An overflow crowd at the downtown Holiday Inn ballroom, filled with a who’s who of Missoula officials, building industry leaders and real estate agents, watched eagerly Jan. 30 as the Missoula Organization of Realtors explained what its consultant believes the city must do to build more affordable housing.
When the speaker finished, someone in a back row yelled out a question: What about preserving the affordable housing we already have?
Before tiny homes and before federally subsidized, privately managed, brightly painted apartment buildings, the term “affordable housing” was more likely to evoke trailer parks. Mobile homes continue to offer a taste of the American Dream: They’re cheap to buy, and they offer privacy and the possibility of a yard. The trade-off is that mobile-home dwellers typically own their home, but not the land it sits on. So they still owe monthly rent, and there’s no guarantee that one day their lot won’t be swept out from under them.
Missoula is losing its trailer parks. In 1998, the county had 191 licensed courts, according to the city-county health department. Twenty years later, the number is 171. Those figures don’t provide the whole picture. On April 30, the tally will tick down to 170, when Skyview Trailer Park on the Westside will close. Owner Jim Loran sent out legally required six-month eviction notices in October, leaving the occupants of Skyview’s 34 lots looking for new homes in a housing market where matching Skyview’s $290 monthly lot rent is near impossible.
To passersby, Skyview, at 1600 Cooley St., looks like the negative stereotype that tends to follow trailer-park residents. The court, along with the larger Hollywood trailer park across the street (under different ownership), is rundown, dirty and overgrown. It’s been that way for years. Health department inspectors have turned up health and safety violations routinely since 1991. In 1994, for instance, the department threatened legal action, writing of the court’s unsanitary condition, in all capital letters and underlined for emphasis: “IT HAS GONE ON FAR TOO LONG.” In 2002, an inspector wrote to Loran that she was “appalled” at the conditions.
By 2013, Loran also was sounding fed up, accusing the department of elder abuse in a letter. “If you think I am a bad citizen, by refusing to keep the rules, then you can have the sheriff or his deputy handcuff me, take me to jail and throw the key away.” That letter to the health department was dated a day after Loran sent a letter to park residents explaining that their rents would increase 15 percent, and that he was going to finally turn the park over to a management company because he was having a “very difficult time” collecting rent.
Missing rent and poor management can go hand in hand, and by last October, Loran, 75, explained his decision to redevelop the property to the Missoulian by saying he was owed $50,000 in back rent. “We’re dealing with people at the lowest economic level, and I understand that,” he told the paper. “I understand some of these people may be out on the streets. I feel for them, but at the same time I have to protect my own interests. I can’t go to the poorhouse. I have to do what’s best for me, too.”
The North Missoula Community Development Corporation stepped in to help connect displaced residents with housing resources. Last month, the organization distributed $2,720 in cash relocation assistance that it raised through a GoFundMe drive.
With just over a month before Skyview shuts down, some residents are still figuring out what to do. Others have moved on — for better or worse. They include retired people on fixed incomes, young families and single parents. Some have criminal records. Each has a story. Here are four of them.
Mechailiah Hickman, 25
Mechailiah Hickman and her husband, Kenny, share the same Facebook profile picture, a golden-hour photo of them sitting in a field, holding hands. She, pregnant with their son, who is almost two years old now, is leaning back, and he, with a long ponytail and a collared shirt, is sitting up, smiling like any man with his arm around his high school sweetheart.
Mechailiah’s version has the words “Family is Everything” displayed across it. The bio box beneath describes her has a devoted wife and mother who is “trying every day to be a better woman!”
The image of Mechailiah that appeared on Facebook feeds in October was different. As Skyview eviction notices were handed out, Mechailiah became a public face for the affected residents. Photographed by the Missoulian outside her old, brown trailer No. 10, she stood with her arms crossed and tinted lenses covering her eyes. “This is literally the only place in Missoula where we can live,” she told the paper, explaining that medical bills and debts put other housing options out of reach.
There was more to Mechailiah’s story, as Facebook commenters were quick to point out. They posted links to news articles from the Hickmans’ past, which implicated them in the high-profile 2014 murder of a transient man. “Are you sure that’s the only reason they can’t move?” one person wrote.
