When Angel Mendoza retired four years ago from a management position at a paper company in Miami, he sold his house in Kendall, Florida, and moved into a small manufactured house at Silver Palm Place, a mobile-home community in Miami-Dade County for residents ages 55 and older. He and his wife, Hazel, had both had decent jobs: She had been a teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and together, their Social Security benefits add up to around $5,500 a month. If they wanted to, they could have decided to move back to Puerto Rico, where they were both born, Mendoza says.
But most of the residents of Silver Palm Place have fewer options.
Based on a survey of about a third of the residents at the park, a typical two-person household only earns a little more than $15,000 a year, Mendoza says. Most are on fixed incomes. Luckily, for a long time, Silver Palm Place has been the picture of low-cost living. Most residents own their homes and pay rent on the land below it to the owners of the park, while others have 99-year land leases. As of early 2018, according to Mendoza, the average rent was around $280 per month.
Beth Logan, 72, has lived in the park since the 1990s, and says she has occasionally absorbed a $10 or $20 increase in the monthly rent. But last spring, the owners announced that they were raising the rent by $100 per month. They gave 90 days’ notice, as Florida law requires, but still, for many residents, it was a tough, close-to-impossible pill to swallow. They began paying the increased rent under protest. The owners soon sold the park. And this year, the new owners said they’re raising the rents by another $50 a month. So the residents have done one of the only things they can do. They’ve formed a homeowners association and started working with a lawyer on a formal rent-negotiation process with the park owners.
“I have people here that are putting sale signs up, they need to get out of here,” says Mendoza, who’s serving as president of the homeowners association. “And I say, ‘Where are you going?’ They say, ‘I don’t know, probably to my sister’s house, probably somewhere.’ But there are other people that cannot sell because they don’t have anywhere to go … Now, when I say sister and brother, I’m talking about senior citizens here. I would say that the average age here is probably about 70 years old. ‘Where are you going?’ And they say, ‘I don’t know, but I can’t afford living here anymore.’ So whatever they have in mind, I don’t know what it is or where can they actually go.”
Around South Florida and across the U.S., mobile-home owners are facing rising rents that they have little means of avoiding. As John Oliver described at length on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, most manufactured houses are not actually mobile, so most residents are stuck in place, forced to absorb whatever cost increases are imposed on them or sell their homes and move away. And mobile-home parks are increasingly being bought by large private equity firms, which, as the group Manufactured Housing Action wrote in a recent report, are finding new ways to squeeze money out of residents.
In Miami it’s not just rising rents but development pressures as well. Nejla Calvo, a lawyer with the Mobile Home Park Advocacy Project at Legal Services of Greater Miami, says she’s currently representing around 15 mobile-park homeowner groups, about half of which are trying to negotiate for smaller rent increases than their landlords have imposed. Other parks are being bought for development as land values rise, pushing residents out without a clear sense of where they will go. By Calvo’s count, at least seven parks have been sold for redevelopment in the last four years in Miami, displacing around 700 households.
Calvo is working with Mendoza and the other residents of Silver Palm Place to navigate a series of meetings with the new owners, Lakeshore Management, in hopes of negotiating a smaller rent increase. The Florida Mobile Home Act provides for a formal negotiation process in which mobile home associations can set mandatory meetings with landlords to talk over rent increases, and demand justification for any increases they want to impose. Silver Palm Place had been below the market rate in South Florida prior to the previous owner’s $100 increase last year, Calvo says. But many of the residents there are now unable to withstand additional increases.
“I think it’s important to recognize that manufactured houses are the last forms of non-subsidized affordable housing in Florida,” Calvo says. “While the Mobile Home Act does provide some protection, I think it needs to be reassessed, because homeowners are reaching a point where they’re being forced out of their homes either because of rent hikes or closures and it’s an unfortunate trend we’ve been seeing increase year to year.”
For Mendoza, there’s no reason why the rent should go up.
“The thing about this park, and this has always been the objective, is to keep operating costs as low as possible,” Mendoza says. “In order to maintain the rent as low as possible, we don’t have any amenities here. Other parks [for seniors], they have pools, they have a golf course, they have everything. No, we don’t have that. And to tell you the truth the residents don’t even want it, because we’re not here for that, because this was made for people with low incomes.”
Representatives of Lakeshore Management did not respond to voicemails and text messages requesting an interview. The homeowners association has had one meeting with the group and has another required meeting sometime before mid-May.
Beth Logan moved into the park with her mother, who had macular degeneration, and later bought a second mobile home, which she rents out to a woman in her 80s and the woman’s daughter, who has a disability. She has tried to avoid passing along rent increases to them in the past, but after the $100 increase last year, she’s maxed out.
“People in this park chose this park specifically because it was affordable,” Logan says. “And our concern is if the rent keeps rising then that affordability is not available to us as residents any longer, which means, where do you go after this?”
In Florida, mobile-home associations do have a right of first refusal to buy their parks when the owners are selling, but for many, who don’t have the resources to pool to make a viable offer, that’s not a real option. If negotiations with landlords over rent increases fail, residents can request mediation. If mediation fails, they can sue.
But, Calvo says, “It’s not an ideal scenario to do that, because lawsuits take a long time and in the meantime, the law is very unclear in Florida about what happens with those contested rents.”
For many mobile-park associations, Calvo says, the best bet is to negotiate a multi-year deal with the landlords that locks rents in place or schedules incremental increases over time. Margie Mathers, a community leader with Manufactured Housing Action, says she helped negotiate a multi-year deal with the owners of her mobile park, Buccaneer Estates in Ft. Myers. The result was that the residents ended up paying more than they wanted to and the landlords ended up collecting less than they wanted to, Mathers says, but she worries about what will happen when the deal expires next year.
“We know that they do not care whether or not we can afford it,” Mathers says. “Their attitude is, it’s money in the bank for them. If we can’t afford it, move out.”
Some residents have had to move in with children or other family because they don’t earn enough money to keep up with rents. Others are evicted when they can’t pay. Mathers doesn’t know what she would do if the rent ever gets beyond her means, because she doesn’t have any children she can move in with. In the meantime, says Mathers, herself a realtor for the last 38 years, she’s hoping that organizing residents will make the private equity firms that are snapping up mobile parks more shy about constant cost increases.
“I tell everyone, I can’t help you tomorrow with your rent, I can’t help you next year with your rent, but someday, you might have children who want to move in here, and why should they start fighting the same battles 10 years or 20 years later that we are now?” she says. “If it don’t get started it’ll never get done.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve clarified the number of households that have been displaced from mobile-home parks in Miami.
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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.