GEORGE KENNEDY: In Regency matter, winners had more money, louder voices

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 | 3:54 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — After hours of impassioned testimony, after accusations of coercion and apologies for neglect, after City Council members expressed their frustration, ambivalence and sympathy, the outcome was inevitable.

The 39.5 acres of prime south Columbia real estate that now constitute the run-down but much-loved Regency mobile home park will become the site of another 900-plus upscale bedrooms for affluent university students.

Or, as one Regency resident put it at Monday night’s interminable council meeting, “Money talks; the rest walks.”

The money most talked about Monday was the grants promised by the intended buyer of the property to help Regency dwellers move their trailers, the $500 bonus offered to residents who signed a pro-developer petition and the prize proffered to the Greek house with the most Facebook “likes” for the project.

Robin Acree of Grass Roots Organizing was “appalled” at what she termed the monetary “coercion” by the “tainted money” of the Aspen Heights development company.

Her passion was echoed by a number of students, some of them members of the newly organized GRO Mizzou and all of them outraged at the rezoning proposal. None of the students was a trailer park resident.

The actual residents were sharply, even angrily, divided. One 12-year resident of Regency called the Aspen Heights payments “bribery” and bitterly concluded, “This is all about money in their pockets.” She won applause.

Others were more concerned with the money in their own pockets. Jesse Tucker spoke for them: “We hope you vote 'Yes' so we can move on with our lives.”

Noting that the current owner has announced the closing of the park and the eviction of residents, with no offer of moving assistance, another resident agreed. “This isn’t Disneyland; this is real life,” he said.

Michael Carney, the Legal Services lawyer representing several Regency residents, dispassionately explained the real-life choices faced by his clients and by the council.

The tenants lose either way, he pointed out. Their preferred option, to continue living in a better-maintained Regency, isn’t really an option.

“The writing is on the wall,” he said. He reluctantly supported the rezoning. “We have to be realistic.”

I don’t often agree with Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl, but I thought his succinct comment before the council vote was an appropriate summing up.

The whole affair, he said, is a “debacle.” Blame, he said, should be shared among those residents who didn’t maintain their trailers; the current owner, who neglected the property; and city officials, who failed to enforce the housing code.

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony was more pointed. She was “amazed and horrified,” she said, at the city's failure. The figure of 350 unaddressed violations, recited earlier in the evening, was indeed horrifying.

On the issue of the rezoning, Ms. Anthony wound up, with her Sixth Ward colleague Barbara Hoppe, in the minority. The vote was 5-2.

The increased density of the student housing, which opponents decried, is actually a good thing, argued First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt.

“Density is green,” he said. He put the Aspen Heights plan in the context of the existing “Old 63 corridor” just to the north of Nifong, already lined with developer-built student apartments. Such concentration is efficient land use and makes public transit feasible, he said.

When it came to Mayor Bob McDavid’s turn, he called the three-hour session “a seminar” in the unresolved issue of affordable housing. He urged the newly activist students to engage in searching for a solution to that problem.

After all, he said, “You own this town. It’s your town.”

It certainly isn’t the town of the low-income disabled, retired and working poor for whom “manufactured housing” is the best — often the only — place to live.

To those of us whose lives and homes are comfortably middle class, the Regency residents now return to being effectively invisible.

Realtor John John, representing Aspen Heights, told the council that he has located at least 400 available spaces in mobile home parks in and around Columbia.

I didn’t know that. Did you?

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Jimmy Bearfield November 23, 2011 | 9:36 p.m.

Over the past two years – long before Aspen came along – Regency had been emptying out. For example, in the spring, several trailers across Ponderosa from La Crosse Lumber were removed, along with at least three more farther down Ponderosa. The exodus has been underway for a while, as anyone who frequents that part of town can tell you. I drove through there this afternoon, and the number of trailers that have been removed in just the past two weeks is amazing.

(Report Comment)
Gerald Shelnutt November 24, 2011 | 4:50 a.m.

When it came to Mayor Bob McDavid’s turn, he called the three-hour session “a seminar” in the unresolved issue of affordable housing. He urged the newly activist students to engage in searching for a solution to that problem.

After all, he said, “You own this town. It’s your town.”

The mayor is correct, the university owns Columbia.

(Report Comment)
Barbara Hoppe November 24, 2011 | 9:35 a.m.

I raised the issue of the great need for affordable housing in Columbia. Manufactured housing parks are an important component of the affordable housing mix. We need to establish manufactured home cooperatives, where the residents own the land and have more security than they do now. I said at the council meeting that I have been in communication with national loan companies and non-profits who help establish these and they are interested in doing this in Columbia. The park should have remained RMH and remained part of the affordable housing mix. It is disappointing that none of the newspapers covered that, although it was a significant part of my comments about why Regency should not be rezoned. Also two of the mobile parks with vacancies, Ed's and Sunset, have already been rezoned for commercial development. It is not a good option to move from one mobile home park that is closing to another that will certainly close in the next few years when the economy picks up. I also said I had started getting pledges from the community for a fund to help relocate residents until the park could be bought as RMH for a cooperative. I also stated that I had one $5,000 pledge and many more people and organizations interested in donating. We don't need more luxury student housing in this area and the traffic this will bring will have a negative effect on many sixth ward neighborhoods.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 24, 2011 | 1:19 p.m.

Barbara, how many violations have Regency and individual tenants amass over the past three years? Of those, how many were corrected? How much did Regency and the tenants pay in fines over that period? From Mike Martin's reporting and elsewhere, it sure sounds as if the city didn't enforce its laws at Regency. Why should I obey those laws?

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