Neena Dickerson’s trailer looks homely.
The stoop consists of piled-up gray cinder blocks. Flowerpots decorate one end. The lot rent is only $305 per month.
Dickerson calls it home, though, and when she moved in last year with her family — three young adult children and a toddler-aged granddaughter — it signified a fresh beginning after years spent fighting severe poverty. As a new resident, she even left a positive online review about the Briarwood Mobile Home Park. Briarwood sits just west of city limits, near the point where West Sunshine Street and James River Freeway intersect. It’s more than two miles to the nearest bus stop or Walmart.
On September 2, it looked like Dickerson, 58, would soon be evicted: The court entered a judgment in her case after Dickerson failed to show up in front of the judge.
She said she thought she wasn’t required to be in court. She’d just given the park an extra-large monthly payment the day before.
“I had no clue of anything about court on the 2nd, especially when I paid on the 1st,” she told the News-Leader. The newspaper has been following Dickerson’s eviction case since mid-September. As the year ends, her case remains in progress, and it’s not clear whether she will lose her trailer or keep it.
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Dickerson’s struggle with an eviction lawsuit is just one of hundreds of rent and possession cases filed in Greene County in recent months. The local housing crisis is part of a national problem fueled by COVID-19 job losses and other economic fallout: Recent research referenced by the Washington Post indicated that 12 million U.S. renters will owe an average of $5,580 in back rent and utilities by January, according to Moody’s Analytics, while a recent Census survey said 9 million tenants were behind on their rent.
A national crisis can be a personal one, too: Dickerson said that in late summer, she knew she had several months of lot rent to pay. Water bills payable to the trailer park, rather than a public utility, were also stacking up.
But she believed she’d made a temporary payment plan with park management that would keep her in her trailer through the end of the year.
Dickerson said she only learned that she could soon be forced from her home on Sept. 11, more than a week after the court entered an eviction judgment in her absence. In a panic, she rushed to the park office. What was going on?
“I just found out all this information myself,” said a person who appeared to be a park office employee, in a video Dickerson recorded with her phone. Dickerson later referenced the recording in a Sept. 14 letter she filed with the judge asking for a new trial. She also shared it with the News-Leader.
The Sept. 11 video shows the person in the office describing a past discussion among park officials. They appeared to be prepared to continue honoring Dickerson’s $500-per-month payment agreement, which was never written down, Dickerson told the News-Leader.
Then, “five minutes later,” in the employee’s words, the officials decided to seek a judgment for Dickerson’s eviction. In early September, new out-of-state owners bought Briarwood and two other Springfield-area trailer parks for a reported $14.5 million, according to industry website Commercial Property Executive. The company is also listed as the recipient of a Paycheck Protection Program loan worth at least $150,000, according to Small Business Administration data collected by ProPublica and FederalPay.org.
By the time Dickerson abruptly learned about the judgment, she feared she had very little time to act before she’d be forced to leave the premises.
Her eviction case had been ongoing more than 11 weeks at that point. Briarwood sued to evict Dickerson on July 2, after Dickerson racked up more than $2,200 in lot rent, water bills and other fees.
“I own this trailer,” Dickerson said a few days after she found out about the judgment. “Now they’re talking about evicting me and taking possession of my trailer.”
“I don’t do anything out here,” she added, venting her frustration. As she told the judge in her letter, she viewed the eviction as a deliberate move to take away the trailer she owns, not just address late bills for lot rent.
“I’m like on the back of the bus, I’m in the back of the trailer park,” Dickerson, who is Black, told the News-Leader in mid-September. “There’s nobody else out here but me. I don’t cause no trouble.”
CDC action on evictions
As the pandemic continued ravaging the U.S. population, a Sept. 4 moratorium on residential evictions from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was set to expire Dec. 31.
A few days before Christmas, as USA TODAY reported, Congress agreed on a new pandemic relief bill that will extend the eviction moratorium by another month, send $600 stimulus checks to most Americans and provide a $300 boost to federal unemployment benefits.
Issued using powers granted the executive branch by Congress, the newly extended CDC moratorium has been pelted with criticism from national housing advocates who say it’s full of loopholes that allow landlords to evict tenants anyway, particularly if issues other than failing to pay rent are involved.
Did that order have much of a local effect? It appears so, based on Greene County court records the News-Leader reviewed.
Roughly 580 rent and possession cases — the type of eviction Dickerson is fighting in court — were filed in Greene County from Sept. 4, the date of the CDC order, through Dec. 4, the date of Dickerson’s most recent court date.