Mechailiah doesn’t wait to be asked about those news articles as she sits down to eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger during her lunch break in March. There’s no point, she says. “It always gets brought back up.”
Especially as they’ve searched for a new place to live. Mechailiah says she used to wait until the end of her conversation with potential landlords to mention that her husband is on the state’s violent offender registry. She’s since learned to lead with the information, however misleading she believes it to be, to spare everyone the wasted time. The word “violent” barely comes out of her mouth, she says, before she’s invariably turned away.
The crime made national headlines because the details were so brutal. The body of Berry Gilbert turned up in the Clark Fork River in July 2014 with a gunshot wound in his head and gang symbols carved into his skin. Police determined that he had been beaten, then tortured, then shot by fellow transients under the Reserve Street bridge. Kevin Lino was charged with the man’s murder, while the Hickmans faced charges as lesser participants. Mechailiah says her and her husband’s roles in the incident were mischaracterized in the press. While Lino received a 40-year sentence, the county attorney’s office eventually dropped the charges against Mechailiah. Kenny went on to plead guilty to felony aggravated assault (he’d admitted to hitting Gilbert, but said he wasn’t present for the shooting). Kenny’s plea deal — 15 years, 10 suspended with the rest under Department of Corrections supervision — didn’t send him to prison, but he did receive the violent offender label.
The pair were camping in the woods at the time of Gilbert’s murder, Mechailiah says, part of a vagabond lifestyle they pursued together in their early 20s. They hiked the Appalachian and Continental Divide trails, addicted to the freedom that came from being untethered to any one place.
After Kenny was sentenced and released from county jail, Mechailiah says, they decided to settle down. They both managed to find work, and within months, they found their first home together — a 1960s trailer in Skyview, which they rented-to-own from its owner for $600 a month.
A month after moving in, Mechailiah got pregnant.
She has mixed feelings about the trailer park where she started her family. It’s cramped and dirty and, for a while, seemed to her to be overtaken by drugs. Would-be drug buyers have mistakenly knocked on their door; one woman just walked inside, only to be chased out by the Hickmans’ bulldog puppy, Prophet. The Hickmans landed in Skyview because it seemed like the only place to go, given Kenny’s conviction.
“It’s like the whole city of Missoula has spent the last years kind of herding everyone into our trailer park,” she says. (The state’s online registry lists eight sexual or violent offenders with Skyview addresses.)
At the same time, they invested in their home, repairing the trailer’s plumbing and roof. Mechailiah works full-time at an auto detailing shop, pulling in $10/hour, while Kenny makes $14.50/hour at a manufacturing facility. They were building a new life when the eviction notice put everything on hold.
The Hickmans have the cash to move, but in addition to the black mark of Kenny’s violent offender status, they have been “competing” against their neighbors for the sort of housing that’s in extremely short supply in Missoula: Pet friendly, three bedrooms, two baths, $1,000 or less for the month ($1,200 if utilities are included).
The Hickmans have the spare cash in part because they stopped paying lot rent at Skyview. Initially, it was unintentional. Mechailiah says the man they were renting-to-buy the trailer from wasn’t paying Loran, the park owner. But later, since Mechailiah says Loran never drew up a lease agreement for the Hickmans, they stopped paying entirely. She justifies the decision not to pay by noting the park’s poor condition and lack of management.
In January, Loran sued the Hickmans in Missoula County Justice Court for $10,100 in unpaid rent, writing in a complaint that “Kenny & Mechailiah show no interest in paying the back lot rent or current lot rent.” Last month, they signed an agreement to pay $4,200 in installments.
Even with that, Mechailiah says, she’s less worried about having the money to move than with finding someone who will “give you a chance.”
In March, the Hickmans decided to take their own chance after finding a fixer-upper doublewide for rent in Seeley Lake. It’s been sitting vacant since the fall, so the perimeter is buried in feet of snow, and the interior is gutted. They’ll have to drive an hour each workday to their jobs in Missoula. But Mechailiah says the distance just might provide the fresh start they’ve been longing for.
