Commentary from Northwest Arkansas
Sunday, November 30, 2008 - 18:31:17
Hell by the Week
I wrote this article earlier this year, about a situation that has been a festering sore in Fayetteville - and other communities in Northwest Arkansas - for a long time now. Lioneld Jordan, who is quoted in the article, may have a chance to have some influence in the matter, now that he has been elected mayor.
Hell by the Week
In Fayetteville, the "affordable housing" no one wants to talk about
Written by Richard S. Drake
It is a blow to reform and the political hopes of the poor that the middle-class no longer understands that poverty exists. But, perhaps more important, the poor are losing their links with the great world . . .They are not seen and because of that they themselves cannot see. Their horizon has become more and more restricted; They see one another, and that means they see little reason to hope. - Michael Harrington, "The Other America"
In an ever-uncertain economy, more and more families find themselves unable to provide even a shadow of the lives that their parents provided for them.
Some find themselves lost in a crippling cycle of poverty, unable to thrive in a community which seems either unaware or uncaring of their problems. Many in this Northwest Arkansas community find themselves living in conditions that can only be best described as sub-standard.
Be careful when you walk out onto the porch - the boards might give way. Don't flush the toilet if all you are going to do is urinate; the landlord hasn't come to fix it yet.
For many, the Dickensian world of poor houses and slums where families struggle by on a few dollars a week may be a sort of Victorian fantasy, but they exist here in our midst. And for many of us, they exist only a few blocks away, in places you would barely suspect.
The debate over what constitutes "affordable housing" has raged in Fayetteville now for over a decade, with most of the conversation having to do with the price of homes. While this is a laudable goal, very little public debate has dealt with rental properties, and ever increasing rents.
And one subject which is never touched upon is the subject of landlords who charge rent by the week, or on a month-to-month basis.
One converted motel in Fayetteville, for instance, charges $275 a month (plus $125 deposit) for a 15x18 ft. room, sans furniture. Naturally, being a former motel, there is no kitchen, though microwaves and hotplates are allowed.
Many older homes rent rooms by the week, to college students or industrial workers. For the most part, these are fairly decent places to live. But there are situations can only be described as unpleasant, and those are conditions that might be found in trailer parks which charge by the week.
While most trailer parks are well-kept properties, some are truly hellish places to live, and while moving in can seem like a good idea at the time, it doesn't take long before one realizes that one is in a financial bear trap.
A financial swamp - just blocks from the UA
Kevin and Mary (their names have been changed) are a young couple who have been living in a small trailer park located just a few blocks from the University of Arkansas. Residents of the park for the past six months, their rent is $165 a week.
Let's not gloss over that. It's not $165 a month. It's $165 a week, payable every Friday. That's $660 a month, except for months with five Fridays - then it is $825.
For this princely sum they have a two-bedroom trailer with all utilities paid - cable TV is extra. The owners of the trailer park insist on cash; checks and money orders are not accepted.
When they moved in, the trailer was roach-infested, and mildew had marred the areas under the sinks.
Mary said, "The light fixtures were also loose when we moved in."
When someone is between jobs, or has to move out from another place suddenly, such trailer parks can seem like a godsend. After only a short time, however, economic reality sets in.
Kevin said. "I bring in two hundred and fifty a week from my job, and we have food stamps." The couple have three children living with them in the small trailer. Even with food stamps, Mary said, "We usually have less than $20 left at the end of a week."
Kevin added, "At my last job, I was always having to get an early draw on my weekly paycheck, just to make ends meet." His new job does not allow this practice.
Kevin travels back and forth to his job on a small scooter.
They are quick to admit that the living conditions are less than ideal, and that the park is no place to raise children. In frustration, Mary pointed out that several of the other park residents are drug addicts.
Occasionally on the roads between trailers, drug syringes can be found on the ground. In fact, after Kevin and Mary moved into the trailer, they found a syringe under the cushions of their couch.
And, of course, others in the park are simply in the same boat as Kevin and Mary, people who had fallen on hard times, and now find themselves further trapped.
The day I visited them in the trailer, I had to be careful not to flush the toilet, as the park maintenance man had not yet been in to fix it since it had stopped flushing properly over a week before. There was also a small saucepan under the toilet to catch leaking water.
In addition to the faulty toilet, Kevin and Mary recounted how their smoke detector had stopped working, and it took several weeks to replace. Finally, a new one was simply placed on their doorstep, so they could replace the unit themselves.
