It took Wanda Nelson six months to find an affordable place to live last year. She eventually found a trailer in March 2021 on the west side of town and signed a rent-to-own lease for the trailer and the land. She would pay $675 a month until 2024.
Now, she has until May 30 to figure out where to go next, or else she’ll be evicted from the trailer she rents from Derek Vickers, the landlord of the trailer park.
Nelson doesn’t live at The Meadows, where other tenants of Vickers have previously complained of skyrocketing rents, refusal to provide lease agreements and mismanagement.
Nelson lives at Seminole, now called Florida Sun Estates 2, a small trailer park off Tennessee Street in the 32304 ZIP code, dubbed the poorest ZIP code in the state.
“This place gave us a chance to own our own home,” Nelson said. “And it’s like they don’t care. They just snatch it away from us.”
Residents of both Seminole and The Meadows received a notice of non-renewal of leases on May 16, which said they would have to leave their home by May 31.
How did we get here?
Those with existing rent and rent-to-own leases can’t get a hold of management to ask them if the leases are still valid, and residents are worried they can’t afford the large down payment to buy the trailer in such a short amount of time.
In all capital letters, the note from management read: “In the event that you do not vacate the premises by said date, legal action may be taken in which you may be held liable for holdover (double) rent, damages, court costs and attorneys’ fees.”
Two days later, another letter was left on the front doors of their trailers.
The second letter also stated that Florida Sun Estates management will be offering tenants the possibility to purchase just their trailer, not the land, for $1,000 to $2,500.
In March 2021, the Nelsons paid a $2,500 deposit for the trailer and the land, which left a remainder of $15,000.
Neither of the letters say anything about the land, which the Nelsons said they will have paid off in about two years.
‘What am I going to do now?’:As CDC eviction moratorium ends, Leon County readies for onslaught of calls for help
The letter from management fills the whole printed page and includes an apology for causing “confusion” with the first letter.
“While we know we could sell the homes for much higher costs, our desire is to help our residents by making it easier for you to become home owners, not just renters. We have been told by many of your neighbors that they are excited for this opportunity to own their own home.”
Legal Services of North Florida, a nonprofit that offers help to those who can’t afford a lawyer, is assisting some of the tenants with their leases. It says the so-called rent-to-own documentation from the trailer park company is “vague and rudimentary.”
“It’s just a piece of paper, and there’s no conversation about who is responsible for repairs while this rent-to-own agreement is happening,” said Mary Rose Whitehouse of Legal Services of North Florida.
“They are effectively trapping people,” she said. “There’s no other way to couch this.”
More about Seminole
Situated on Aenon Church Trail and Whitehill Lane, Seminole houses over 30 mobile homes, according to the Leon County Property Appraiser’s website.
Dilapidated mobile homes sit on each side of a road that makes a semicircle from and to Aenon Church Trail. Some of the homes are vacant and look like they are from the 1960s. Blue tarps reinforce failing roofs.
The Nelsons’ home has a porch with holes in the wooden floor. The air conditioning doesn’t work, and the floor of the bathroom sags with the weight of footsteps.
Nelson’s son, who lives in another trailer in the park, doesn’t have electricity in his kitchen.
Nelson and her husband, who is a security guard for Trulieve Cannabis Dispensary, said her son also signed a rent-to-own agreement for both his trailer and the land.
But he’s not any better off than many of the other residents in Seminole, who have month-to-month leases. According to the second letter, management says if residents choose not to purchase their home, they will need to vacate the property by May 30 — this coming Monday.
The Nelsons say they’ve tried to contact Florida Sun Estates management, which suggests residents to call a number for “corporate,” which doesn’t respond.
The Nelsons have questions about their agreement with the previous landlord. For example: Will they still be able to buy the land along with the trailer?
But no one calls back.
“Y’all don’t care that we’ll be out the door,” she said about management.
The 32304 project:
According to records with the Leon County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller, Florida Sun Estates 2 LLC bought the mobile home park on a deed dated Dec. 9, 2021.
Vickers is affiliated with both Florida Sun Estates 2 LLC and Florida Sun Estates LLC, formerly The Meadows. Florida Sun Estates LLC bought The Meadows for $14 million on Aug. 31, 2021.
In 2021 and early 2022, elected officials and nonprofits condemned Vickers and the management of his trailer parks. City commissioners held a press conference in front of The Meadows, and school district administrators held legal aid workshops to help tenants learn their rights.
Buying up mobile homes, evicting renters and raising lot prices has become a national trend — as private trailer park owners age and retire, the lots get bought up by investors who are getting low-interest, government-backed loans.
Even if renters end up buying up these mobile homes, they are still subject to increases in lot rents with 90 days notice, Whitehouse said.
But case law suggests that market forces drive what is reasonable, and currently, given the affordable housing crisis, the rental market and what is reasonable looks vastly different.
The Democrat reached out to Vickers’ lawyer, but did not receive a response Friday.
Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.
Want more news coverage? If you’re already a subscriber, thank you! If not, please subscribe using the link at the top of the page and help keep the news you care about coming.