The previous year, roughly 730 such cases were filed in Greene County courts during the same three-month period. (Rent and possession cases may involve residential or commercial properties, while unlawful detainer cases are another type of eviction.)
Coming soon to Springfield: ‘A large wave’ of evictions
Even though raw numbers of evictions are down, experts and community advocates say a potential housing crisis looms.
Christie Love, pastor of The Connecting Grounds church in northwest Springfield, has been sounding an alarm for months. Her church primarily serves people in poverty and homelessness. In October, she told the News-Leader that situations like Dickerson’s were becoming more common.
Trailer parks don’t have a monopoly on evicting people, Love said. Springfield touts a low cost of living, but Love has worked with people trying to keep up with the bills on “practically unlivable” houses renting for $800 per month, weekly rentals that cost even more, as well as people struggling to rent traditional apartments.
“I’ve seen people pay up to $1,000 a month for a hotel room,” Love said.
The church is now getting five or six calls a day from people in danger of slipping into homelessness. Pre-pandemic, it was more like “a handful of phone calls a week,” Love said. Eviction is not the only pathway to homelessness: Often, an individual or household who can no longer rent for themselves will try to “double up” in a friend or family member’s home, and that arrangement comes to an end.
Love predicted more evictions in January. By her estimate, the city usually has 600 to 650 people on the streets or without fixed housing. In her view, the community has trouble dealing with the homelessness issues it currently faces, and it’s likely to get worse.
“I expect our numbers to climb significantly after the first of the year,” she said.
Love is not the only local observer predicting a spike.
Dan Wichmer is executive director of Legal Services of Southern Missouri, the legal aid nonprofit where Dickerson eventually got an attorney’s help after her landlord brought the eviction case.
On Dec. 18, Wichmer said that the community will inevitably suffer a new round of evictions, and it will happen soon.
“I think the landlords are trying to do the best they can,” Wichmer said, speaking generally rather than in reference to Dickerson’s specific case. “But there is going to be a large wave of those types of cases because everybody is basically in a holding pattern. And at some point, things have to move.”
Wichmer said the “vast majority” of local landlords have been “really respectful” of the CDC eviction order, which aims to keep people in their homes despite a loss of income.
Love, the pastor, also said many landlords are compliant and that’s a good thing, though she called on municipalities like Springfield to adopt ordinances that would serve as “local teeth” to the CDC’s moratorium by explicitly delaying evictions.
In her view, COVID-19 has thrown social inequalities and unmet needs into sharp relief. It’s harder for people to ignore them now. She said she thinks it’s only a matter of time before homeless people begin to die of exposure to winter weather.
While there may not be “local teeth” in the way Love describes, there has been some recent housing assistance that came through federal Housing and Urban Development money routed through Springfield City Council. As the News-Leader reported Dec. 18, part of a round of $900,000 in community development block grant money allocated in June went toward helping 251 local families with rent, mortgage and utilities assistance.
City Council directed more than $385,000 to go toward housing assistance at a meeting on Dec. 14, drawing from another round of federal funding worth $1.1 million.
Whether they get public assistance or not, Wichmer, the legal aid director, said that to take advantage of the CDC order, tenants in distress have to sign an affidavit certifying they’re eligible for the moratorium. The catch is that eligibility is “fairly limited … it’s got to be income-based,” he explained.
Wichmer — who served as Springfield City Attorney from 2005 to 2016 — noted that there appeared to be support at the federal level for extending the eviction moratorium. As part of the stimulus package tentatively approved this week, the moratorium would now run through January.
Along with the eviction freeze, the stimulus bill includes $25 billion in rental aid for tenants, USA TODAY reported Dec. 22.
Love, meanwhile, hopes the new administration will make further resources available after Joe Biden is inaugurated as president on Jan. 20.
“But I think it’s not just a political shift that has to happen,” Love said. “It’s also a heart shift that has to happen.”
’13 or 14 managers’
Before going back to court in September, Dickerson thought she could stay in her home, at least through the end of the year. A few days earlier, as she tells it, she talked to the person who was the trailer park manager at the time.
“They have gone through so many managers,” Dickerson said in mid-September. “Things change every time you turn around.” A former park employee later told the News-Leader that he estimated there had been “13 or 14 managers” over the past five years.
Officials with Briarwood declined to comment for this report when contacted on Dec. 4, Dec. 17 and Dec. 18, citing the ongoing litigation with Dickerson. Briarwood and two other Springfield-area parks were bought by a California-based company in early September. Officials with that company, Saddleback Valley Communities, along with ones with a partner company, Colorado-based Good Living Ventures, did not respond after the newspaper sent a detailed set of questions on Dec. 17. Messages to a California-based law firm tied to the park’s previous owners, Treasure Parks Briarwood LLC, were not returned.
