Hurricane Ian shows vulnerability of trailer parks and the immigrant families who call them home
Hurricane Ian underscored just how vulnerable Florida's trailer parks are, especially for the many immigrant families who call them home. WLRN's Kate Payne visited one such community in the Gulf Coast — and found residents dealing with more than just storm-related anxieties.
The mold has set in at Helen Rodriguez’s trailer in East Naples.
She’s so worried about the potential health effects, she’s sent her aging mother to stay with friends, while she and her husband Jose have taken to sleeping on their porch on a water-damaged mattress they tried to dry in the sun.
“I’m sleeping on my old mattress because I don't have [any]where to sleep,” she said. “So I put it out in the sun for three days. And everyday I use it, I put plastic over it and sleep there.”
Rodriguez says she and her family landed in Naples after fleeing Venezuela. Scraping together what little savings they had left, she said they bought their trailer at the Harmony Shores mobile home park for $10,000.
“We bought this house because at the moment that we came, it was the only thing that we can buy,” Rodriguez said. “Because remember when we come from Venezuela, we lose everything.”
Rodriguez says many of her neighbors at the trailer park are also immigrants from Central and South America – blue collar workers whose labor helps drive Southwest Florida’s major industries of tourism, agriculture and construction.
In search of freedom and opportunity, they found this aging trailer park tucked behind a Starbucks. It was safe enough – until residents say the storm sent about three to five feet of polluted water into their homes.
“All of us are immigrants,” Rodriguez said. “I told them yesterday: don’t be worried, my neighbors. We came to this country without nothing. And we can do it again.”
Trailer parks have never been a perfect solution to Florida’s affordable housing crisis. But for many, they offer a rare shot at homeownership — albeit homeownership with an asterisk.
Across the country, parks like this are some of the only places where the poor can actually buy a home — if they can pay rent for the land their trailers sit on. Residents say the lot rent at Harmony Shores goes for about $800-900 a month, depending on location and the condition of the trailer.
Increasingly, corporate investors are buying up trailer parks across the U.S. and are jacking up the rents, squeezing residents who have few other options.
Harmony Shores certainly has redevelopment potential; the park’s narrow streets lead to a small marina on a canal that flows into Naples Bay and out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Blanca Iris Culex is from Guatemala and lives there with her husband and two young daughters.
“I have a lot of neighbors that they are staying in their homes because they have nowhere to go. They have no family,” she said.
The owner of the park — Cove Communities — was trying to buy residents out even before Ian hit, according to people who spoke to WLRN and a lawyer advising residents. WRLN asked a company representative about the buyouts and she declined to comment.
Still, four days after the storm the company sent out a notice of an order to vacate — saying conditions in the park were too dangerous and residents had to leave immediately — and warning there would be “no trespassing allowed”.
“Due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Ian, the condition of Harmony Shores Mobile Home Port/Park constitutes a clear and imminent danger to the life or health of occupants or other persons, and that protection of life or health requires vacating the premises,” reads the notice, which was shared with WLRN. “Based upon these findings, any and all tenants and occupants are hereby ordered to vacate immediately.”
The company later walked the order back after residents argued it couldn't be enforced.
“We knew that they wanted us out,” Culex said. “It looks like this hurricane is the best thing that ever happened to them.”
Now a spokesperson for Cove Communities says the company has no intention of forcing residents out. In an interview with WLRN, Joyce Mireault, head of community relations for the company, said residents have every right to stay in their homes.
“Each homeowner has got to have their own home assessed on whether or not it can be refurbished and…livable,” Mireault said. “But we wouldn't in any way make them leave. Unless they decided to do so.”
Cove Communities owns about 200 mobile home parks across the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, according to the company’s website, which lists “creating shareholder value for investors” as one of its core commitments.
As of September 2022, Bloomberg reported the company was in negotiations to buy one of its competitors in the mobile home park industry which is valued at $1 billion.
It’s not clear what’s next for Harmony Shores. But across the country, corporate owners see parks like this one as investments – and they’re driving up the rent, including after hurricanes. And that has residents here worried.
“Everybody needs housekeepers, every hospital needs nurses. Everybody needs landscapers and cooks,” Culex said. “But where are they going to live?”
Staff attorneys at the Legal Aid Service of Collier County have been working with residents at Harmony Shores long before the storm and was advising them on the buyouts, according to the organization’s supervising attorney Cathy Lucrezi.
If any residents at the park are served an eviction, Lucrezi worries they won’t be willing to fight it; many in the community are undocumented and don’t speak much English.
“They're afraid of going through court. And so when somebody in a superior financial position says this is the best you're going to get, they've been going for it,” Lucrezi said. “And that breaks my heart.”
But residents here are educating themselves on their rights and say they’ll fight for their homes. They don’t have much left to lose.
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