25,000. They spent $25,000 upgrading it, and took it with them to Lake Shore Mobile Home Park.

That was in 1997.

"I grew up in Ohio, and we had a cottage in Clark Lake, Mich. That's what this was like: living in a cottage on the lake," Nancy, now 75, explains.

During visits, her grandchildren would fish for bass and whiting off the community dock. Paul, retired after a 25-year career as a police officer, would take to the waters of Lake Seminole in his speedboat for a day of fishing.

Mornings, Paul says, "I'd walk up and down the street, and if I saw a newspaper still on the driveway by 9:30 a.m., I'd knock on that person's door to make sure they were still with us."

Horace "Doc" Englehart, 85, gave the neighborhood a fright last winter when he collapsed on his driveway. O'Connor rushed over, "but I couldn't pick him up myself, so I called 911 and stayed right there with Doc until the medics showed up."

This was Lake Shore, after all -- where if somebody got sick, they would find a Get Well card in the mailbox the next day.

Lake Shore, where, on Good Friday, folks would honor neighbors who had recently passed by planting a Tea Rose bush in the Memorial Garden, while a brass bell tolled in tribute.

Here, neighbors dropped in unannounced, to help.

In 1982, Elizabeth Hagensick and her late husband, Lloyd, a carpenter, moved to Lake Shore from St. Petersburg.

"We'd go down to the bench at the lake's edge in the evening, after supper, and watch the water change color and the spoonbills fly over the water. We'd hold hands, and wave together to people on the other side of the lake, and wave to the passing boats."

She smiles.

"At times, it felt like we were young again."

Lloyd died in 1992, and though she felt his absence most days, Hagensick never knew the hollowing, tick-tocking loneliness many of America's elderly come to dread -- not in Lake Shore.

Neighbors brought her brownies, newspapers, holiday cards. They tended her flower bed and took out her trash. Some came to her Bible study sessions on Wednesday nights.

"It was always our wish -- Lloyd's and mine -- to live in Lake Shore until we both died," she says. "We were going to leave only when God called us."

After sundown on Friday the 13th of January, an envelope was taped to Hagensick's front door informing her otherwise.


From the front stoop of his singlewide, the world looked darned deserted to Larry Carter, Lake Shore's de facto caretaker.

"Not much of anything lives here any more. They've sucked the life out of the place."

Of 35 families that had lived here, only about 10 remained, and they'd be gone soon. Behind his house, hammers rapped and buzzsaws whined -- the sounds of workers building condos in a lot where a neighboring trailer park had been demolished.

"That's us in 12 months," Carter said. He raised himself from the stoop. "Let me show you around Lake Shore."

Twenty or so paces later, he stood before Lot No. 16 -- a two-bedroom, two-bath doublewide that Jean and George Bareat, snowbirds from Michigan, abandoned weeks before.

He slid a key into the side door lock, stepped inside. "In 2004, the Bareats spent $3,300 for a new, central AC unit. And look at this: Berber carpeting. They paid close to $4,000 for it."

The 24-by-50 mobile home was in such fine shape, he said, that it will be used by the developers as an onsite office.

"These poor folks sold this home to the developer for about $5,000," he continued. "Everyone told them it was too old to move ... Now, if this was going to be remodeled and kept in the park, then why didn't the Bareats get paid market value ...?"

The same thing happened to another trailer, he said.

Butcher denied there were plans for corporate offices in the trailers, and he said residents were free to sell their homes or to move them to other parks, as some did.

But up and down the block, the story was the same: aging people living in older trailers not up to present-day hurricane codes, few with the energy and wherewithal to find buyers, few able to find another park that would accept their models. And so they took the buyout.


By the middle of May, every last resident of Lake Shore Mobile Home Park had departed, one way or another.

Some did find vacancies at resident-owned parks in neighboring Largo. More returned to their roots: Michigan, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, Oregon, Ontario.

Others, like Helena Cantillon and Loretta Mahoney, moved hundreds of miles north, to live in one of their children's bedrooms.

Richard Kunhardt, 57, Lake Shore's youngest homeowner, got U-Haul and drove to Crossville, Tenn. At least eight residents he knew of -- elderly widows -- wound up in nursing homes.

Evelyn Anderson and Glen Palmateer suffered heart attacks just weeks after receiving their eviction notices but recovered.

"Of course it's upsetting to hear that somebody's sick," says Butcher, the developer. But he added, "As we get older, things happen."

Madonna Ducharme also suffered a heart attack -- and died of heart failure on Feb. 24.

"My wife -- she was pretty upset about having to leave the park," Bill Ducharme, 75, tells a reporter. "Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying all of this caused her death."

He pauses.

"But it sure didn't help."

Source: Associated Press

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