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Tornado intensified Jefferson City housing shortage

by Joe Gamm | November 24, 2019 at 4:45 a.m. | Updated February 18, 2020 at 6:50 p.m.
Justin Cobb grabs his wife, Sarah's, hand to try and comfort her as she becomes emotional while talking about their tornado experience, being homeless and trying to maintain some sort of normalcy for their daughter. The couple was recently seated for an interview at The Salvation Army Center of Hope. The couple and two of their daughters were living in a house on East McCarty Street when the tornado hit.

Jefferson City residents, late on a May night, stumbled out of decades-old homes that had been converted into apartments, dazed and confused by the impact of a powerful tornado.

"You could see the devastation on their faces," said Sarah Cobb, who with her husband and children emerged from their East McCarty Street apartment to find their neighbors, also awed by the widespread destruction. The tornado that struck Jefferson City on May 22 exposed the community's lack of housing, especially for people of little means, and pushed the shortage to a critical point.

And, like many families, it threw the Cobbs into a maelstrom.

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Sarah and Justin Cobb moved into the East McCarty Street duplex with two daughters, ages 11 and 17, in mid-May.

The family had seen bad times but was beginning to turn things around. Justin worked full time for a moving company based in Columbia.

"We had just started our lives back over," said Sarah, who suffers from several health conditions and is supported by a service dog, 2-year-old Willow, a Maltese Shih Tzu mix.

Then, late the evening of May 22, the tornado sirens began to blare.

They really didn't think a tornado would strike them, but just to be safe, they went down to the apartment building's basement.

And everything went black.

As suddenly as the sirens started, they stopped.

The youngest daughter began to cry. Her older sibling tried to lighten her mood by livestreaming on a social media app.

They returned upstairs, where their apartment's roof was gone.

In the dark, alarms and smoke detectors were beeping in their home and in neighboring structures.

People slowly ventured out of their homes, crying, Sarah said. They called in the dark for their pets.

The destruction seemed personal, Justin said.

"We got some clothes and things like that, but almost everything was gone," he added.

Justin went to help a neighbor free some children, uninjured but trapped in a room.

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In the aftermath of the storm, Justin threw himself into efforts to help his neighbors. Sarah and the girls began to clean.

There was confusion, and they had so many questions. They were concerned about their children. Their car - a Chevrolet Suburban - took a beating during the storm. Glass was broken out, and it was badly damaged.

The SUV was their "lifeline," Sarah said. The vehicle allowed Justin to commute to work.

"It really didn't take effect until afterward," Justin continued. "Whenever everything calmed down - that's when it really started hitting you.

"Afterward was when it dawned on us: 'What are we going to do?'"

They weren't going to be able to stay in the apartment anymore.

Shortly after the storm, the family was fortunate; an acquaintance allowed the Cobbs to stay in her house.

Justin lost the job when he couldn't get to work.

And, about 10:30 p.m. Oct. 13, their benefactor told them they had to leave.

The news was heartbreaking, Sarah said. Their 17-year-old went to stay with her older sister (who didn't have room for the entire family).

The Suburban became their home for a few nights. Justin landed a one-day job, which paid for a night in a hotel. That gave the couple a chance to breathe, but they knew it was very temporary. The couple had been working with staff at Common Ground, who told them that later that week they had to attend Project Homeless Connect.

The annual event allows people attending to find access to shelter or housing, counseling, food and clothing, identification cards, medical check-ups and health screenings, mental health screenings, substance abuse screenings, and career counseling and placement.

"I felt like we were at the bottom," Sarah said.

Justin added, "When we went in there, we were of the mentality that this was our last hope. We didn't know what we were going to do."

But they found compassion.

While there, they were able to replace lost identification and Social Security cards. They received clothes. And they met Pam Mallinkrodt, a Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri disaster case manager.

Mallinkrodt got on the phone with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and continued working on their case long after the project closed. She helped correct FEMA paperwork the couple had filled out incorrectly. And she stayed on their case.

Catholic Charities paid for the family to stay in a hotel for about three weeks. In the meantime, Dan Lester, executive director of the organization, reached out to The Salvation Army Center of Hope to see if there was a family room available.

For the six months after the tornado, the shelter has remained at capacity. But Brian Vogeler, the shelter's director, promised Lester he would call if a family room came available. One did in about three weeks, and the Cobbs moved in.

On Monday, Mallinkrodt called and said they qualified for Section 8 housing. However, there is currently no housing available.

"Sometimes, we'll just hold each other and cry and let it out, because you have to do that," Sarah said. "If we argue, we make up right away."

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The Cobbs aren't alone in their search for affordable, permanent housing. Rows of houses that had been converted to duplexes and apartments stand, severely damaged and empty.

And The Salvation Army's shelter has remained at full capacity since the tornado.

"There's not any let-up in the foreseeable future," Vogeler said last week. "It's going to take time for these buildings to be repaired and for them to come back open again."

In some cases, homeowners who rented houses in and near the path of the tornado have chosen to sell their properties to the Jefferson City School District or Capital Region Medical Center rather than repair and rebuild. The school district acknowledges it bought about 30 properties after the storm but points out the property owners approached them with offers to sell.

