BARTOW – In hundreds of mobile homes across Polk County, struggling families are trying to survive in squalid conditions.
There’s Maria, a migrant worker who lives in a run-down travel trailer with her husband and two young sons, and is grateful the air-conditioning works. She’s one of the lucky ones, she said, despite the cramped conditions in her home.
For others, gaping holes hide under thread-bare carpeting in their homes, roaches skitter along stained walls and pipes groan as water passes through them. Pans often rest beneath sinks to capture drips from unchecked leaks.
“We ask the landlord to fix things, but it never gets done,” a Lake Wales tenant said. “I’ve been waiting a year for a list of repairs, and nothing.”
These families, some spending as much as $700 a month in rent, have few choices, said Phil Short, managing attorney in the Lakeland office of Florida Rural Legal Services, which represents indigent tenants in landlord disputes.
“We have more mobile home parks in this county than any other county in the state,” he said, “and we have a large population living on poverty wages. They don’t have the education to do much else.
“It’s a big problem,” Short said. “I’ve seen parks that look like all of the mobile homes should be bulldozed in a pile and burned.”
But most residents shy away from complaining about their living conditions, he said.
“If they do,” he said, “they’re looking at an eviction notice.”
Some tenants aren’t in this country legally, he said, and they, too, choose not to complain.
Sherri Sheffield, the county’s code enforcement inspector supervisor, said her officers warn residents about the potential for eviction should they file a complaint with the county.
“We always tell them we will be happy to come out and do an inspection, and we will cite the property owner,” she said. “However, you may be evicted and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
Those interviewed for this report declined to give their names because they wanted to conceal their identities.
Sheffield said many families will be moving out when they call code enforcement, hoping only to help the next family who moves in.
“They’ve already decided they can’t take it any longer and are moving by the time they call us,” she said, “and we deal with the owners. Sometimes they make the repairs, but sometimes they just board it up and don’t rent it.”
Sheffield said she’s seen more than her share of sagging floors, leaking roofs and exposed electrical wires.
“The list goes on and on,” she said.
But the landlords aren’t always the villians, she said.
“A great many times, these homes are destroyed by the renters,” she said. “What they do is unbelievable. There are professional renters who move in, never pay rent, and when the eviction notice comes, they destroy the house and call us, complaining that the landlord won’t fix what’s broken.
“I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and I’ve seen it all,” Sheffield said.
The Polk County Health Department inspects each of the county’s 489 mobile home and recreational vehicle parks annually, said department spokeswoman Nicole Riley, but their inspectors don’t go inside the homes.
Inspectors review the water system and sewage disposal, and ensure the grounds are maintained to reduce the potential for infestations.
“These inspection visits are impromptu,” she said.
If inspectors discover problems inside the mobile homes, she said, they refer those to code enforcement.
Short said he recognizes that the collective efforts to protect poverty-stricken tenants, in the end, affect only the immediate situation.
“We know it’s probably not going to change anything,” he said. “These tenants have no bargaining power, and that’s what the landlords are counting on.”