The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 16, 2011

Renters face pressure as housing demand rises after tornado

By Josh Letner

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.

Caseload triples

Since the tornado, there has been a sharp rise in disputes between renters and landlords.

That was evident on June 13, when Jasper County Circuit Court resumed operations. Associate Judge Richard Copeland heard 32 rent and possession cases.

Although a few of those were filed before the tornado, Cody Brown, deputy court clerk, said the number of rent and possession cases filed with his office since the tornado has about tripled — from two to three per day before the tornado to six to 10 per day after it.

Janice Franklin, lead attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, said her office distributes thousands of pamphlets to tenants explaining their rights and responsibilities, but the office cannot keep up with all of the disputes.

She said that if tenants are current on their rent, landlords must give 30 days’ notice before evicting them. If the tenants are behind on rent, landlords can file in associate circuit court for rent and possession. She said Legal Aid can assist tenants when they are taken to court, but her agency’s resources are stretched thin. She said Legal Aid is “desperately seeking donations to help hire attorneys.”

Franklin said she has been in contact with several law firms in Kansas City to find volunteers willing to take on cases in Joplin on behalf of renters. She said her office has seen an increase in the number of eviction cases in the weeks since the tornado, but her staff is limited, with seven attorneys to serve six Southwest Missouri counties.

She said landlords don’t have the right to repossess a home without a court order, or to disconnect utilities.

The pamphlet used by Legal Aid references Missouri statutes, including: “Any landlord ... who willfully diminishes services to a tenant by interrupting or causing the interruption of essential services, including ... electric, gas, water or sewer service, to the tenant or premises shall be deemed guilty of forcible entry.”

Local market

Just as the tornado turned the real estate market inside out, the same thing has happened for landlords and renters.

“Right now, it is a landlord’s market, just like it is a seller’s market,” said Creighton Olson, president of the Southwest Missouri Rental Housing Association. His group represents more than 50 members and more than 600 properties. He said there are few options right now for renters.

“I don’t think we have anything right now,” he said of the market. “It’s really difficult right now to find anything in Joplin. Even Neosho. You’ve got to go to Monett, Mount Vernon — at least that far away.”

Olson said many landlords lost property in the storm as well; he said 10 tenants of his were displaced, and he is advising renters to be patient.

“Hopefully, we’ll get a lot of properties back up and running before too long,” he said. He is having two of his duplexes repaired

He also is advising landlords: “Hold your rents where they are; don’t be gouging.”

A helping hand

Rusty Agin and Ann Doss were among the dozens of tenants who appeared before Judge Copeland on June 13. Their rental house on Picher Avenue was sold just days after the tornado by their landlord, Charlie Cook. They said that because of the high demand for housing after the storm, they were unable to find another house. The couple said their search area was limited because they do not own a car and both walk to work.

Agin, who does heating and air conditioning work, said he tried to get approved for a loan to buy the house, which had been on the market since February, but he acknowledged that his credit was not good enough. He said that because they were not directly affected by the tornado, he and his wife were not eligible for federal assistance.

Copeland told the couple that he empathized with them, but that their landlord had a right to sell his property and to ask them to vacate.

As they left the courtroom, they considered the possibility of becoming homeless.

“There’s no rental properties available,” Akin said. “I even looked Friday at this run-down crack house. Nobody in their right mind would rent this property, but I’m thinking this might be the only thing I can get.”

When Agin called to check on the house later that day, he learned that it, too, had sold.

But, their story doesn’t end there.

Later that day, Cook, who was not present in the courtroom, met with Agin and Doss at the home. He told the couple that he was sorry for their situation and offered them a helping hand.

Agin said Cook offered to buy a small house nearby and to allow the couple to purchase the house from him to help them establish credit.

“I felt sorry for them because they don’t have anything,” Cook said. “They don’t have a car, and they don’t have anywhere to go.”

Agin said Cook’s generosity and compassion give him new hope for the future.

“I thought we were going to fall through the cracks,” he said. “This is a life-changing opportunity.”