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Churchill’s record around the country
Churchill’s Regency locations around the country have recently become subject to newspaper, television, neighborhood, state and federal investigations concerning a variety of issues, many habitability, title or health related.
Some of the publicity has led to action undertaken by state or city government, but more often than not, Churchill’s Regency parks, and their owner – multi-millionaire George Gradow – end up with little more than a slap on the wrist.
In Fort Wayne, Ind., according to the Indiana News Center, roughly two-thirds of the trailers don’t have titles. Basic repairs are not being done. A former manager says she was asked to perform mass evictions and turn off water on accounts, until told by a neighborhood office that disconnecting water is illegal.
According to WLKY and Wave3 TV in 2009, the Regency park in Louisville, Ky., was determined to need a massive electrical upgrade to bring itself up to code. Not long after the government notified ownership of the $1 million-plus necessary upgrade, Regency sent out notices to residents giving them 30 days to vacate the park and subsequently closed down. Louisville Metro Government opened a case against George Gradow for failure to clean up the park after shutting down.
According to KCRG-TV9, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation into the Regency park in Iowa City, Iowa, tied to substandard living conditions and questionable sales of homes by Churchill Group. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources ordered the park to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility after finding it exceeded limits for discharging pollutants, such as fecal coliform and ammonia, in August 2009. A year later, the DNR fined the park $7,500 for air-quality violations.
The Gazette quoted residents as saying mass evictions were being done to get back at them for speaking out about their problems at Regency, although the majority of these were dismissed in court because Regency did not give proper notice of the evictions. Iowa’s Attorney General served the park with a “subpoena-like document” asking for certain information for an investigation focusing on consumer fraud issues in July 2010. The Iowa City and Huxley, Iowa, parks were also investigated for asbestos and demolition violations in 2009.
The West Central Tribune reported on the Regency in Willmar, Minn., as having only 120 out of 207 homes in compliance with exterior maintenance ordinances.
A former park manager (who was relieved of his duties after talking to the press) at the Regency of Junction City, Kan., told The Des Moines Register that the Churchill Group is reaping huge profits by selling old, hazardous mobile homes, many of which it does not legally own, to families living on the economic fringe. City and county officials, as well as employees and residents in the Junction City park, say the community has declined since the Churchill Group purchased it in 2000.
According to another Des Moines Register article, it took the Churchill Group more than five years and more than $33,000 in fines from the state Department of Environmental Quality to replace a corroded and failing sewage plant in the Regency of Canby, Ore., location. The state noted serious sewage violations going back to at least 1990.
Who is George Gradow?
George Gradow, president and owner of Churchill Group, is a multimillionaire real estate developer who owns trailer parks throughout the country.
According to land deeds found at the Boone County recorder of deeds' office, Gradow was a partner in Columns IV, a real estate development group owned at one time by Rolland “Raul” Walters, who died in January 2009. Gradow became president of Columns Associates (also known as Columns IV) sometime in the early 1980s and sold the mobile home park to himself, operating under the new name “Regency Columbia Associates,” in 1986.
A federal court tried and convicted Gradow in 2005 of obstructing a federal audit by destroying and altering tax documents pertaining to his mobile home parks, according to PACER, an online national index for U.S. district courts. He subsequently served two years in prison.
Over the years, Gradow has refused to speak to any reporters seeking comment about his parks.
COLUMBIA — The potholes on the road near Bill McNeil's home are too deep for him to cross in his wheelchair. The floorboards are so rotted in spots in Christopher Weisser's trailer, he's afraid he might fall through someday. Heather Blanketship keeps her warped front door shut with a makeshift tether.
The place these people call home is Columbia Regency, a 278-lot trailer park in southeast Columbia.
It's been labeled a chronic nuisance and a high-priority area by Columbia city officials, as well as a Problem Oriented Police Project by the Columbia Police Department.
Residents say the company that owns the park — Colorado-based Churchill Group — hangs the threat of eviction over the heads of anyone who speaks out about the park's hazardous living conditions, high electrical bills and persistent crime.
No one at Churchill Group responded to phone calls or e-mails seeking comment about residents' allegations concerning the park off Nifong Boulevard. Since 2008, Regency parks owned by Churchill Group have been the subject of numerous investigative reports by agencies and news outlets in six states.
Accusations include cases of neglect and severe health code violations, such as contaminated drinking water and asbestos-related air-quality violations.
A three-month look at Columbia's Churchill-owned park shows health and safety violations, exorbitant utility bills neither tenants nor the city can explain and a criminal element that takes advantage of the legal loophole in which the park exists.