As Dickerson told a judge three months ago, she and Briarwood’s then-manager had worked out an informal payment agreement. As Dickerson understood it, if she could get caught up by paying $500 per month, she would be able to stay in the trailer.
When Dickerson applied for no-cost legal aid this fall, she reported a monthly income of $1,131, a sum that combined veterans benefits and Social Security supplemental income (SSI), according to a copy of the online application data that she provided to the News-Leader.
With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, her adult children who helped out with the bills lost their jobs, she told the judge. Meanwhile, according to court records and Veterans Affairs benefits paperwork that she provided the News-Leader, Dickerson is considered partially disabled due to pain syndrome in her left and right knees. She’s previously reported to authorities that she also lives with congenital heart disease, hearing issues and severe mental wellness issues. She also told the News-Leader about other specific diagnoses, which she did not want to make public, that include conditions that place her at higher risk for COVID-19.
“If I actually had to deal with being homeless, I honestly think (it would) be a death sentence for me,” she said in mid-December.
Dickerson has been homeless before and already has a 2014 eviction on her record, complicating any potential search for new rental housing.
In 2016, Dickerson attended an “Every One Counts” event put on by local nonprofits and talked to the News-Leader about how she hoped to get some help for herself and her three kids, then teenagers. Dickerson said she later obtained housing assistance from The Kitchen Inc. and the VA. As she tells it, she began renting at the trailer park in August 2018 and bought herself the trailer in March of the following year. She paid $11,000, using VA disability money, she said.
By December of last year, Dickerson was showing signs of strained cash flow. Billing statements she provided the News-Leader showed she made a $439 payment to Briarwood on Dec. 12, 2019, late for that month’s rent. Then she made an $865 payment on Feb. 27. For several months afterward, the lot rent appears to have gone unpaid, the statements show.
‘Then I got a leak’
Back rent isn’t the only thing contributing to her bill. June 18, Dickerson received a $506.28 water bill from Briarwood, dubbed a “conservation fee” on park billing statements.
Dickerson told the News-Leader her park water bill was typically much lower.
“So my bill’s always been like $39, $40, $45,” she told the News-Leader. “But then I got a leak. I think it was March. And it went up to $79. But it’s just a little drip, drip, drip.”
The monthly water bills for May and July, immediately before and after the $506 water bill, clocked in at $71.35 and $83.55, according to billing statements Dickerson shared.
She and a former park maintenance employee, Nick Dickens, both told the News-Leader that Dickerson’s trailer was leaking water earlier this year.
Dickens, 23, told the News-Leader the park office could track resident water billing in order to stay on top of leaks, which are “pretty common” in trailer homes.
“She had a pretty bad leak towards that front bathroom there,” Dickens said in a Dec. 11 interview. “I mean, she was not losing a whole lot, but over time it could become something major.”
Dickens said park employees discussed the leak with Dickerson and advised her on fixing it. Because Dickerson owns the trailer, it wasn’t an option for the park to make repairs, he said.
After she got the $506 bill, Dickerson and Dickens both said that Dickens and two other employees, at least one of whom was a manager, visited Dickerson’s trailer to “time the leak,” or measure the rate at which water was going where it wasn’t supposed to.
“We added up and there was no way she used $500, whatever, dollars, in one month,” Dickens said.
Dickens, who said he left the maintenance job in November after a dispute over a workplace injury, added, “We checked it a bunch, just to make sure it wasn’t us because we wanted to tell her judge that hey, this isn’t her fault. That’s our bad.”
Dickens suggested that the company sometimes “picked out” residents to get large bills like this, and that they might not be tied to services actually used by the resident. He said that “a couple of months” before Dickerson’s big water bill, there was a large water line leak at Lakewood, one of the two other Springfield-area parks owned by the same parent company.
The underground line leak was in a “heavy traffic area,” he said, with a lot of people driving over the surface above the line. Park officials were reluctant to fix the issue due to the cost of renting equipment, according to Dickens.
In the end, the issue was addressed and several thousand dollars worth of costs associated with the Lakewood leak were “dispersed” among residential tenants, Dickens said.
As with other questions about business practices at Briarwood and the other two parks, the local park manager declined to comment, and parent company officials with Saddleback Valley Communities did not respond to detailed questions sent in writing by the newspaper.
