Death and Taxes

14 May 2020 1:22 PM | Anonymous

By Peyton Jones, Ph. D.

Fifty years ago, retired mobile homeowners in St. Petersburg formed one of the most powerful political movements in Florida.

It all started in 1961, when newly elected St. Petersburg city council member, Nortney Cox, picked a fight with mobile home owners over taxes. At the time, mobile homes were taxed in the same way as motor vehicles: owners paid an annual $10 license renewal fee. In St. Petersburg, the owners of the majority of the city’s 1,000 mobile homes rented lots in one of 33 parks, and thus paid little-to-nothing in property taxes. 

For Cox, a small-time homebuilder, the tax system unfairly burdened owners of detached single-family homes (like the kind he built), and over the next three years he single-handedly waged a battle to reclassify mobile homes as real property and squeeze more revenue out of trailer parks.

Mobile-home owners fought back. While not all were retirees living on fixed incomes, it was the pensioners and social security recipients who, at a meeting in Wilder’s Park (corner of 6th St. and 32nd Ave, formerly Bayou Lake Avenue) on April 2, 1962, organized the Federation of Mobile Home Owners. Within a decade, the FMO counted dozens of chapters and more than 50,000 members statewide.

The organization first flexed its political muscle when it helped unseat Cox in the 1964 city council elections, and later when it successfully lobbied against a state law that would have forced owners to “tie down” their trailers. The work of the FMO culminated in the early 1970s with the passage of a “Mobile-Home Bill of Rights,” which enshrined into state law protections for mobile-home owners against unscrupulous business practices and crusading city officials.

When we think about the urban social movements of the postwar era, retirees living in mobile homes don’t usually come to mind. But the FMO, and Florida mobile-home owners more generally, were in the vanguard of metropolitan tax revolts that swept across the nation in the Seventies and Eighties. 

When Cox failed to get support for reclassifying mobile homes, he tried a variety of other approaches to make mobile-home owners pay, as shown in the Tampa Times article of December 5, 1961.

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