COLUMBIA — Over the past few months, Wilson Gallup and Stacey Coleman have been watching as trailers have been moved out of the park where they live. But they thought the rumors were just that — rumors.
Maintenance and other park workers told them Columbia Regency Mobile Home Park was evicting tenants because of violations or overdue back rent. That was enough of an explanation for them, and the couple gave it little more thought.
It wasn’t until a few days ago, when neighbors began to stop by to ask if the couple had heard the news, that the two began to worry.
They now know that their lives, along with the lives of more than 200 other residents of the run-down mobile home park in southeast Columbia, are about to be uprooted.
Last month, Crockett Engineering Consultants, on behalf of Regency of Missouri Inc., submitted plans to the city's Planning and Zoning Commission to rezone the property and sell it to Aspen Heights, a Texas-based student housing development company. The plans will likely be approved by City Council on Oct. 17, said City Planner Steve MacIntyre, after which Regency is legally obliged to give residents 120 days to vacate.
Residents learned about it from local news reports, but there's been no official word.
Back in January, the Missourian reported on the decrepit and deplorable conditions of Regency, a 278-lot trailer park owned by the Churchill Group of Carbondale, Colo. Residents faced astronomical electric bills, unsafe living conditions and the highest lot-rent in the city.
Now, after news of the plan has spread from lot to lot, residents are scrambling to find the money necessary to move their trailers — a service that can cost up to $3,000.
“I can picture there’s gonna be a lot of people out here, just rippin’ what they can,” Gallup said, smoking a cigarette and manning the shish kebabs cooking in the small red grill atop his wooden porch on Lot 225. “The scrap metal and stuff.”
Earlier this year, Gallup worked a total of four weeks for Regency as the company’s maintenance man. Now, he and Coleman live on disability income. The couple also has four children, two of whom have disabilities.
“I realize that the college kids need a place to live, too, but, at the same time – they’re pushing out the poor people,” he said.
He said it took him and Coleman almost a year to pay off their $3,000 trailer.
“With four kids,” Coleman added. “If we can’t move it, then we lose everything.”
Their 7-year-old son Jesse swaggered outside the trailer Monday, his face covered in barbecue sauce.
“All these kids are going to be ripped out of their schools. They’re going to lose their teachers, and they’re going to lose their friends,” Coleman said.
A half hour later, Richard Nolte was passing a petition among a group of residents seated in lawn chairs on Lot 219. He handed out the phone number of Michael Carney, a Missouri legal-aid attorney, and urged residents to take action.
“I want to file a suit against the city for five hundred million dollars,” he shouted at the top of his lungs, pointing to a recent violation notice he received from the city of Columbia. “And I’m mad as hell.”
Nolte drove away a few minutes later to petition more residents, and Wayne Martie waved goodbye.
“Better go out and raise some Cain somewhere else, son,” he called to him.
Like Wilson, Martie worked maintenance for Regency but lasted only a few weeks. Like Wilson, he and his wife are on a fixed income. And like Wilson, this will be his second time facing a forced eviction from a Columbia trailer park.
When Regency sells, it will mark the fourth time a trailer park has shut down in Columbia since 2000, with the most recent being Crestvale Mobile Home Park on South Providence Road in 2004. Martie was a resident at Crestvale during the forced evictions and is now experiencing unpleasant deja vu.
The whole ordeal is getting on his nerves.
He’s lived at Regency long enough to remember when the pool was open during the summer, when things were better ... but that was almost five years ago.
His wife has been obsessively re-reading the small legal notice from a local paper announcing the park’s rezoning, and she asks him how they’re going to make the move happen. How they’re going to get out of the park.
He tells her, simply, to have a positive attitude. That this ain’t nothing new. He’s a damn Marine, and he’s not afraid of anything.
Martie is 55 and has shoulder-length, thinning brown hair and fading eyesight. But his energy is obvious. A retired plumber, he collects junk during the day, scrap metals and such — anything to make some cash to supplement the $300 a month he gets from the government.
“Maybe it’ll be for the best,” he said, standing beside the pothole-ridden street in front of his trailer. “But the way we look at it, it’s not, because we’re the ones that’re gonna have to come up with the money to move.”
Martie says that he and others can't find any organizations willing to help. Someone with the city has urged him and other residents to show up for the Planning and Zoning Commission's public hearing on Sept. 22, where they'll be given a chance to be heard. There will also be information about possible avenues of assistance. He shakes his head, discouraged by the odds.
Coleman shared his pessimism.
"I don't know that I want to go because I don't know that us little peons are going to be able to save anything," she said.
Neighborhood Response Coordinator Bill Cantin said feelings are mixed among members of the Office of Neighborhood Services. Many inspectors are happy to see the park go, but everyone is well aware that the residents of the park are in a dire situation, with little help available from the city of Columbia, he said.
"A lot of the other parks won't accept some of the trailers in Regency," he explained, because they're too old and violate Missouri statutes pertaining to mobile homes.
Cantin says he asked a coalition of basic service providers a few months back what measures are in place for mobile home residents in this exact situation.
"There's just nothing. Just nothing," he said. "It's a sad state of affairs."
Mayor Bob McDavid did not respond to emails asking for a comment, and the Churchill Group did not answer phone calls. The park's current manager said he could not comment.
The impending mass eviction and quick land sale is nothing new for Churchill. According to previous Missourian reporting, the company is known for packing up and moving when city or state agencies begin to turn up the heat through fines and investigations. In 2009, the Regency in Louisville, Ky., shut down rather than install a necessary electrical upgrade in its park, giving residents 30 days to vacate.
That same year, two Regency locations in Iowa were investigated and fined for various health violations, and the company issued mass evictions to residents shortly after. A majority of those evictions were overturned in court because Regency failed to give residents proper notice.
It has also faced heavy criticism around the country for not giving residents proper titles to their homes.
After having to resort to a lawyer to fight Regency for the title to their trailer last year, Bill McNeil and Patty Perkins recently became owners of their home in Columbia Regency. But they don't have the money to move it.
It took them five years to pay off the $7,000 trailer. "I got gasoline, and I got a match," McNeil said, in a half-joking tone. "I'll just burn it down and walk away from it."
Shirtless and in tattered pajama pants, McNeill surveyed the inside of his trailer Monday evening. He looked at the walls covered with pictures of family and friends. He looked at his dogs relaxing on the couch. He looked at Patty.
"Nah, I couldn't burn this thing down," he said. "I like it too much."
Perkins jumped into the conversation, her voice raised but matter-of-fact.
"It's our home," she said.