A week after she sent the judge her request for a new trial, Dickerson got a letter from Saddleback Valley Communities announcing the ownership change.
“We want to assure you that we are excited about the community and hope to keep everyone as a resident,” the letter stated. The letter also offered three ways to pay rent, two of which came with associated transaction fees.
A few days later, she had a new court date. Judge T. Todd Myers set aside his earlier judgment for Dickerson to be evicted and pay $2,003.02, then ordered a new hearing for Sept. 25.
Dickerson got to the courthouse a little early that day. She was clad in a light summer dress and using a walker. Jewelian White, her 21-year-old son, accompanied her.
They soon met her Legal Services lawyer, Kelby Stuckey, a tall former athlete who favors brown suits and previously worked as a staff attorney at the City of Springfield. A few minutes before the hearing, Stuckey filled out some paperwork related to the case, read it over a second time, placed it on a desk in front of him and gave it a firm tap with his finger. He looked ready to argue with the landlord’s counsel.
But first, the defendants waited. They spent 20 minutes in the socially-distanced courtroom listening to another civil case that was running long. It involved a business dispute worth millions of dollars, rather than a couple thousand. While Dickerson waited her turn in front of the judge, she winced. Sometimes she shut her eyes. Massaged her throat. Buried her face in her hands.
Soon it was Dickerson’s turn, but the landlord’s lawyer didn’t show up. Neither the landlord company nor the lawyer responded to News-Leader questions as to why.
At the hearing, Dickerson’s lawyer told the judge he’d only been given her case a couple of days before. He had not had yet talked to the plaintiff’s side, and he asked the judge to set another hearing in 30 days to see whether Dickerson could work something out with the park.
Judge Myers said that since the case was about whether possession of the property would stay with Dickerson or go to the park, waiting 30 days would be too long. He scheduled a new hearing three weeks later.
Afterward, Dickerson and Stuckey talked over the case for a few minutes. He asked about her lease. Did she have a copy?
“I don’t have a lease,” Dickerson said. She owned the trailer. But she said she didn’t have a copy of any signed agreements with Briarwood.
Three weeks later, Dickerson had her next hearing. Roughly 40 minutes before the appointment, Stuckey called a News-Leader reporter to ask if Dickerson would be able to show up. Stuckey was having trouble reaching her since the previous hearing, but Dickerson had told a reporter she would make her court date.
By this time, her mobile phone service was cut off, complicating her ability to participate in her court case. If someone dialed her number, she couldn’t take the call, so she resorted to steps like using WiFi to call or text through the Facebook Messenger app. At other times in her case, a misunderstanding on her lawyer’s email address slowed down their communication, she said.
At a December court date, Dickerson’s attorney spoke to the judge in open court about the phone issues, describing his client as an “under-served” person.
Wichmer, Stuckey’s boss at Legal Services of Southern Missouri, said issues of this kind are common. Clients in poverty served by the organization often experience some sort of difficulty with communication, transportation to and from the courthouse or disabilities.
“Ninety-five percent of the time you’re literally trying to figure out how you can meet up with your tenant,” he said, comparing legal aid clients to those he served during the 11 years he spent in private practice. “It’s just exponentially more difficult to get that person in a position where they’re able to pursue their claim.”
Wichmer added that the American Bar Association is looking at how to change professional ethics rules to allow attorneys like those on his staff to get bus fare for a client, or a sandwich from a snack bar, or even front them a night’s rent to escape an abusive partner or deal with a housing situation.
Dickerson said she felt “stressed the hell out” that morning, and laughed bitterly. At this court appearance, her son was with her again. After Stuckey arrived, they talked about the $506 water bill at a café table set up in the lobby near the courthouse snack bar — the sort of meeting more well-to-do clients might have privately, in a law office.
Wichmer said that tenant issues like water bills can lead to an eviction, even under the CDC’s temporary ban. The moratorium covers loss of income and ability to pay rent, but things like an overdue water bill payable to the landlord or a violation of the lease (e.g., breaking a policy forbidding felons or causing property damage) could still be grounds to evict.
Speaking generally and not in reference to any specific case, Wichmer said, the different rules have caused some tenants to wonder whether water bills or allegations of a cluttered house are being used as a pretext for an eviction.
“Probably,” that’s the case, he said, though in his experience that’s only in rare cases locally, “maybe one or two.”
Wichmer said tenants already tend to be at a disadvantage in Missouri as they negotiate with landlords.
“Unlike several states,” he said, “I won’t say a lot, but several states have more tenant protections in law than Missouri does.”
