The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

June 16, 2011

Renters face pressure as housing demand rises after tornado

JOPLIN, Mo. — The plight of two families — both renters — illustrates the dramatic change that has swept through Joplin’s housing market, and the pressure renters and landlords are facing since the May 22 tornado. The storm wiped out nearly 7,000 homes and damaged nearly a thousand others.

Members of one family, contending they were unfairly evicted, initially refused to leave and even moved into the yard.

Members of the other family said that after the house where they were living had been sold, their landlord came to their rescue and is giving them a shot at owning their first home.

Whatever the outcome, such cases are on the rise in a market in which housing is in demand. In fact, the number of rent and possession cases being handled by Jasper County courts has tripled since the tornado.

Not leaving

“This is my living room,” Tom Higginbotham said recently, gesturing to a chair in the backyard of a home on South Kentucky Avenue.

“This is the kids’ room,” he said, gesturing to his daughters’ bed, also in the yard.

“And this is the kitchen.” He pointed to a makeshift cooking surface made of concrete blocks.

Although the tornado damaged the restaurant where Higginbotham worked, he and his wife, Beverly, considered themselves fortunate. The house they were renting had been spared.

But then, according to Higginbotham, he returned home on May 23 to find their possessions in the yard and the electricity disconnected. In fact, the electric meter was missing. He also claims that some of the property was left in the rain and ruined, including two television sets.

Higginbotham alleges that he is being kicked out without warning or due process. Determined at first not to leave, he, his wife and their two daughters moved into the yard, cooking over a wood fire.

He claims the family was good on the rent. He produced what he said was a handwritten receipt left by the landlord for the rent through the first half of May. He said he had a money order for the second half of the month that he was getting ready to turn over to the landlord the day his family was displaced.

Higginbotham contacted the Joplin Police department but was told the case was a civil matter. He said that after staying in the yard for a few days, he and his wife eventually left to find a better home for their daughters.

“We really needed the place because my job got wiped out,” he said.

Under Missouri law, according to the Missouri attorney general’s office, “A landlord may not evict a tenant without a court order,” but Higginbotham claims that did not happen. Nor is there any record of that happening before the family allegedly was evicted.

According to the Jasper County assessor’s office, the owner of the property is Mark Russell.

He filed for possession of the property June 7 in Jasper County Circuit Court, according to court records — two weeks after the Higginbothams claim they were evicted and their power was disconnected.

A hearing is set for Monday.

After multiple calls over nearly a week, Russell finally was reached. He said only that he did not know the Higginbothams, and then hung up the telephone before questions could be asked about their case, the status of their payments or his plans for the property.

Higginbotham granted the Globe access to his account history with Empire District Electric Co. According to Emily Stanley, spokeswoman for the utility, the Higginbothams’ account was in good standing. She said he called the company on June 1 to terminate his service. In that call, he told a customer service representative that the meter had been pulled, his possessions had moved into the yard, and he had been evicted.

Stanley said Empire sent a serviceman to the home who found the meter missing. She said it had not been removed properly, and Empire cut off service to the house at the pole for safety reasons. She said the meter is the property of Empire and, at the time of the interview, it had not been returned.

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