By Scott Meeker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Looking back on May 22, 2011, Pat Jones thinks the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin did more than just destroy the home they were renting, their vehicles, their possessions and her place of employment.
“We didn’t just lose the house we were living in,” said Jones. “We lost our future.”
When the tornado hit the house where they were living in the 2300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, Pat and her husband, Steve, sought shelter in the bathtub. When they emerged, it was to a neighborhood in tatters. In addition to the home where they’d been living, the owner-financed house four blocks away that they had hoped to buy also had been destroyed.
The couple said that they were turned down for Federal Emergency Management Agency housing because they had moved in with Pat’s brother. They didn’t have any luck with Habitat for Humanity, either.
Friends have donated a plot of land for the family, which includes Pat’s niece, who lives with them, but Pat said they are still living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford a house.
Job changes and medical issues have only worsened their problems.
“It’s been two years of fighting,” Pat said. “It’s a struggle. I just get tired of hearing ‘no.’
“I don’t want much, and I don’t expect much. But there are other people out there like me. They just want to be settled. Two years later, and we’re still not settled.”
Twenty-six months after the Joplin tornado destroyed nearly 7,500 houses and apartments, the Jones’ story isn’t an unusual one.
The reality is that while many organizations rushed to help those affected by the tornado in its immediate aftermath, not everyone qualified for or received assistance, whether public or private.
“There were a lot of organizations doing a lot of good after the tornado, but people still heard ‘No’ (when seeking help),” said Thomas Corley, client services manager for Rebuild Joplin. “It was confusing for some people.”
Also true is that not everyone can meet the requirements that some of the nonprofits have established.
When applying for assistance through Habitat for Humanity, Pat said that they were turned down because Habitat didn’t take into consideration that her job was only temporary and figured her salary for an entire year. When combined with her husband’s salary at the machine products company where he works, it put them over the income limit.
Income requirements for assistance through Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity for a family the Joneses’ size would mean making less than $36,450 annually, according to family services manager Brittany Woodward.
There is some wiggle room on those figures, she said. The program also takes into consideration factors such as credit history and ability to make monthly payments.
“We hate to (deny people), but it’s what we have to do sometimes,” Woodward said. “There are only a set number of homes we can build and properties that are available. It’s hard to turn people away.”
To date, Habitat for Humanity has built 71 homes in Joplin since the tornado, with several others under construction.
While some areas of Joplin have come back since the tornado, and the hundreds of temporary homes set up near the Joplin airport by FEMA are now gone, there is still an unknown number of paycheck-to-paycheck families who haven’t gotten back on their feet because they can’t afford a home and rental housing is hard to come by.
Corley, with Rebuild Joplin, said that his organization still receives two to five applications for assistance each week.
“Our goal as an organization is to help people return to where they were before the tornado,” said Corley. “But with that said, when it comes to helping individuals who were renting (homes) at the time, as a community Joplin has struggled. The population (affected) was heavy on the renters side.”
Assistance for renters
According to a housing market report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research, “the losses were virtually equal between owner and renter occupied units, which resulted in a severe tightening of the (Joplin) housing market as displaced households obtained alternate housing.”
Many of the rental units destroyed were older, single-family houses, the report states, and two years after the storm, there are still not enough rental properties to meet demand.
“Within the city of Joplin, where the damage was most extensive, the rental vacancy rate is virtually zero with all multi-family complexes maintaining waiting lists,” the report says.
Because of the large number of renters affected by the storm, Rebuild Joplin created the Opportunity Housing Program, which is geared toward turning those residents into homeowners. Those who qualify for the program are able to access up to $50,000 in mortgage assistance at a zero percent interest rate.
“It allows us to help renters who want to be homeowners to try and get into an affordable house,” said Corley, who also manages the Opportunity Housing Program.
There are restrictions for that program, however. It involves looking at finances, outstanding debts and a credit review.
“Banks have been a bit more understanding with moderate income individuals who are going to be a first-time homeowner,” said Corley. “But some people might not be ready to be a homeowner today. It’s hard to see someone who has lost their possessions, property and vehicle who are taking the steps to prepare themselves but still have a tough road ahead.”
Maura Taylor, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, agreed that there are families in need, but she said there are also still opportunities.
“We still have families in poverty that are paying rent higher than their income can provide, families still living with other family members, and families living outside of Joplin that can’t find affordable rent,” Taylor said. “We’re moving forward, but there are still needs.”
Based in Springfield, the organization created a permanent presence in Joplin after the tornado. In the past two years, they have rebuilt 12 homes in Joplin and repaired more than 150, Taylor said.
Catholic Charities also provides disaster case management out of its Joplin office through a FEMA grant that will expire on Aug. 9. The organization had used a grant provided by the Community Foundation of Southwest Missouri to rebuild homes, but those funds have been exhausted, she said.
“We still have volunteers from all over the country that are working to finish projects under that grant,” she said. “But we’re still trying to pursue other ways of funding for building supplies and materials.”
Taylor recommends that families who are in the Joneses’ situation visit with a case manager to explore what resources are available to them.
The case management system is designed to provide more help than just pairing people with organizations that might help build a home or make repairs, she said.
“So many of these families are living paycheck to paycheck and need these wrap-around social services to help them build capacity, help with budgeting, improving their job skills,” she said. “The services provided by case management are built to help individuals find the resources they need to help put them on a path to becoming more self-sufficient and self-reliant.”