COLUMBIA — By the time the roof caved in, Joyce Andrews had already learned to live with her trailer’s problems. She put poison around the open circuit box — which sat on the floor of her closet — to keep rats from chewing on the wires. She learned how to turn the electricity back on after it went out with every rainstorm.
Andrews said she didn’t know trailer No. 73 had been leased to her without proper inspection and certification, but it’s unlikely she would have cared. Andrews, 26, was simply grateful to have a roof over her head and a landlord who would help her with the deposit and let her slide if she couldn’t pay the rent on time.
“People choose to live in it because it’s cheap and you can call it home. You know, it’s better off living in a piece-of-shit trailer than living on the street,” Andrews said.
The absence of certificates of inspection at Columbia’s Division of Protective Inspection suggest Blackfoot Estates, in the northwest corner of Columbia, has been renting uncertified trailers to tenants for at least a year. Gaps in the system have allowed the trailers to escape inspection by the division, which is responsible for keeping buildings safe. As a result, tenants at the trailer park are left to live with what they describe as vermin, leaks, water damage and faulty electricity.
Rather than wait for help from management, the tenants made their own repairs where they could. Andrews said she told Kevin Weatherspoon, the registered agent for the company that runs Blackfoot Estates, that her screen door was broken. Months later, she and her boyfriend fixed it.
“We got tired of waiting, so we put our own damn door up,” she said.
When Benita Stolz, 37, a tenant who pays rent on trailer No. 44 at Blackfoot, found that her front door barely locked, she asked her husband to fix it instead of complaining to management.
It’s not laziness or ineptitude, but the way rental property is tracked, that keeps Protective Inspection out of Blackfoot. The staff at Protective Inspection has no reason to believe a property is being rented unless the landlord has applied for a certificate of compliance or if the division receives a complaint, said Brenda Canaday, the division’s senior building inspector. If a landlord never applies for a certificate, the property is assumed to be private, and no inspection occurs.
A reporter’s inspection of Stolz’s trailer revealed warped wall paneling with the veneer peeling off, water-damaged ceilings that sag in spots and rooms without working electricity. Stolz said several outlets don’t work. She said she has ants and mice and that water leaks through windows and doors when it rains.
Blackfoot Estates had two valid certificates of compliance with the division, according to records on file Friday. The certificates are for trailers 11 and 14, but neither is being leased.
John Sudduth, building regulations supervisor, said that if Blackfoot Estates is leasing trailers other than 11 or 14, they are breaking the law.
“If we become aware of it, we will proceed,” he said.
When the division becomes aware of code violations, the staff list them and give the owners of the property a deadline to comply, Sudduth said. If that deadline is not met, the city prosecutes.
In a telephone interview on Thursday, Julie Reese, an administrative assistant at Blackfoot, said three trailers are being leased: Nos. 24, 17 and 44. Andrews said she is renting trailer No. 59, where she relocated after snow caused the roof at No. 73 to cave in.
Reese said she believes Andrews is renting to own, which does not require a certificate.
Weatherspoon said he has made applications for Certificates of Compliance and that, while he understands it is not legal to lease property without a valid certificate, he is working to correct the problem. He could not remember when he made the applications.
In the meantime, Weatherspoon is making repairs. He said there was a maintenance person working on the trailers and that they would make all the necessary repairs to bring the trailers up to code.
“The thing you need to understand is that I’m trying to help these people and give them a place to live they can afford,” he said.
When told on Thursday that Blackfoot Estates has no certificates for the properties they lease, Reese said she was unaware of the problem.
“I personally will look into that,” she said. “If some units have slipped through the cracks, we’ll correct it.”
On Tuesday, Canaday said inspectors had not visited Blackfoot in about two years because, according to the landlord, Blackfoot Estates sold its rentals. She was unable to recall the landlord’s name or when the claim was made.
“They told us (they sold them), and we took them off the rental (rolls),” she said.
Reese said Weatherspoon or a maintenance worker would have applied for the certificates. Weatherspoon is listed on the Secretary of State’s Web site as the registered agent for Blackfoot Estates. The maintenance worker recently died.
The Division of Protective Inspection relies heavily on the word of landlords when determining whether a mobile home is being rented because trailers are so difficult to track, Canaday said. They not only move, but, in Missouri, mobile homes are considered personal property, like a car.
“There’s no way of determining who owns that mobile home unless they have it listed as personal property,” Canaday said. “If these people are honest, they’ll register their home ... But if they’re not honest people, they don’t even have it registered under personal property.”
In 2006, Blackfoot Estates had 10 trailers listed as personal property with the Boone County Assessor’s Office. Blackfoot’s personal property information for 2007 was not available on the assessor’s Web site on Friday.
The best Protective Inspections can do is try to verify claims that a home is empty. One method is to check city water, light and trash services for the unit. If there are no utilities, the division assumes there are no occupants.
At Blackfoot, Boone Electric Cooperative provides electricity; water comes from a rural water supply district. The city picks up trash and recyclables from Dumpsters at the back of the property, according to the Water and Light Department.
Beyond checking utilities, Protective Inspection relies on complaints from tenants, neighbors and sometimes police to learn whether homes are being occupied illegally, Canaday said.
Tenants at trailer parks sometimes don’t complain because they don’t know where to go. And they’re often reluctant to complain because they are behind on rent and fear eviction.
“One of the things that always happens,” Sudduth said, “(is) we get a tenant that comes up here and signs a complaint and, well, usually the landlords start looking at the eviction process because it really does draw attention, and they don’t like that.”
“It’s a lot of responsibility ... We go out there and try to make it safe, but then, like I said, the next thing we know they get an eviction notice,” Sudduth said.
It’s clear the Blackfoot tenants who spoke with the Missourian are intimidated by their landlords. They spoke openly of the fear of being evicted simply for talking to a journalist.
On Thursday afternoon, when a Missourian reporter went to an arranged interview with Andrews at the trailer park, Reese appeared almost immediately, demanding in a loud, aggressive voice that the reporter leave.
“You came to see Joyce, and Joyce doesn’t have anything else to say to you. Do you Joyce?” she asked.
“No, I ain’t got nothing else to say,” Andrews said.
“So now you’re trespassing,” Reese told the reporter. “I’m calling the police.”
Protective Inspection became aware of possible violations at Blackfoot though an interview with the Missourian on Tuesday. On Friday, Sudduth said Canaday began a preliminary investigation soon after.
Standing in her doorway, Stolz listened to an explanation of what Protective Inspections does and why it had thus far overlooked her trailer. Then she looked down the hall of her trailer.
“Yeah,” she said, as if everything suddenly made sense, “Because my ceiling is falling in, and nobody has done anything about it.”