Joplin Tornado

Housing troubles mount, especially for Joplin’s poor

Updated: 2012-05-17T19:26:59Z

By MIKE McGRAW

The Kansas City Star

— In the months after an EF5 tornado ripped this city in half, a whole new set of problems rushed in.

The people who were already the most vulnerable were among the hardest hit.

Amid a severe housing shortage, evictions spiked and rents soared. Scam artists are victimizing homeowners, and some landlords are taking advantage of renters. Residents have bickered over where to put low-income housing.

Even though plenty of good things are happening — businesses are coming back, retail sales are booming, builders are busy again — Mayor Mike Woolston knows the road ahead is long.

“We’re starting to get into the hard part,” he says.

The May 22 tornado took out a huge swath of the city’s cheapest housing. With near surgical precision, it bore down on those who didn’t have much to begin with — and Joplin already had more people living in poverty than the national average.

The tornado killed 161 people and injured more than 900. It damaged or destroyed 7,500 houses and apartments.

Many of those who lost their homes also lost their jobs, according to data assembled by the state Department of Economic Development.

More than half the households affected by the tornado were low- to moderate-income families. Many of them, including seniors and the disabled, earned less than $10,000 a year.

“The most at-risk groups were the hardest hit by the tornado,” one federal official said.

Greed, gouging, scams

Disasters bring out the worst in some people.

In the storm’s immediate aftermath, one company offered to haul off debris for residents. All they had to do was sign an agreement that many owners didn’t realize would transfer their property to the hauler for $1.

The state attorney general’s office — which has received 721 tornado-related complaints to date — put a stop to that before anyone got taken. The state also stopped an apartment building owner from jacking up rents by $100 or more just days after the tornado.

Some landlords claimed that tenants — some of whom were poor, uninsured and lost everything — were responsible for tornado damage and refused to refund damage deposits.

“I was really offended at the way some landlords behaved,” said Debra Lumpkins, an attorney posted in Joplin by the attorney general’s office. “People were desperate and some landlords tried to rent dumps right after the storm. One place had mold in the bathroom and kitchen; it was awful.”

For builders floundering in the tough economy, Joplin became “the promised land,” said Crystal Harrington, executive officer of the local homebuilders’ association. She estimates that up to 500 builders eventually showed up here looking for work.

Based on what she’s heard, she figures that less than half of them are what she would call reliable.

A stack of complaints at City Hall backs up her suspicions: “Walked off after taking $10,000 — no license,” one homeowner complained. Another resident said a contractor took his insurance check, did no work and then demanded $8,000 to get out of the contract.

A Kennett, Mo., official even called Joplin City Hall to warn that a builder barred from working in Kennett “is heading your way.”

Joplin requires homebuilders to be licensed and insured; at least one local electrical contractor said he has gotten calls from out-of-towners asking to “buy” temporary use of his license.

In Duquesne, a small town surrounded by Joplin, a woman was surprised to find that her home had fewer windows after her contractor completed repairs. He had covered up two of her seven windows with vinyl siding.

She is considering a lawsuit.

Forced from homes

For those not immediately displaced by the tornado, foreclosures continued and evictions shot up.

So many homes were destroyed that the housing market in Joplin and beyond went white hot. Some property owners wanted tenants or mortgagees out so they could sell or re-rent at higher prices.

Unlike the aftermath of Katrina, when there was a government-ordered moratorium on foreclosures, they continued in Joplin, albeit at a slower pace than before the tornado. The biggest post-tornado forecloser was Fannie Mae, according to RealtyTrac, which collects foreclosure data. The federal housing agency was recently found to have improperly foreclosed on homeowners nationwide.

Evictions went up, too. By early December there were 516 court-ordered evictions and foreclosures countywide, 28 more than during the same period last year. But those were just the legal ones.

Illegal evictions, which were not filed in court and sometimes gave tenants insufficient notice, were common after the tornado, according to lawyers who volunteered here.

One single mother — and grandmother — who asked not to be named told The Star that her landlord evicted her, then told her she could stay in return for sexual favors.

Many other displaced families, who thought they had been buying their homes through a risky arrangement called “contract for deed,” ended up on the street, too. Some lost their homes, their possessions and the equity they thought they were building. (Story, Axx)

Unintended consequences

It wasn’t long before the tornado’s after-effects spread beyond Joplin.

