ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Nancy DeCamp can no longer bear to enter the home on lot 257.
Her sister Tootie lived here, just a golf cart ride from where Nancy shares a place with her husband in their manufactured home community in central Pinellas County. After Tootie died in October, the DeCamps tried, without success, to sell her home.
"It's still Tootie's house," Nancy DeCamp said, her eyes welling. "It's very hard to be there."
The DeCamps never expected this problem in Caribbean Isles, nestled between Largo and Seminole. Selling in the 55-and-older park, their real estate agent said, was once so easy she scarcely had time to stake "for sale" signs.
Then the park changed hands.
It sounds like a quintessential Florida tale: The land beneath a mobile home park sells, and the new owner hikes the rent beyond what residents can afford.
Caribbean Isles was supposed to be different. Years ago, as investors circled during the last real-estate boom, residents fought for their land and won: They bought it themselves to ward off the threat.
Last year, however, they sold the park — and their protection. The buyers offered sums that the owners felt they couldn't turn down, ensuring financial security into their twilight. Some say they were convinced to sell by what they took as a guarantee that the park would stay affordable.
But rents for new residents have nearly doubled since last summer. Real estate agents say the sharp increases have made the homes residents still own nearly impossible to sell.
The park's new management, Murex Properties, has told residents it disputes their account. Murex did not respond directly to several detailed questions posed by the Tampa Bay Times, but it provided a statement defending its rates as reasonable.
To residents, the conflict isn't just about money. It's about a loss of autonomy.
Once, Caribbean Isles was an affordable side door into a Florida retirement dream. Now, residents say, the maze of lots, encircled by a white fence, feels like a trap.
The cheers nearly drowned out the thunderstorm roiling outside the clubhouse.
It was the summer of 2005. More than 100 people had assembled to learn the fate of Stella Del Mar, their mobile home community. Many of them already struggled to survive, relying on Social Security to pay their $442 monthly lot rent.
With a developer offering to buy the park — and likely displace residents — they had pulled off a massive victory: They'd pooled enough money to buy it themselves.
Those who opted in would own the land by buying shares in the newly created co-op. "Residents' revolution," proclaimed the headline in the St. Petersburg Times.
"The owners were residents," said Norman Pickett, 83, who lived there at the time and eventually became a shareholder. "They lived among us."
Neighbors renamed the park Caribbean Isles.
Communal ownership quelled fears that a developer could buy the land and kick residents off, or that a new landlord would jack up rents.
Homeowners with shares in the park paid a small monthly fee for maintenance and management. When it came to major decisions about the park, they each had a vote. Everyone else who owned homes paid rent on the land.
The park featured a heated pool, a shuffleboard court and a thriving social atmosphere. There were poker nights and bowling leagues and a sense that people looked out for each other, residents say. Before Caribbean Isles sold, non-shareholder residents paid about $600 a month in lot rent, similar to other inland parks nearby and cheaper than some of Pinellas' more luxurious, waterfront parks.
This model of resident ownership is the "gold-standard" for keeping a mobile home community affordable, said Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver who studies manufactured homes.
Usually, residents of manufactured home communities own their houses but pay rent to the landowners.
Corporate owners "raise rents, tack on fees and increase the expenses for residents living there," Sullivan said. "(Residents') vested interest is in keeping rents low and fees minimal."
When Caribbean Isles became resident-owned, it joined about 100 other parks in Pinellas County that operate this way. Florida now has 600 of these and was ahead in recognizing the benefits of resident ownership, Sullivan said. ROC U.S.A., a nonprofit focused on resident-owned communities, estimates there are now about a thousand nationwide, many of them established in the last 15 years.
But the past two years have marked a sea change, said Bonnie Darling of the Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida. Corporations seemed to view the personal and financial turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic as an opening to gobble up resident-owned parks, taking over more of these communities as Tampa Bay becomes a destination spot for the rest of the country. Rising costs in the area made the payouts for shareholders all the more tempting, she said.
Investors have gotten the best returns on parks with older residents and comfortable amenities, Sullivan said, especially in Florida.
Ones exactly like Caribbean Isles.
AN UNCERTAIN WINDFALL
It has happened to Missy James more than once: Just as she would plant a "for sale" sign in front of a client's home, a car would slow. The driver would make an on-the-spot offer, and the home would sell.
"That's how it was before the sale," said James, a real estate agent who lived and worked in Caribbean Isles and owned a share in the park.
In the first half of 2022, before the park's sale, she sold seven homes, all at or near asking price, ranging from $65,000 to $152,900, she said.
Other agents who marketed in the community agreed. It was easy to sell in the park, even as Tampa Bay's housing market cooled.
In early 2022, shareholders began considering offers to buy Caribbean Isles. One of the proposals bowled over Nancy DeCamp and her husband, Rick: $296,000 a share.
Residents thought it came from Murex, a property management company that runs parks all over Florida. Messages from the park's co-op board to shareholders also indicated the involvement of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that has bought mobile home parks for the past decade.