A former park manager says that, in the four months she ran the park, she became convinced that Churchill was deliberately squeezing as much money as possible from tenants without putting money back into the park. Columbia public safety, utility and neighborhood officials say they're doing nearly everything they can do within the limits of the law and city ordinances to clean up the park.
"It's a tangled web between the city and the Churchill Group, and the tenants are in the middle," park resident Gilbert Garcia said. "If you go to the city, they're going to say it's not their problem; (they) don't have code rights or the right to be on the property. If you go to Churchill, they're going to tell you to shut up or get out.
"The tenants are in the middle, with nowhere to go."
'A high-priority area'
"You've heard of the broken window theory?" Columbia Police Officer Cynthia Crowe asked while patrolling the potholed roads of Regency, past the boarded-up and abandoned trailers in early December. "This is a prime example."
According to broken window social theory, abandoned cars, vacant property, broken windows and tall weeds are all signals that it's OK not to care about a neighborhood.
Crowe pointed to a home with foil-covered windows.
"Somebody sees that it's OK to have their trailer looking ratty, and it just grows," she said, "like a weed."
The Office of Neighborhood Services calls those signals by another name: violations.
Seated at his desk in a renovated fire station off Providence Road, Neighborhood Response Coordinator Bill Cantin explained the role his office plays in dealing with Regency.
Neighborhood Services "is taking primary ownership of this issue as far as the city of Columbia goes," Cantin said. "This is a high-priority area for us. There are still several issues that need to be addressed."
The other issues Cantin was referring to — property maintenance code violations and health code violations — include overgrown grass, abandoned vehicles, fire hazards, trash, dilapidated trailers and other problems with habitability.
In 2010, from Jan. 1 to Nov. 10, Neighborhood Services issued more than 250 health code violations to Columbia Regency, citing abandoned and unlicensed vehicles, accumulated trash and debris, and grass more than 12 inches tall.
In the same period, the office also served park owners with more than 180 property maintenance violations, which included dented and torn walls, torn skirting and, most important, fire-safety violations.
Columbia Fire Marshal Steven Sapp compared older manufactured homes made before 1974, like many of those at Regency, to tinderboxes. He said they often contain aluminum wiring, thin walls and heat tape — the agents most likely to instigate or accelerate a fire.
"You (also) have that thin layer of combustible material on the wallboard and the thin pieces of dimensional lumber behind," Sapp said. "... Once a fire gets going, it spreads very quickly."
Many of the homes in Regency are so hazardous that Congress banned the manufacture of their type in 1974 by enacting the Housing and Urban Development Code.
"Ultimately, we hope that we have zero violations for a neighborhood," said Marsha Perkins, Neighborhood Service's senior environmental health specialist. "But when you start having high numbers ... I have some concerns for that neighborhood.
"In the beginning of the year, we realized we had issues out there and decided to go do walkthroughs."
Those walkthroughs have netted Columbia Regency more health-code violations than the previous two years combined.
Another major problem facing Cantin's department, in addition to the health and safety violations, is illegal trailers.
"A great number of the trailers that are being rented in Regency aren't registered in our office, which makes them illegal," Cantin said. "We're still working on that."
Registration is a legal requirement because it prompts inspections, which help ensure the safety and welfare of the tenants, Cantin said. Inspectors look for problems such as damaged stairways, broken windows, accumulating trash and abandoned vehicles. The owner of the park is then cited and ideally would take action to correct the problem.
"Historically, (Regency is) looking a little better than it did five years ago," Cantin said. "A lot of that coincides with the scrutiny the city has been putting on them about code compliance."
"I'm not saying it's perfect by any means," he continued. "It's got a ways to go."
In several visits to the park during the fall, a white Dodge van filled with junk sat in front of lot 174. The adjacent lawn, on lot 175, was covered with old furniture, children's toys, garbage bags and pipes. Open bags of trash filled lot 222. The windows of the trailer on lot 62 had been smashed, and through them could be seen garbage strewn about the living room, a shell of a television set, half-eaten chew toys and drinking glasses still in the sink. Wire mesh littered the floor.
Many homes in the park are abandoned and left to rot for months on end, sometimes becoming a breeding ground for mice, snakes and other infestations. The Office of Neighborhood Services can cite the park for those health violations. | BRAD RACINO/MissourianSince that visit, the trailer has been officially labeled abandoned, and a notice of abandonment has been taped to one of the few remaining windows.