The school district and hospital will use the properties for future expansions.

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Jaime and Mickey Petershagen lived in a duplex in the area affected by the tornado. That night, Mickey was at work at a hotel about 10:30 p.m., when Jaime, who was about six months pregnant, called him and told him there was a tornado warning. He rushed to pick her up, and they arrived at their home at about the same time as the tornado.

They had hoped to get home to their apartment and hurry down to the basement, but they were too late.

When they turned onto their street, "it all went real bad," Mickey said.

Debris was striking the truck, which briefly elevated off the street.

"It was freakin' scary. I thought we was going bye-bye," he said.

The pickup dropped back down, and Mickey tried to get out, so they might make a dash for inside. But, the wind was blowing so strong, he couldn't open his door. That was probably fortunate for both of them, because moments later, a massive tree fell across the yard between the street and the house. There was no way it would have missed them if they had been running for the house.

And suddenly, it was quiet.

The house hadn't been damaged that badly. It had a little damage on the roof.

As the week went along and the debris was removed, Mickey thought he could maybe trade some roof repair assistance for rent, which was $250 a month.

The apartment wasn't great, but it was cheap, he said.

So he started reaching out to the landlord. But he got no replies.

After about a week or week and a half, the landlord arrived with a letter in hand.

It was an eviction notice.

The letter said the property was going to be sold, and the couple had three weeks to get out.

The news floored the Petershagens.

How could that happen in the midst of a disaster?

They received advice that said they should ignore the eviction, and they did.

On Aug. 19, Jaime's labor began.

The couple went to a hospital to deliver. When they returned, they found a sign on the door that said, "No Trespassing," and they'd been locked out.

With their new daughter, Jameslee, in tow, the two went to stay with Mickey's mother in her one-bedroom apartment. She was kind enough to give up her room for them, but it couldn't last.

As they struggled, a neighbor suggested they reach out to Catholic Charities.

They connected with Melissa Lee, a case worker at Catholic Charities.

She was able to put them in touch with services and helped them find a new apartment, which costs $450 a month. It's more expensive than they had hoped, but it's comfortable.

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Jefferson City estimates it lost at least 150 housing units during the tornado. In Cole County and Jefferson City, 611 buildings sustained enough damage to be listed on preliminary assessment reports. In Cole County, 516 residential buildings sustained damage, 382 of which were within the city.

Within the city (including commercial buildings), 51 structures were expected to be destroyed.

Unfortunately, the storm took out a chunk of Jefferson City's affordable housing, Vogeler said.

"When you take away all those rentals in Jefferson City, it does make it hard for people," he added. "We've seen several of our residents struggle to get housing. One of our residents has been looking for some time."

Residents' credit may not be very good. They struggle to find jobs. They may have criminal records. All together, it makes it difficult for them to find housing, he said.

"We're seeing people who have to stay longer before they can find a house. That doesn't free up any beds," Vogeler said. "We get phone calls every day. 'Do you have beds?'"

But Jefferson City isn't alone in the concern, he said, adding it seems to be a nationwide issue.

Housing is a concern for all communities, Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin agreed.

And the concern is multiplied for areas that experience disasters.

"There's not a quick answer," Tergin said. "There are a lot of factors we have to plan for, and there are a lot of partners who play into this."

Improving the housing situation is going to take collaboration between the city, county and state, she said. It will require inclusion of nonprofit organizations, such as Central Missouri Community Action and River City Habitat for Humanity. It will require participation of organizations, like the Housing Authority, Jefferson City Area Board of Realtors and Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce. And it will require private developers.

"We need to recognize this is a long-term process, and it does take time. Understanding that we must have the time and patience to get through this for the long haul," Tergin said. "I've learned through the process of being involved in the (short-term) recovery efforts the importance of having a plan for the long-term."

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Typically, development of housing can happen at a certain pace, the Jefferson City mayor said.

"We know we've got a situation in front of us that requires us to move that pace along further and faster than we ever expected it would need to be because of the tornado," Tergin said.

When it comes to housing, developers see there is unmet demand in Jefferson City, she said. Before the storm, some had reached out to the city to inquire about semi-large tracts of land where they might create multi-use developments.

"There has been interest," Tergin said. "Mostly, it's been in the very early stages."

There aren't a lot of properties that meet developers' needs. They would like several acres, zoned for their specific uses, and with easy access to collector streets.

However, the Jefferson City School District has recently placed the former Simonsen 9th Grade Center on its list of "surplus properties."

The 81-year-old structure is 96,800 square feet and sits on 6.6 acres in a prime location in Jefferson City - adjacent to U.S. 50/63 and between the downtown area and Lincoln University.

It has caused some potential developers to reconsider possibilities in Jefferson City.

Whether they consider Simonsen or not, developers are interested in building affordable housing to meet local demand, Tergin said.

"It makes sense because, with anything, there's supply and demand," she said. "And they realize the supply is low and demand is high."