A person who answered the phone at Murex's Fort Myers headquarters said it does not own the park but would not say who does. But in a letter to a resident obtained by the Times, Murex Chief Operating Officer Eric Zimmerman wrote "we purchased the company."
Property records list the owner as Caribbean Isles Owner LLC, and its mailing address as Murex's main office. The Delaware-based company filed in Florida in July, according to state Division of Corporations records. Murex didn't respond to further questions about ownership.
Shareholders said the money felt like a windfall, a nest egg they could pass along to their children. Nancy DeCamp, who grew up poor in Iowa, worried more about what the sale would mean for her neighbors who didn't own a share — and would get nothing out of the deal.
Other residents said their chief concerns were how rent and home values would change.
Half-a-dozen shareholders said that they were led to believe lot rent for new residents would increase by only about $175 a month. Some said that they heard that figure directly from Murex leadership; others said they learned it from the co-op board's attorneys at Tampa-based Atlas Law. An attorney for Atlas Law confirmed he represented the co-op board but said he couldn't comment without his client's permission.
The 400-lot park sold for $41 million.
"I think everyone would have voted differently if we'd known what was coming," said Rick DeCamp.
"TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS"
In 2020, Denise Davis needed to live closer to her mother. In her mid-90s, Davis' mother was having health problems that required help.
"There were times she was having a seizure and she'd call me, and when I got there she'd be laying on the floor," Davis said.
A mobile home suited Davis. She could afford it without selling her condo in St. Petersburg, stay as long as she needed and then, she thought, sell easily. Caribbean Isles was a three-minute drive from her mom's house.
Davis's mother died in 2021, two days after Thanksgiving. By the summer, she was nearly done putting her mom's affairs in order. On June 24, she emailed the co-op board's attorneys to ask what the new rents would be.
As part of the deal, all the park's homeowners would pay close to what non-shareholders already had been paying for the land. Davis' rent, for example, was rising by $18, for a total of $642 a month.
But she'd heard the new owner would charge higher rates for new homeowners. She wanted to know if she should rush to sell her home before the sale of the park closed, in case rents skyrocketed.
"During the bidder interviews," an associate attorney wrote back, "Murex indicated that the current market rent was approximately $800/mo."
The attorney told Davis the new rates would be set by the end of September. She later learned that they would be $1,147 at the low end, $1,305 for those next to the park's ponds.
Her broker, Jim Carmadella, was shocked.
"I don't know one that's even close," he said of lot rents at nearby parks.
House prices would have to come down. No buyer would pay old Caribbean Isles prices for a mobile home with new lot rents.
A homeowner's association meeting held on Nov. 1 was, Davis said, "torches and pitchforks."
Murex didn't address the Times' questions about whether the company ever had suggested lot rent between $800 and $850, or whether it planned to meet with residents.
Instead, it said that the new rates are reasonable because they include some utilities and internet, and provided a list comparing Caribbean Isles to five other mobile home communities elsewhere in the county, including two waterfront neighborhoods.
"We believe our rents are appropriate for the market for new residents, based on the fact that there are so many services included in the base rent at Caribbean," Zimmerman, of Murex, also wrote to Davis in a November letter shared with the Times.
Soon, James, the real estate agent, hit a wall trying to sell homes in the community. Potential buyers kept walking away after hearing the fees, texts shared with the Times show.
"Lot rent outrageous," one said. "Sorry."
James, who also sells homes in other parks, said Caribbean Isles is alone in sales grinding to a halt over the past six months.
Among her listings was the one once occupied by Nancy DeCamp's sister. Without a buyer, the DeCamps have been renting it out.
Davis dropped the price on her home several times, from its original $113,900 to $89,900. She's moved back into her St. Petersburg condo while the house in Caribbean Isles sits empty.
"Mobile homes (in other parks) are selling at asking price or close to," James said. "And quickly."
Residents told the Times they knew of only two homes that have sold in Caribbean Isles since Murex took over. One of them was originally listed at $69,900, according to realtor.com, but the Times could not confirm its sale price. The agent involved in the sale did not return requests for comment.
The other was confirmed by Mary Lee Rades, a real estate agent who fixed up and sold a bank-owned home. She had the carpets cleaned and range replaced and thought she could find a buyer for $48,000, at least.
"We ended up just about giving the place away," she said.
The final sale price was $11,100. The buyer, she said, was Murex.
"WHO HAS AND WHO HAS NOT"
Caribbean Isles remains a place where neighbors know others' habits and routines.
But a subtle chill has swept over the park.
"You can see who has and who has not," Nancy DeCamp said. "Almost everybody (who sold a share) ran out and got brand new golf carts."
Some residents who had no voice in the sale said they feel betrayed by shareholding neighbors, who in turn said they feel duped by Murex. Homeowners' association meetings have become so volatile, said those who have attended, that questions must be submitted in advance.
Still, Nancy DeCamp can't imagine living anywhere else. She and Rick will probably die here, she said, and plenty of their neighbors plan the same thing.
"I hate to say it," Nancy added, "but we hear sirens all the time."
Caribbean Isles is still their home. But it no longer belongs to them.