Weisser, whose trailer has rotting floorboards, moved to Columbia Regency in February. Inside his trailer, he pointed out the flimsy boards that hold up his kitchen sink and counters. That was just the beginning.
"Half the electrical doesn't work," he said. "There are holes in the ceiling and floor, and look ..." He pushed on the thin plywood under his living room window. "I can push out my walls."
"I've complained about (those things) to management, and they said it would be taken care of, but I haven't seen anyone," he said.
His trailer doesn't stand out as being much worse, or much better, than others near it.
One street over, Blanketship lives in a white, single-wide trailer with faded blue trim. Neighbors said she is disabled, living mostly alone (apart from visits from her mother) and cared for by other residents who pitch in to help.
"You don't want to go inside," neighbor Michael Bergman warned.
A window screen lay on the patio beside an old couch cushion. Blanketship opened her door, holding onto the rubber cord she uses to keep the misshapen door closed. The door's razor-sharp aluminum covering jutted out on all sides.
The smell inside rushed through the doorway and assaulted the senses: garbage, mildew and animal feces. Cats roam everywhere in Regency, sometimes through holes and into people's trailers.
"We check in on her a lot," Bergman said. "We'll mow her lawn or help with maintenance issues."
"Are you gonna come look at that thing?" Blanketship asked from her doorway.
"Yeah," Bergman replied. "I'll be by. We'll get you fixed up."
It was an electrical outlet that needed repairing, he explained.
That is what Jessica Villarreal, who previously has managed the park, saw as her first bill from Columbia's Water and Light Department in July.
Gilbert Garcia paid $472 his first month.
"The main issue at this place is the electric bills," he said.
For a trailer to use that much electricity seems excessive even to Tina Worley, service manager at Water and Light.
"We don't have a handle as to what's going on," she said during a phone interview in October. "There's really nothing on the utility side to report other than high usage. ... I certainly would not want to have bills like what they're paying."
Cantin with Neighborhood Services said he's not sure if something criminal is happening or if the problem is just old meters.
"That's a tough one," he said. "You hear different stories, ... and the truth is always somewhere in the middle. A lot of times the houses are inefficient."
Yet even after a visit from Central Missouri's Community Action Weatherization Assistance Program, a federally funded program to weatherize homes of low-to-moderate income families, Villarreal's bills still hovered in the $300 to $400 range.
Randy Cole, energy conservation coordinator for the weatherization program, said during a phone interview in October that although any low- to moderate-income family is eligible for the service, their homes' information must first be put through a computer program to see if the process would be cost-effective.
Cole said, "Sometimes we just have to walk away" because the cost to weatherize can amount to more than the trailer's value. "I know of more than a few homes (in Regency) like that."
Many residents claim the problem lies in the pedestals — or meter boxes — located outside the trailers.
A tree branch grows through an electrical meter box in a resident's backyard at Regency Mobile Home Park on Oct. 27. Many people living at the park complain about exorbitant electrical bills, and some trailers use as much electricity as a 3,000 square-foot home. Columbia Water and Light officials have investigated two complaints but have not come up with any definitive cause, or answer to, the issue. | BRAD RACINO/MissourianA short backyard tour revealed a handful of pedestals that were burned and singed. Others were wide open, exposing wiring that was stripped of insulation and dangling from the bottom. One pedestal had a tree limb growing straight through its wiring box.
In an e-mail dated Sept. 30, Dan Clark, engineering supervisor at Water and Light, wrote to multiple recipients throughout the Water and Light and Neighborhood Services offices:
"I went into both mobile homes, 265 & 266. There (sic) usage should be tiny. Their total electrical load consists of (exaggerating, but not by much) three light bulbs, a little refrigerator, and a 12" TV. The consumption that we are recording is what you would expect from an air conditioned 3,000+ sq ft home, more than most huge homes on estate lots. These are little singlewide trailers. Monthly consumption of 2500 kwhr is absurdly high for this kind of dwelling, in my opinion."
Villarreal, who managed Columbia Regency from April to August 2010, said that, during her time as manager, she pressed the corporate office to replace meters in lots where the electric bills were astronomical. She said Churchill did replace some of the meters at a cost of $1,200 per unit and, when it did so, those residents' electric bills went down.
Villareal said she was fired after giving her two weeks' notice, though she continued to live at Regency and is certain no meters were replaced after she left the manager job.
In the Sept. 30 e-mail, Dan Clark wrote about the replacement of the meters:
"I suspect the reason this worked is that at the locations where they had a high bill, someone had tapped into someone else's underground service when no one was looking, somewhere between the meter and the trailer."