Roberta Page, whose 80-foot house trailer stood 15 miles from the tornado’s path, says the storm displaced her, too. She was evicted in June from the Carthage trailer court where she and her family lived for 12 years.

Page said it happened after the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered premium prices for places to park hundreds of temporary housing units for tornado victims. One of those units is now parked where Page’s trailer had been.

“It’s just a lot of heartache we were put through,” Page said. “The landlord moved us out for a FEMA trailer, and she comes out making more money than if I was living there.”

Page and her landlord had been feuding over minor issues for months, according to a copy of the eviction notice Page provided. Then on June 3 — after it was clear that FEMA trailers would be coming to the area — Page was told she had to be out by the end of July.

Page said her landlord never acknowledged she wanted to make room for FEMA, which eventually paid $560 a month for Page’s old trailer pad and utilities — more than double the $250 Page had paid.

Page also said the landlord demanded that she buy $300,000 liability insurance policies covering each of her three dogs — including a 14-year-old half-blind pug named Otis. The landlord said it was protection for the park in case the dogs bit someone.

Page refused, saying she was already covered by her homeowner’s policy.

The eviction notice also noted that the Pages complained a lot and allegedly threatened the landlord, a claim that Roberta Page denies.

Page and her family spent thousands to move their trailer to private land at the rear of the park.

The landlord, Candace Ellett, declined to tell her side of the story, saying, “She (Page) can say what she wants.”

Regardless of why Page was evicted, some say it’s clear that FEMA — which generally gets high praise for its work here — contributed to higher living costs.

The price FEMA is paying for trailer pads and utilities — up to $580 a month at some parks — is based on a market study by FEMA’s sister federal agency, the General Services Administration.

“That seems too high,” said Kim Cox, head of the local Realtors association. “You can rent an apartment here for that much.”

Other landlords and local housing experts — including Mayor Woolston, a real estate agent — agreed.

GSA defends the price, saying it includes mowing and snow removal. In addition, because FEMA pays utilities for tornado victims, GSA figured maximum rates for water and power, even though many FEMA units may use far less.

Angela Brees, spokesperson for the GSA in Kansas City, said some trailer parks wanted $1,000 a month for all that. “We could have paid that, but we didn’t,” Brees said.

When asked about the Page case, a FEMA spokesman said the agency leases only pads that are available at the time they inspect a trailer park “and typically do not lease any more than originally counted.”

No one should be evicted to make room for a FEMA trailer, the spokesman said, but if they believe they were, they can call the state’s consumer hotline, 1-800-392-8222, or the National Disaster Fraud Hotline, 1-866-720-5721.

Struggling with higher rents

Joplin’s housing market is nothing like it was before the tornado.

Rents are higher and the vacancy rate dropped from up to 11 percent before the storm to 2 percent or less today.

According to tenants, some landlords are requiring more money up front, heftier damage deposits and background checks.

Pete Hernandez and his family had to relocate to Grove, Okla., after losing their $700-a-month, 2,000-square-foot rental home to the tornado. Post-tornado Joplin rents were too high, he said, but even in Grove he’s paying $800 a month for a home half that size and commuting 55 miles to work.

“I could use the money we’re spending on gas for Christmas gifts,” Hernandez said.

“The housing market since the tornado has become a nightmare,” said Molly Myers, who lost her rental house in the tornado and finally gave up looking. She now lives with co-workers in Baxter Springs, Kan.

“Rent in this town has doubled,” says Jeff Baugh, who’s been looking for a bigger place since before the tornado. “Anyone that tells you different are liars. A lot of landlords have turned into opportunists over a bad situation and greed.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad,” Baugh added, “if the rate of pay here had increased, but it hasn’t, so only a select few can afford the new post-tornado prices.”

Dave Reeder, a landlord who lost eight of his 46 rental properties to the tornado, agrees that rents have gone up, but not as much as Baugh claims; maybe $100 a month, he said.

The higher prices also extend to homes for sale.

The median home price in Joplin in July was $108,000, 22 percent higher than a year earlier. By November, the median price had dropped to $96,500, still higher than last year.

