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Uncertainty remains at Naples mobile home park after rent rise, damage wrought by Hurricane Ian

Gwendolyn Salata
WGCU/Democracy Watch
Some residents who remain at Harmony Shores Mobile Home Port in Naples have been living in carports since Hurricane Ian tore through in September. Cove Communities, the owner of Harmony, purchased the community in June 2021. Located just south of where U.S. Highway 41 and Bayshore Drive intersect, Harmony’s docks sit on the east side of Naples Bay.

Brianna Craig has been living in her carport since Hurricane Ian flooded her East Naples mobile home with almost 4 feet of water. But her concern has shifted from rebuilding her home to just keeping a roof over her head.

“If I lost my home and I had to go, on my income, I’d be on the streets,” Craig said, sitting on a bucket in her driveway at the Harmony Shores Mobile Home Port. “I couldn’t even rent a hotel room for a month from what I get from social security.” Craig has been living at Harmony Shores for 19 years.

Homeowners have faced a tough decision since the storm —continue living in unsuitable conditions or cut losses and move on.

All the renters have disappeared, and most of the mobile homes they occupied have been demolished. The remaining, marked with a red X, await their fate.

Cove Communities, the owner of Harmony, purchased the community in June 2021. Located just south of where U.S. Highway 41 and Bayshore Drive intersect, Harmony’s docks sit on the east side of Naples Bay.

Craig, who is 62 and on disability, thinks the property owner will push homeowners out once new manufactured homes go in, a belief she bases on how the company handled the community after Ian. She said many of her neighbors have already left voluntarily, fearing evictions and rent increases if they stayed any longer.

Four days after the storm, owners and renters were told they had to vacate the property and the breaker boxes were turned off and zip-tied shut.

“They wanted to declare it uninhabitable so they could throw the people out that were still here,” Craig said.

Then there was ankle-high standing water for 10 days before someone came out to unclog the drainage pipe 20 feet from her door, she said, which she had informed the manager and property owner needed to be cleaned out for weeks before the storm.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dug that out my own self with a kitchen utensil,” she said.

Now the pipe has chunks of cement in it, and she does not know who put it there. She wonders if it was done intentionally.

Craig believes Cove has been buying up homes and declining to renew leases with the renters because the company wants to “dismantle” the park, model it after others it owns and hike up the rates.

Not including RV parks, Cove owns 15 other communities in Florida, three of which are in Southwest Florida and have resort-like amenities.

Jamaica Bay Villages in Fort Myers, one of Cove’s properties, currently has new manufactured homes for sale on its website, ranging from $99,000 to $294,000.

When Cove purchased the Harmony Cove community, it removed over 40 mobile homes. Since Ian, 31 more rental units have been either demolished or scheduled for demolition. Today, 46 occupied units are left, all homeowners who rent a lot at the land-lease community.

The owners pay a monthly lot rental that includes a base rent for water, lawncare and storm drainage. They also pay for sewer, waste disposal and utility fees. Craig said rent went up to $904 a month, a $104 increase, before the hurricane. She believes it was another tactic to force people out.

Joyce Mireault, the vice president of marketing for Cove Communities, said Cove has done everything in compliance with the Florida Mobile Home Act and other rules and regulations, including giving a 90-day notice of a rent increase.

“On April 28, 2022, Cove announced the annual lot rental increases for Harmony Shores, in reliance on the ability to reset market rates every five years, and increased lot rent an average of 13% for the homeowners,” she said.

As for declining to renew expired leases, that was for safety reasons.

“At the time of acquisition, Harmony was in extremely poor condition and was rumored to have a high level of criminal activity,” she said. “Many of the homes that were rented to residents by the previous [property] owners were of such low quality that Cove deemed them unacceptable as rental units.”

According to Mireault, Cove has invested $1.075 million in the community since 2021, and it spent $750,000 in cleanup and restoration after Ian.

Craig said she bought her home for $45,000 in 2004 and tried selling it to Cove for $20,000 before the hurricane, but a Cove representative laughed at her.

Her next move was to sell it to a private buyer, but the representative told her the rules had changed for buying. Buyers must pass a background check and have a credit score of 700 or higher.

“If I wanted to sell my home to somebody, they have to be approved by Cove Communities,” she said.

In addition, Mireault said Cove does not allow subleasing. “Homeowners who sublease their homes would be in breach of their site leases,” she said. “Cove’s standard operating procedure is the same at all Cove communities. We perform both financial and criminal background checks on all potential residents.”

Because every home Cove purchases gets demolished, Mireault said that the company has paid for the removal of the units, not the value.

“The cost of demolition, removal, hauling and dump fees has ranged from $7,500 to $10,000 per home,” she said. “Cove paid these costs for the homes it purchased, which otherwise would have been the responsibility of the selling homeowner.”

County Commissioner Daniel Kowal, whose district includes Harmony, is familiar with the community. He said the vacate notice following Ian was all a misunderstanding. After Kowal’s election this past November, he spoke to Dave Napp, the co-founder of Cove Communities.

“The owner of the property was unaware,” Kowal said. “Local management surely did something that was not approved of, and he was not very happy about it.”

Kowal said he understands the frustration of the owners, but mobile homes are not like real property.

“They’re actually titled like a car, so they depreciate in value,” he said. “You don’t buy a mobile home as an investment to say you’re going to sell it down the road for more than what you bought it for. And on top of that, you just suffered major damage from a 100-year storm.”

The company maintains that Cove is not trying to push anyone out.

“No current homeowners will be displaced as Cove repositions Harmony Shores, and all redevelopment plans will leave the community under a land-lease model,” Mireault said. “Cove will develop around all existing resident-owned homes at the community.”

She added that homeowners can continue to lease their sites from Cove if they “pay their rent, abide by community rules and regulations and do not break the law.”

Craig still has concerns that by next year she will have to move out because she cannot afford to rebuild from scratch and she cannot afford more rent increases, which she believes will happen once new homes are in place.

“There’s no low-income nothing here,” she said. “But, hey, that’s Naples, one of the wealthiest towns in the United States.”

She would also be out the money she paid for the mobile home if she bought a new one. In its current condition, she wouldn’t be able to sell, move or find a plot she could rent for her damaged home.

“You want to just live your life, raise your kids, have clean clothes and a clean home and enjoy the fruits of your hard- earned elbow grease, blood, sweat and tears the best way you can,” she said. “My concern is, by the end of this year, I’m going to lose my home.” And they will find some way to do it, “by hook or by crook.”

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at  gwendolyn.salata@yahoo.com.