If Mary Hussman isn’t the conscience of Columbia, she could be.
For years now, she has been speaking loudly, clearly and persistently for the poor and powerless among us. Like any effective conscience, she can be irritating. But in my experience, she’s usually right.
So when she called a few weeks ago and invited me to visit Columbia Regency mobile home park, I took it as a command performance. So did a pair of City Council members and a gaggle of other journalists.
The Regency, tucked away on Ponderosa Street just off Nifong Boulevard, has been much in the news lately.
First came a rezoning request, with the prospect of a sale to a developer who plans to turn that 40 acres of prime property into still more student housing.
That was then. Now residents have been given notices that the park will close on Feb. 29.
For most of the 300 or so of our neighbors who live out there, this is a catastrophe. They have no place to go and no money for a move. They rent their lots month to month. Many of the trailers are too old to move. It’s not at all clear that there’s any protection from the whim of the owner, a guy named George Gradow.
The afternoon we answered Ms. Hussman’s summons, we were given a walking tour of the park, led by a burly, gregarious resident named Adam Rievley.
As we strolled the winding streets, we collected a following of kids and dogs. Adults came out to talk. A few invited us into their homes.
The residents seemed to be a mix of older people and people with disabilities, with others who hold low-wage jobs. Their homes ranged from the run-down to a few new-looking double-wides.
In one of the latter, a couple explained how they had invested all their savings into buying and furnishing a place with room for their children and pets. They had no resources left to move again. Besides, they like living at the Regency.
Another resident explained why. “This is a community,” she said. “We watch each others’ kids. Everybody’s safe.”
But not for long.
The closure notices brought a quick response from Grass Roots Organizing, the small but vocal advocacy group Ms. Hussman usually speaks for.
A “media advisory” states the obvious: “We have run out of quality affordable housing in the city and in the county.”
It calls on “both the city and county officials to take responsibility and act now.” GRO wants a “pause” while a task force works to create more protections for trailer park residents and more housing options for the poor and near-poor.
I talked Thursday with one of those officials, Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony. She and her Sixth Ward colleague, Barbara Hoppe, had been on the tour.
Ms. Anthony said she agrees the city needs more enforcement tools to ensure that existing trailer parks actually meet health and safety standards.
The rezoning, which is on the council agenda Nov. 21, “is not a done deal,” she said. The City Council has the power to refuse it, as the Planning and Zoning Commission has unanimously recommended.
She agrees with Ms. Hoppe’s comment to the Missourian that she would “hate to reward a bad actor.”
It may turn out, Ms. Anthony suggested, that the sale would be the best obtainable outcome. At least the prospective buyer has agreed to give tenants 180 days or even more to move out and has offered $1,200 payments to assist the moves. The current owner has offered nothing.
The day we visited the park, Ms. Hussman sent us off by leading residents in a chant, “Save our homes! Don’t rezone!”
Thursday, her fellow GRO organizer, Robin Acree, told me the tenants met Wednesday night and remain “adamant” in their opposition to rezoning.
There’s discussion of possible options, she said, even formation of a group that would try to buy the property to save their homes.
I wished her good luck, but I couldn’t help thinking that Ms. Anthony was correct in her observation:
“The tenants are in a tough spot."
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.