Higher housing prices are just part of the picture, however. Numerous post-tornado economic factors could help push up some wages here, potentially leaving low-income workers behind.

For example, a new federal prevailing wage study for Joplin, published just four months after the tornado, nearly triples wages for some construction trades on certain federally funded projects.

The new survey — the first since 1990 — blindsided some contractors and set off a political debate among politicians, unions and builders.

Room for the poor?

Where all this leaves Joplin’s lowest-income tornado victims — the disabled, seniors on fixed incomes, those with minimum-wage jobs — is anyone’s guess at this point.

Some low-income units that were destroyed are being rebuilt. A few families might get government help to buy small single-family homes, but relatively few of those are being built.

Some city officials and local housing experts fear that not enough affordable housing will be ready before low-income workers give up and leave town to find a more affordable place to work and live.

And there is a real concern about the residents of the remaining 540-plus FEMA units in the area. Their free rent and utilities stop when FEMA pulls units out of Joplin as people vacate them.

Neither of the city’s senior citizen properties had vacancies this fall, and 225 families are on the city’s low-income housing waiting list, said Matt Moran, executive director of the Joplin Housing Authority. More families may not even be signing up, he said.

Moran said the city hasn’t been able to add more public housing because of tight federal housing money. As a result, Joplin could use more housing vouchers, and more properties available to take them. But he added that, with higher rents, the vouchers won’t go as far.

“Joplin has always been the kind of community where a person of limited means can live comfortably,” Moran said, “and that is something a lot of us want to be able to preserve.”

In an effort to help, the Missouri Housing Development Commission on Friday approved $88 million worth of state and federal tax credits (payable over 10 years) to help private developers build affordable housing here. (The commission took no action on a proposal that would have exempted higher prevailing wages on the Joplin projects.)

City officials estimate that the eight projects, containing 340 units, will accommodate about half the families who need affordable housing.

Some low-income housing advocates hoped that many of those units would be scattered in upper- and lower-income neighborhoods beyond the debris zone and throughout the city. But six of the eight approved projects will be built in or near the poorer parts of the debris zone, where much of the city’s older inexpensive rental housing was destroyed.

In fact, the proposal to build that housing outside the debris zone put some residents on edge, including those still deciding whether to rebuild. Many of them insisted that neighboring affordable housing would force down their property values.

The stress was obvious at two public hearings, the latter on Nov. 28.

“It just baffles me that a development company would select an area of the city that was not wiped out by the storm to replace the very residences that were destroyed by it,” one resident said.

Another said that seven real estate agents advised her to sell her home “at the quickest possible date” because of plans for low-income housing nearby. “That’s a sad thing after everything we’ve gone through, including the tornado,” she said.

“I understand those families need a place to reside,” another homeowner said. “I understand that, but you drive around to those lower income neighborhoods and what do you see? It’s trash.”

There was strong resentment at the hearings, especially toward out-of-town contractors who could be making money from Joplin’s woes by collecting potentially lucrative tax credits in return for building low-income housing.

Some critics say, however, said that a more pertinent issue is whether such housing will serve the neediest of Joplin’s low-income families who were displaced by the tornado.

By design, many of the tax credit units must be rented to residents earning 50 or 60 percent of Joplin’s median household income, or about $20,000 to $24,000 a year. Maximum rents would be about $600 a month, including utilities.

But according to some local housing experts, residents making less — including many of those displaced by the tornado — need lower-cost alternatives, such as federally subsidized housing, that aren’t currently available.

Housing Development Commission officials say it’s hard to compare residents who qualify for tax credit housing to those who qualify for subsidized housing because of differing criteria.

Either way, negative reactions among neighbors of such projects are not unusual after a disaster, said Gavin Smith, who worked on post-Katrina recovery efforts for the governor of Mississippi.

Added Philip Berke, an urban development and reconstruction expert at the University of North Carolina, “There’s not a lot of motivation for change unless someone says, ‘No, these people count and they are part of our community.’ There’s a window (after a disaster) when people have this kumbaya feeling and then indifference sets in.”

“We have to be accommodating to low-income workers,” added Troy Bolander, Joplin’s community development director. “They are productive members of our community and we depend on them. We have to find a place for them.”

To reach Mike McGraw, call 816-234-4423 or send email to mcgraw@kcstar.com.

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