In an interview at his office Jan. 4, Clark explained the reason he had initially believed theft was occurring was due to a Regency resident's account of people sneaking under his trailer in the middle of the night, presumably to tap into his electricity.
Now, though he still believes there are instances of theft at Regency, Clark thinks the houses he was assigned to investigate were simply energy-inefficient.
Because his involvement was limited to two trailers, he is not sure that is the case for every home in the park.
"There are a lot of strange things out there ... things that don't make sense," Clark said. "I don't know whether it's an energy-efficiency problem, where these trailers are in such disrepair" or something else.
The spokesman for Columbia Water and Light, Fred Eaton, put the issue to rest Oct. 4 after days of e-mails among building inspectors, health specialists, Water and Light representatives and Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe. Eaton's e-mail said:
"I think our responsibilities with this have ended. The meter (in lot 265) is in good working order, and our service to the pedestal is good. We have no jurisdiction over the pedestal or the underground service to the mobile home."
As of October, the electrical issue — whether it is the result of theft, inefficient homes or faulty meters — is out of the hands of the city. As far as Villarreal and other tenants know, Churchill has no plans to replace meters or find some other solution to the problem.
Looking at the numbers
From Jan. 1 to Dec. 8, 2010, police were dispatched to Columbia's mobile home parks a total of 1,944 times. Calls to Regency accounted for 804 of those.
That's 41 percent of the total.
To put things in perspective, Colonial Village, Columbia's second biggest offender, had 209 calls — about one-quarter the number at Regency.
Vandiver Mobile Home Park, Columbia's largest, had 170 calls for service — about one-fifth of Regency's total.
Officer Tim Thomason from the Office of Neighborhood Services said part of the problem lies with the park's management.
"Bad guys don't flock to an area," Thomason said. "They don't wake up one day and decide they're going to raise havoc at this or that location. (They do it) because they know people there. ... They feel safe there."
This feeling of safety, according to Thomason, arises from the rules established by management, as well as the application process at the park.
"There is a lack of questions on the application process and a lack of background checks," Thomason said.
"They need to evict people when they need to be evicted, instead of just letting people be there without any repercussions," Thomason added. "My assumption is people in the past have just moved people in without any documentation.
"It really comes down to management and ownership and the rules they establish for people."
Regency has gone through five managers at the Columbia location since March. The current manager, Veronica Martin, refused to go on record with any information about the park.
Since June 2001, the Police Department has issued 28 drug letters to the management at Regency, compared with nine for Vandiver Park, 14 for Rustic Meadows and zero for Elm Grove Park. A drug letter is issued when drugs are found on a property, regardless of whether their discovery results in an arrest.
"That's very much on the high side," Thomason said, referring to Regency's letters.
Villarreal shared Thomason's concern.
"I used to want to improve this place so my kids could walk around for a stroll," Villarreal said. "That obviously never happened because these people are still here. They've just gotten better at hiding it, slinging it, smoking it."
Landlord Jan Hatfield, who until recently owned nine homes in Regency, said the drug situation at the park doesn't make any sense.
"There is a big crack dealer right here on the corner who drives around and sells crack out of his car," she said. "If I can find out about it, and I've never done a drug in my life, why aren't the police doing anything?"
As one of the handful of officers assigned to Beat 80 — which contains Regency — Officer Brandon Crites sees the park, which he considers to be a high-crime area, as his personal project.
"I come out here during the day and talk to kids, talk to people," Crites said. "I'm trying to build a level of trust with them. It's so much easier to police this area when people trust me."
Yet there is little he can do about the drug problem at the park.
The problem he and the other beat officers face lies in the issue of ownership of roads.
"The fact that (this park, these roads) are private property ... makes it really hard to police," Crites said.
On city property, "you can't walk in the middle of the street, you can't drink on the street, you can't litter on the street," Crites said. "All these are reasons to detain people and are really arrestable offenses."
"So," Crites added, "anytime you arrest somebody, you can (lawfully search their person). And that's a way to find a lot of drugs."
Crites has no authority to do that at Regency because the park is private property.
Columbia Police Officer Brandon Crites participates in community policing, stopping to talk with residents Nov. 11. Crites sees Regency as a personal project, but because the park is on private property, he and other officers are limited by rules much different than those on city property. A few days after this photo was taken, the residents — one not pictured here — were arrested for burglarizing a home. | BRAD RACINO/Missourian"I know there are drugs in here, but there's just not a whole lot I can do about it until they leave, and a lot of times they're smart enough not to take it in their cars," Crites said.
