GEORGE KENNEDY: Columbia Regency mobile home park residents in tough spot

Thursday, November 3, 2011 | 5:57 p.m. CDT

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.

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Steve Baumann November 4, 2011 | 8:20 a.m.

As sad as it is, that is not public land and the owner can sell it if they want too. Morally, this might not be the right decision, but like so much of Columbia, it's all about the money.
Columbia is actually in an economic boom compared to almost anywhere else. I think far too many Columbians are not aware of that.
And Columbia has low income housing - maybe the residents of Regency do not want to live in it, but unfortunatley, they may not have much of a choice.
I wish them the best.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin November 4, 2011 | 8:30 a.m.

This is what's so da--ed frustrating for the good, law-abiding, dare I say capitalist business people out there: that -- from Bernie Madoff and Keny Lay to George Gradow -- the "bad actors" not only get away with, but get rewarded for, breaking the law, making everyone else in their particular business look bad.

Here's what the Missourian reported in January about Gradow and Regency:

"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."

I get ONE violation from the City and I'm on it, getting it fixed to their satisfaction. Most landlords and property managers in Columbia do the same.

But for whatever reason, Columbia's bad actors in the property management business still get away with this sort of amazing negligence. And in this case, Mr. Gradow will be rewarded for it. He got all those violations, but none of them were ever enforced.

We don't need more affordable housing; we need more liveable affordable housing. After all, what exactly is the real price of living at a place like Regency? Seems like the toll that would take far exceeds the definition of "affordable."

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 4, 2011 | 9:16 a.m.

Mike, between scofflaw property owners and deadbeat parents, I've learned that many laws can just be ignored. Why follow them when so many other people ignore them and get away with it?

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin November 4, 2011 | 9:40 a.m.

Good point, Jimmy. And when enough people start asking this same question, our society will crumble wholesale.

More immediately for George Gradow and others like him, by not keeping their properties up, they end up with junk. They sell property that has actually depreciated under their ownership, which is exactly what smart investors don't want.

Had Gradow kept up Regency, he'd be selling now at a premium, not a discount. When his buyers toured the park, they wouldn't have seen decay and depreciation, which they surely priced in to their offer.

Gradow loses, the community loses, his tenants lose. Only his buyers gain.

Only dumb investors equate low income with "low rent," "low life," and no maintenance.

(Report Comment)

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