New Jackson County Jail Will Push Out Over 100 Mobile Home Residents: ‘I’m Basically Homeless'
The deal to build a new detention center at the site of the Heart Village mobile park will displace families in a region already plagued by a shortage of affordable housing.
Rob Jennings has lived at Heart Mobile Village for over three years. He is a dedicated gardener and tends carefully to a plot of peppers, mint and an assortment of potted plants.
But come February, Jennings will have to leave his garden and start another one. In July, Jackson County purchased Heart Mobile Village for over $7 million for its new jail.
Jackson County officials are eager to get started building a new detention center to replace the deteriorating and dangerous building downtown. But the plan will displace more than 100 people from their mobile homes, leaving residents with even fewer options in a city where affordable housing is already in short supply.
Concerns for homeowners
Vietnam War veteran Urban Schaefer, 64, says he doesn’t have many options if he has to leave Heart Village, where he’s lived for six years. Schaefer has emphysema, and his doctors told him he has five years to live. Schaefer was hoping to live out his final years in his trailer but he says the structure, built in 1984, is likely too old to move.
“If they won’t move my trailer, I’m basically homeless,” says Schaefer, who lives with his wife and 81-year-old mother.
Jackson County will cover moving and set-up costs for people who own and can move their mobile homes, along with $5,000 for housing assistance.
But mobile home advocate Kevin Borden says there’s one problem. He’s worked with hundreds of mobile home communities, and he’s only seen five homes moved.
“These aren’t mobile. They’re not mobile — even the new ones,” Borden says. “It’s too expensive and the options where you would land the home to move it a second time are rare.”
Mobile home parks are difficult to find in Kansas City. University of Missouri-Kansas City associate professor Jacob Wagner says these parks make up just around 1% of living spaces in the city.
Wagner, who teaches Urban Planning and Design, says that mobile homeowners stand to lose a lot in this deal.
Wagner says in order to build wealth, it’s important to own property. And while mobile homeowners own their homes, they don’t own the land beneath it. As the land value in these parks increases, the mobile home park owners reap the rewards, not the residents.
“Housing has been a way that families pass on wealth from one generation to the next,” Wagner said. “So, if the families that are getting displaced from this Heart Mobile Village don’t have the opportunity to be made whole, we’ll be putting another generation into poverty.”
If he loses his mobile home, Schaefer worries that rental assistance won’t help. He’s already struggled to find places that will rent to him.
“Part of my problem is that I’ve always owned, I’ve never actually rented or anything,” Schaefer said. “A lot of people won’t rent to you if you’ve never had actual rental property.”
Concerns for renters
Renters at Heart Village will also receive $5,000 in housing assistance. But finding a place with rent similar to Heart Village’s price point could be a challenge.
Kansas City’s rental market has exploded in the last couple years with rent skyrocketing and apartments filling up. In March, major apartment finding site Apartment Guide listed Kansas City with the largest increase in rent for one-bedroom apartments among the 100 largest cities in the U.S.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Kansas City is $1,290 a month, according to Apartment Guide. For comparison, Rob Jennings, who has lived at Heart Village for three years, pays $365 a month.
Heart Village resident RoNisha Rogers has seven children, which made a mobile home one of the last affordable options for her family.
“On top of that we are on a fixed income here, so we don’t have a lot of options as far as people who are income-based,” Rogers says. “And then everything is filled up on top of that.”
Rogers used to work for the Jackson County jail. Now, she’s being moved out by her old employer.
Nationally, mobile home communities have been victims of another trend urban residents are familiar with — rent increases.
Borden said there’s been a shift in the last 10 years of large real estate companies, private equity firms and smaller LLC’s buying up these properties and increasing rent with the knowledge that mobile homes aren’t usually movable.
Fighting for more compensation
Heart Village residents are banding together with help from affordable housing advocacy group KC Tenants to try to get more compensation from the county.
Director Tara Raghuveer says residents aren’t looking for rental vouchers — many want to own their property or want compensation for the money they invested in their homes.
“Offering everyone a blanket rental assistance up to $5,000 — that’s the ceiling not the floor — which isn’t even the relevant solution for most of the people here, is unacceptable,” Raghuveer said.
The group recently visited the community to collect signatures for a petition asking the county to increase residents’ compensation.
KC Tenants worked with residents to create a new list of demands, including a meeting with the county and at least $10,000 in cash. The list also includes full rent cancellation for the time period after the county takes over the property on August 13 until residents have to move out in February.
Benefits of New Jail
While residents have questioned the need to select the site of Heart Village , County Legislator Dan Tarwater says the location is perfect. The old jail was located in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, while the new jail is right off Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 40.
That puts it between the county courthouses in Kansas City and Independence, which Tarwater said will make transporting inmates easier and visiting more accessible.
“We also want to make this a regional facility where we can work with Kansas City and other municipalities,” Tarwater says. “So, it’s right off the highway; it’s a great location.”
Tarwater also says the new jail will save taxpayers $2 million a year due to fewer operating expenses.
Plus, he says the county needed to find a space that was more than 100 acres, as well as one that was not located next to businesses. While Tarwater says the jail could be built on 50 acres, he says the extra space will allow the county to construct other buildings for rehabilitation and mental health support for inmates.
As Jackson County’s population has grown, so has its number of prisoners. Tarwater says the current jail has no open space, such as a gym, for inmates to exercise because all the space is filled with cots.
And he said none of the property owners of the 44 other potential sites were willing to negotiate with the county. Heart Village’s property owner emerged as the primary negotiator.
The county is requiring tenants to complete their move by February 28.
This story was produced through a collaboration between KCUR and Missouri Business Alert.