Their ultimate dream - like that of so many other young couples - is to be able to save enough money so that they can find a nicer place to live. Their need for a nicer place to live may be more immediate than that of most young couples, however.
They recounted how sewage pipes from several trailers stick up out of the ground, and become clogged with toilet paper and excrement, and that children often play through the area, both before and after park management treat the area with lime.
They do not allow their own children to play around the pipes.
The writer pretends to be looking for a place to live
While taking pictures of various rent-by-the-week parks in Fayetteville, I visited the site with the open sewage. Sure enough, at least one pipe seemed to be clogged with toilet paper. As I came around the corner, putting my camera in my pocket, I walked - almost literally - into the park maintenance man.
"Can I help you?" he inquired.
"Why yes," I answered quickly. "I'm looking for a place to live. Do you have any trailers available?"
Two minutes later I was speaking with the manager, a heavy-set middle-aged woman. She explained the payment schedule to me, and how if my rent was late by a day, a daily charge would be put on my rent, until I was evicted the next week.
"That's okay," I said. "I think I may be able to work things out with my wife fairly soon. I don't anticipate being here very long."
I then found myself standing in a dark, dingy two-bedroom trailer, much like Kevin and Mary's. Even if one broke all the windows, and took off the doors, the trailer would still be as dark as a cavern. I have no sense of smell, so I can't report on that, but the signs of mildew stain in the bathroom and kitchen were evident.
In one bedroom, the door was only standing upright because a wire was affixed to the closet, holding it in place.
Possibly the most disturbing thing was the back door of the trailer; the lock was completely broken off, and it was only held in place by a wire holding it to the frame. One good tug or shove would no doubt give entry to anyone desiring to break in.
I told them that I might be back. On the way out of the park I noticed that there was no sign out front, advertising the park's presence. Under one streetlight was a video surveillance camera, the lens broken, and the wire
Before this article went to press, I spoke with the Code Compliance Division at Fayetteville City Hall, and learned that in the summer of 2007, the owner of this particular trailer park had been sent a certified letter which declared the park a "Public Nuisance."
The letter was never signed for or picked up.
After we spoke, city inspectors came out again and looked over the property, investigating plumbing and taking photographs for possible code
Of course, if pressed, the owner may simply decide to shut the trailer park down - thus throwing all of the tenants out on the street, forcing them to look for new homes.
For families who can barely save $20 a week after rent and groceries, this may be next to impossible. If they are lucky, they might move in temporarily with family or friends.
But if they are not so lucky?
This taking advantage of people when they are already down does not sit well with some in local government. Alderman Lioneld Jordan (Ward 4) had this to say when he read the interview with Kevin and Mary, and saw the photographs of the plumbing at the park:
"It is a sad state of affairs to think that anyone would be living in that kind of condition. We as a city must make sure that all citizens are cared for and are treated humanely. To have a decent place to live would be at the top of the list."
There are other places in Northwest Arkansas where landlords, eager to make a quick buck, see tenants as nothing more than income, and not as human beings.
For some it makes no difference that the tenants are Hispanics, or U.S. citizens down on their luck. For them, these individuals and their families exist only to be fleeced, whether the housing is adequate or not.
Fayetteville may have come a long way from the days when it was rumored that one trailer park in town put plywood down the center of a trailer and would rent out both halves - one half with a toilet, the other with a kitchen.
But not much more, evidently.
But perhaps things may turn around, with increased scrutiny on the part of the city administration and city council. As Alderman Nancy Allen (Ward 2), said about the situation, "This is shameful. In my opinion, a moral city can no longer turn its back on a segment of our population and just give lip service. It is time to back up the talk. I don't know the answers, but it is time to find them and take action. No one should be living in sub-human conditions. We must take an ethical stand and quit pretending the poor are invisible or wish them out of our eyesight."
In January, inspectors from the city of Fayetteville went out to the trailer park. The City informed the park management that, due to the obvious sewer water over flow problems, the situation must be fixed or they would risk having their water disconnected.
The manager indicated in a phone conversation to the city that the problem had been fixed. Nevertheless, city inspectors planned to revisit the site the next week.
As for Kevin and Mary? Their pipes were fixed, but they were then informed that they would have to clean their front yard or be charged $30.
The trash in the yard included the mess left over from fixing the sewage lines.
Life goes on.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, "Freedom Run," and a history of
Fayetteville, "Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism,
Arkansas Free Press - February, 2008
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