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Demand is high enough that a few people have decided to stay in homes that have been deemed unsafe to live in, according to Pastor Jon Nelson, of SOMA Community Church.

Shortly after the tornado, officials assessed houses it damaged and marked them with placards - green, yellow or red, depending on the severity of the damage. Houses marked with red tags after the storm are considered unsafe for habitation.

It's been six months, and people are still considering their next steps, Nelson continued.

For the first one to three months, they were in a state of limbo.

"Do I stay or do I go? Where do I go? Where can I live?" he asked. "Am I living in a house that has a red tag on it - and I'm trying not to get caught? It happened a lot. More than people like to admit."

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Nelson and pastors from other churches made "incursions" into the tornado's damage zone in Jefferson City and provided comfort for residents, connected them with resources and helped them find safer temporary housing.

He said 70 percent of people whom the tornado displaced from the neighborhood around Jackson Street were renters. They didn't have any choices about whether their homes would be repaired, destroyed or sold to a large institution.

Additionally, the city estimates owners will have to (and have begun to) destroy structures that contain 100 housing units in Jefferson City, according to Sarah Parsons, community initiatives manager for the Missouri Housing Development Commission.

"The city is, of course, heavily dependent on state and federal resources when it comes to housing programs," Parsons said in an email to the News Tribune.

As such, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development checked in with the city to gather more information on the disasters.

The questions reflect some the News Tribune asked - and the city shared its responses with the newspaper.

In addition to the 100 housing units that will have to be destroyed, at least 65 require repairs before they may be occupied.

The greatest effect in Jefferson City housing occurred at the Hawthorne Park Apartments complex, where eight buildings (each of which contains eight units, for 64 total) are planned for demolition. A number of other units at that site will have to be repaired before they may be reoccupied.

Once Hawthorne completes the reconstruction and repairs (there is no timeline yet), about two-thirds of housing units lost will have returned to the market.

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Jefferson City uses a number of programs to provide housing to low-income residents, Parsons said.

It may provide down payment incentives to eligible property within the Old Town/East Side area and a residential tax reimbursement for some property taxes.

It participates in Community Development Block Grant programs, including Down Payment Assistance, a Minor Home Repair Program that helps low- to moderate-income owner occupied households with exterior improvements to meet health and safety standards.

The Missouri Housing Development Commission offers multiple home-buyer programs, such as First Place Loan Program, Mortgage Credit Certificate and Next Step Program. The programs are administered through certified lenders, Parsons said.

The city also works with various nonprofit organizations, including River City Habitat for Humanity, to provide housing.

Since the tornado, Habitat for Humanity has scrambled to find ways to increase its output, according to Susan Cook-Williams, executive director of the local organization.

The organization was able to provide a home for potential owners on Ashley Street in July, about two months after the tornado. And, it received a house at 809 Jackson St. this summer and has been renovating it. Applications for that home were due this past Friday.

Clients who applied for consideration for the Habitat for Humanity home that came available right after the tornado continue to apply for new homes, she said.

"Some are still struggling to find decent places to live," Cook-Williams said. "Some are still living in places that were hit by the tornado, but are still not fixed - but livable. Others are regular Jefferson Citians who struggled to find affordable housing before the tornado."

Habitat for Humanity tries to build four homes each year. The nonprofit has received several properties that were damaged in the tornado.

"We are trying to pull together a 'blitz' to build four the summer of 2020. We're going to try to do four houses in addition to our regular program," Cook-Williams said. "It's a big undertaking when you think we're doing four houses and trying to double that."

The blitz will be mainly focused on Jackson Street, where the organization has acquired several properties, she continued.

Churches have shown interest in helping with the blitz, she added. The process is moving forward, and a number of pieces are falling into place.

It's not clear that available affordable housing in Jefferson City will even return to where it was before the storm, she said.

"I think it's going to take a long time," Cook-Williams said. "The national housing crisis is a fact - we just don't have the supply of affordable housing."

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The national housing crisis comes about because of a number of factors. Housing prices continue to rise while wages remain basically stagnant. It's not uncommon for homeowners to be paying 50 percent or more of their incomes for their mortgage. And as house purchases stretch further and further from reach, that drives up rental prices.

The News Tribune has reported the National Low Income Housing Coalition determined Missourians would need to earn $16 per hour with a 40-hour paycheck to afford fair market value rent on a two-bedroom house, to avoid paying more than 30 percent of their income.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers individuals spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent to be "housing cost-burdened."

In addition to individual houses, it's going to take "inclusionary zoning" (requiring developers to set aside a certain number of units in developments) that will allow people to build affordable rental apartments for families to overcome the crisis in the city, Cook-Williams said.

Jefferson City is one of those towns where the supply of affordable housing is inadequate, she said.

"Until we start getting over the 'NIMBY' - Not In My Back Yard - and thinking outside the box, we can't just build single-family homes."

A lot of people in the community don't really understand there's an affordable housing crisis locally, Cook-Williams said.

"Until the community pulls together and says, 'Yes, it's a problem, and we want to help,' there's not going to be much that can be done," she said. "Not without the full community getting behind."

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