The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 3, 2011

Tornado flips housing market upside down

By Josh Letner

JOPLIN, Mo. — Jesse Bruce and his wife, Karen, lost their house in the May 22 tornado.

They — like thousands of others in Joplin — are now in the market for a new home.

But for Jesse, the destruction has a silver lining. He is a real estate agent.

One of the first things Bruce said he did — before he had even secured all of his personal belongings — was take out an advertisement offering his services as a real estate agent.

“I got a lot of calls,” Bruce said. “I got overwhelmed.”

Until recently, the housing market in Joplin was sluggish and those who had put properties on the market were sometimes selling at reduced prices.

But following the May 22 tornado, which displaced thousands of people, the housing market has been turned on its head. What had been a buyer’s market flipped over to become a seller’s market in the 20 minutes it took the storm to pass through the city.

Kim Cox, with the Ozark Gateway Association of Realtors, said 128 listed homes were destroyed that day, leaving the total number of homes for sale in the region at 1,427, but those have been going fast.

According to Cox, 163 homes were put under contract in Joplin in the first week after the storm — 10 times the 16 put under contract during an average week in Joplin before the storm.

No one knows exactly how many Joplin residents were displaced. The National Weather Service, in a preliminary assessment released Thursday, concluded that nearly 7,000 homes were destroyed and another 875 homes had some level of damage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is trying to identify all those who were displaced, as well as available housing in the region. Both surveys are incomplete.

Josh deBerg, FEMA spokesperson, said it is too soon to know how many tornado victims are without a home. At the same time, the agency is looking at all available rental housing within 55 miles of Joplin, but what it found through Wednesday would replace just a fraction of the lost homes: 467 available rental properties within 25 miles, 1,400 within 55 miles.

“Our goal is to find those homes for residents as close to Joplin as possible,” he said, then added: “But realize that is a pretty tall order.”

The number of available rentals is not a final number, either, deBerg said Friday, as new rentals come in but others are delisted for one reason or another.

“We are really trying to make sure the resources we are getting registered are legitimate.”

Another option is bringing in temporary trailers, although that is not always popular.

City officials in Cordova, Ala., recently sparked outrage in their town of 2,000 after refusing to allow residents there who were homeless because of a tornado to live in temporary housing provided by FEMA. Storm victims are supposed to live in FEMA housing for no longer than 18 months after a disaster, yet about 260 campers are still occupied by survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast more than five years after those storms.

Still looking

Cecilia Thompson is one of those still looking for a place to live in Joplin.

She has spent every night since the tornado stuck in the Red Cross shelter set up at Missouri Southern State University. She and her two children are looking to buy a home after her apartment was destroyed.

So far, her search has come up empty.

“We’ve been driving around talking to people. Even FEMA has been trying to look for us, but we haven’t found anything,” she said.

Thompson said that her apartment complex gave her five days to remove her family’s possessions from the wreckage before they boarded up windows and doors. What few possessions she could salvage are in a storage unit that allowed tornado victims to store their belongings there free of charge until July 1.

That leaves Thompson just a few weeks to find a home. She said that her 7-year-old daughter was traumatized by the tornado and does not want to live in a house that does not have a basement. She said she has not contacted a real estate agent.

New territory

Kathleen Martz, of Charles Burt Realtors, has been a Realtor in Joplin for 32 years.

The Charles Burt office, one of the largest in the region, at 1010 E. 20th St., was among the many buildings destroyed.

Martz said that her colleagues — 39 of whom lost their homes in the disaster — are in uncharted territory.

She said that she is not allowing her clients to raise their asking prices in response to the increased demand for housing, but she said real estate agents have no control over individuals who opt to sell their own property. She also said she can understand sellers wanting to get what they consider fair value for their homes, but taking advantage of the tragedy is “not the right thing to do.”

Bruce, meanwhile, has referred several people to his fellow agents at Smith Midwest Realty. He said he can understand what many of the callers are going through.

“I am looking for a house currently, too, and that’s been kind of difficult because houses are going quick. There definitely is a sense of urgency for displaced people,” he said.

While available housing in Joplin is fast tightening up, Bruce expects to see many new houses beginning just as soon as the cleanup is completed.

“I’ve talked to some people who are going to rebuild,” he said. “I’ve been approached by several contractors who are interested in (my) lot, so I think that a lot of lots will be bought in groups by contractors.”

He said that he imagines that the process will be similar to the way in which many subdivisions are built, “only it will be the subdivision of central Joplin,” he said.