“It’s an inherently difficult (type of) case, due to time constraints and abilities of tenants to raise defenses to certain types of claims a landlord makes,” he added. Wichmer said he doesn’t fault legislatures or judges for the situation, but stressed the importance of recognizing that everybody has rights under the law.
Given both real and perceived obstacles created by the pandemic, people may not think they can get relief from the courts, Wichmer said, noting service calls to LSOSM are down.
Love, the leader of The Connecting Grounds church, noted that many people fighting eviction or homelessness aren’t aware of resources that could help them.
Partial payments and a new agreement
In late September, Dickerson said she started dealing with the new park ownership’s internet-based billing system. When she tried to give the park money, the system wouldn’t take partial payments, she said, showing the News-Leader a screenshot of an error message from the system.
At one point, a stranger read about her situation online (Dickerson had also started a GoFundMe appeal), and donated more than $200, but had trouble making a payment on Dickerson’s behalf.
Dickerson and Stuckey, her lawyer, talked about the partial payment issue before entering the courtroom for a mid-October hearing. After not showing up in September, the landlord’s lawyer came to court that day. He suggested a delay of up to 45 days for another hearing, allowing the two sides a chance to work something out. Dickerson’s attorney wanted time to pursue discovery, or the exchange of documentary evidence. The judge set a new hearing for six weeks later.
Dickerson was ebullient when she left the court that day, believing that she might be able to pay off what she owed by her next hearing. Billing records show she made a couple of comparatively large payments over the course of the year, including $1,000 from her CARES Act stimulus in July.
She made no payments in October or November, however, and as her Dec. 4 court date approached, the situation grew more grim.
She recalled blowing up at a Walmart worker one day when her mental health wasn’t great.
Using “CashPay” cards issued by Briarwood, a resident can pay their trailer park bills at Walmart, according to a letter the park sent to residents. One day a Walmart worker brought up her eviction situation.
“When I tried to pay I had to hear how they have me in eviction,” she wrote in Messenger. “So everyone in line behind me knows.”
Transportation became a hurdle. “A wheel fell off” of her red Mitsubishi Outlander in November, she said. Months earlier, her 2001 Chrysler 300 had gone kaput due to problems with its ignition and security systems. It had been at the shop since July. Getting it back would cost more than $1,200.
The lack of a car has added to expenses. She has to call a cab to go shopping at the Walmart down the road, or pay extra to have groceries delivered. She sometimes ran out of staples like eggs and butter, she said. Her washing machine went out in March, so she faces the same obstacles to do laundry; in mid-December, Dickerson said she may have to wait until she receives her benefit check at the end of the month before she can get to the laundromat.
There were other moments of stress in recent months. Her 23-year-old daughter, Cherish, moved out for a week with her toddler-aged daughter, then moved back in, Dickerson said.
The night before her Dec. 4 hearing, she worried about how she would get to court the next day. Would she have to walk all the way downtown from Briarwood? But she made it to the justice center, telling the News-Leader that two of the park’s employees, who also attended the hearing, gave her a ride.
Part of the hearing that day touched on a new payment agreement that Dickerson and two park officials signed on Nov. 18, according to a copy she showed the News-Leader. This agreement was made without the involvement of Dickerson’s lawyer, he told the judge. Now, $700 would be due monthly, equivalent to more than 60 percent of Dickerson’s income. Dickerson made her first $700 payment on Dec. 2, according to a billing statement.
Along with requiring Dickerson to pay by money order only, the new agreement stipulated that one of the park officials who signed off would help Dickerson “contact organizations that can help with her account balance.” And while Dickerson said she was able to obtain at least one month’s rent of assistance from Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation since she started dealing with the judgment, her Briarwood balance remained at more than $1,500 as of her last $700 payment.
At Dickerson’s most recent court hearing, the parties decided to see how the new payment plan would work out. The judge set yet another court date for Jan. 20. Dickerson would be able to stay in her home through the holidays.
As the season began, Dickerson was focused on opportunity. She told the News-Leader she was looking into a way to work from home through an independent contractor platform, taking inbound service calls from customers of big companies. But to get started, she’d need to replace the computer she pawned back in August. The platform company website described an array of training and other costs to get started, likely exceeding $1,000.
But that optimism was tempered. Five days before Christmas, Dickerson sent a message saying she’d had a fall the day before. Her father called her.
“I was so excited talking I fell down, stepped and I heard my foot crack and I hit the ground,” she said.
Her elbow and a few places on her leg were injured. Her foot was swollen. She hadn’t been able to get a ride to the hospital yet.
It was exactly one month until her next court date.