For poor in Joplin, Mo., housing troubles mount

In the months after an EF5 tornado ripped this city in half, a whole new set of problems rushed in.

The people who were already the most vulnerable were among the hardest hit.

Amid a severe housing shortage, evictions spiked and rents soared. Scam artists are victimizing homeowners, and some landlords are taking advantage of renters. Residents have bickered over where to put low-income housing.

Even though plenty of good things are happening — businesses are coming back, retail sales are booming, builders are busy again — Mayor Mike Woolston knows the road ahead is long.

“We’re starting to get into the hard part,” he says.

The May 22 tornado took out a huge swath of the city’s cheapest housing. With near surgical precision, it bore down on those who didn’t have much to begin with — and Joplin already had more people living in poverty than the national average.

The tornado killed 161 people and injured more than 900. It damaged or destroyed 7,500 houses and apartments.

Many of those who lost their homes also lost their jobs, according to data assembled by the state Department of Economic Development.

More than half the households affected by the tornado were low- to moderate-income families. Many of them, including seniors and the disabled, earned less than $10,000 a year.

“The most at-risk groups were the hardest hit by the tornado,” one federal official said.

Greed, gouging, scams

Disasters bring out the worst in some people.

In the storm’s immediate aftermath, one company offered to haul off debris for residents. All they had to do was sign an agreement that many owners didn’t realize would transfer their property to the hauler for $1.

The state attorney general’s office — which has received 721 tornado-related complaints to date — put a stop to that before anyone got taken. The state also stopped an apartment building owner from jacking up rents by $100 or more just days after the tornado.

Some landlords claimed that tenants — some of whom were poor, uninsured and lost everything — were responsible for tornado damage and refused to refund damage deposits.

“I was really offended at the way some landlords behaved,” said Debra Lumpkins, an attorney posted in Joplin by the attorney general’s office. “People were desperate and some landlords tried to rent dumps right after the storm. One place had mold in the bathroom and kitchen; it was awful.”

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