Almost immediately after finishing his sentence, Crites' headlights fell upon a man walking down the middle of Hanover Drive, the central vein of Regency.
"He's not going to want to talk to me," Crites said, getting out of his patrol car.
As predicted, the man refused to talk to Crites, who made multiple attempts to explain that he was just trying to say hello.
After returning to his car, Crites said, "I've asked if it's possible to make these city streets because that would eliminate some of these problems I'm having finding lawful reasons to detain these people when I know they're up to no good."
Crites added: "But there's nothing I can do about it now because they just say, 'I don't want to talk to you, and I don't consent to a search.' You just have to find them going to and from, and I do that a lot."
A few minutes later, Crites did just that, pulling over a different man, Andrew Abernathy, for failure to use a turn signal while leaving Regency.
Abernathy had a valid license and was "clean" and cooperative.
On the other side of the park, close to the Ponderosa Street entrance, sits a mess of a house — no windows, rotted floorboards and black mold soaking through the ceiling.
Abernathy is trying to call it home.
Attempting to attract new mobile home customers, Regency has printed fliers that Villareal said she was asked to hand out to prospects, such as Abernathy, in the rental office. The flier reads:
"Free Homes!! We Will GIVE You A Home To Repair
2 & 3 Bedroom Homes Available"
In September, Abernathy signed on for the promise of a home title, "given to the invitee at the end of 24 months," according to the Handyman Special Guidelines on the front page of Abernathy's lease.
The lease was signed and dated by both Regency manager Neva Carlson and Abernathy on Sept. 7.
From left, Jessica Villarreal, Jan Hatfield, Gilbert Garcia, Brenda Case and Andrew Abernathy meet in Abernathy's "Handyman" trailer Oct. 27 to discuss ways to deal with the issues they face living at the Churchill-owned Regency park. | BRAD RACINO/MissourianBut if other residents' experience is any indicator, Abernathy might never see his sweat equity pay off. And he might never see a title.
An e-mail sent by Churchill Group Operations Manager Kim Smeins to Villarreal on May 26 stated:
"We have no titles to any mobile homes. If (a resident) feels she paid for the home, then she should contact the City to see how she (can) get the home titled into her name."
According to the Missouri Department of Revenue, the trailer park should have titles to all homes it owns. The park must transfer the title to the homeowner upon payment, which the homeowner then brings to the department for a new deed.
This issue struck a nerve with many residents interviewed, who claimed Regency did not provide them with a title after they'd paid off their homes. Some homes in Regency are owned by third-party lessors, but no information is available as to how many there are.
According to their rent receipts, Patty Perkins and Bill McNeil paid off their trailer in September 2009, at which time the title should have been transferred. It wasn't until November 2010 — after resorting to hiring a lawyer after being told by the corporate office that "they have no titles" — that the couple finally received the proof of ownership from Regency.
"Everybody here has to resort to a lawyer," said Garcia, a neighbor of McNeil and Perkins. "That's more money out of our pockets. Everybody's profiting but us."
Perkins and McNeil discussed the issues they were facing by not having a title.
"I can't move my trailer to another trailer park," McNeil said. "I have no place else to go. I'm between a rock and a hard place."
"There are files up in that (corporate) office that are disappearing," McNeil added. "Luckily, we made copies."
Villarreal confirmed the accusation.
"Rent records, leases ... everything in general is disappearing," she said.
Villarreal and her husband have moved out of the park to an apartment in town, where they can raise their daughters without the atmosphere of drugs and the threat of constant eviction.
Jan Hatfield is moving all nine of her trailers out of the park.
"My heart has hardened, and I can't do it anymore," she said, fighting back tears. "There are good people in this park who can't fight the park, and they're going to lose their homes."
Nothing is certain for the residents at Regency.
Some residents have sought legal counsel with Mid-Missouri Legal Services.
"The common thread among the people who have come to us are allegations pertaining to habitability," said Susan Lutton, executive director of Mid-Missouri Legal Services, during a phone interview Dec. 21.
The housing staff attorney at the law firm, Michael Carney, explained, "Regency says certain tenants failed to pay rent, while the tenants said they didn't pay because the property is not livable."
Because one possible lawsuit is pending, the firm declined to comment further.
Other residents at Regency have attempted to distance themselves from the issues, choosing not to sign any petitions or participate in meetings or lawsuits.
Seated at a plastic picnic table outside his trailer in October, Garcia tried to summarize the situation.
"The future of Regency trailer parks lies with the city," he said. "And it lies in the hands of whoever wants to help us."