“We also think it would be good for us, in the long run, to get away from Missoula for a little while,” she says, “to get away from the community that knows us as our past, and doesn’t know us as what we are trying to become.”
Wendy Branthoover, 45
The fifth-wheel didn’t have running water, so Wendy Branthoover had to walk to the abandoned trailer next door, where her daughter had previously been living, to brew her morning coffee.
It was a minor inconvenience, and a necessary one, as Branthoover tried to get her feet under her last summer. She was living on her own again for the first time in several years, raising her granddaughter, a toddler.
Branthoover owned the trailer and the fifth-wheel, but the trailer was uninhabitable after her daughter left in 2016. Branthoover and her steady boyfriend moved the fifth-wheel onto the lot while he started repairing the trailer. They replaced the plumbing, the floors, most of the windows and a couple of walls. They installed a new front door. But their living quarters were cramped. It strained their relationship, and Branthoover’s boyfriend left.
Still, Branthoover says she was doing all right. She had a full-time job as a tax preparer, and Branthoover’s other daughter lived across the court with her young family. Wendy could take care of her granddaughter, who, at the time, was showing signs of developmental delay. She didn’t need a man in her life. She just wished she could spend more time with her granddaughter.
So, in September, she started taking college classes online to pursue a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
“I don’t want any food stamps to take care of her. I want to afford my own medical insurance,” Branthoover says. “It’s not even about my pride — it’s about taking care of a child, and not needing a two-person household to do it.”
The eviction letters came less than two months later. Branthoover found out from her younger daughter, who was distraught at the news. “I come home from work and my daughter’s flipping out. She says, ‘What are we gonna do?’”
Branthoover, who has bright red hair and a spirited, caustic manner, manages a short laugh when she recalls the moment. While her daughter was scared, Branthoover says she took the news in stride. “It’s just one more thing to deal with,” she replied. “So what?”
She explains her attitude by pulling out her cell phone, on which she’s made her granddaughter’s face the background image. “She’s my world. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for this baby.”
Branthoover has spent the last 15 or so years in Missoula. She’s worked in restaurants and hotels. She danced with the Hypsy Gypsies, a local tribal fusion belly dance troupe, for years, while working flexible shifts at McDonald’s to make ends meet.
Most of that time, Branthoover lived in Skyview. She never felt totally comfortable there, in the middle of a what she describes as a haven for drugs and parties. She’s come home to police shootouts, and to neighbors’ trailers engulfed in flames. But she owned her trailer there, a 1965 model that is too old to move. It was bigger than an apartment, and the $290 monthly lot rent was the cheapest in town.
Relocating would prove to be harder than she’d realized. Between her job and classes and caring for her granddaughter, Branthoover put in an application for an apartment complex. They wouldn’t rent to her because she still owed back rent at Skyview. (Her ex, she says, hadn’t been paying, and she was still catching up.) She considered renting a house with her daughter’s family, but Branthoover says she was worried living together would strain the relationship.
She was at wit’s end when a neighbor handed her a flier for a community meeting at Burns St. Bistro. She went, reluctantly, and met with representatives from the Missoula Housing Authority and Missoula Federal Credit Union. The housing authority told her she could fill out one application for all its properties, and the application fee would be waived. She applied for a loan through the credit union and was approved.
A few weeks later, Branthoover got a call. She had an interview for a spot at the Wildflower Apartments. She arrived, nervous, but the official quickly put her at ease: She was going to be approved for a two-bedroom apartment.
“I ran home. I was screeching the whole way driving. It was awesome,” she says. “Everything fell into place.”
Branthoover used a portion of the $230 or so she received through the NMCDC’s relocation fund to rent the U-Haul she used to move in mid-February. She couldn’t believe she was about to move into a place with new carpet, fresh paint and a dishwasher. Her days are longer now — Wildflower is on the other side of town, so she wakes up at 5:45 a.m. each weekday morning in order to get her granddaughter to daycare and still get to work on time. She misses living across the trailer court from her daughter’s family, and will miss them more soon. Their solution to the eviction, she says, is to move to Texas.
But the ordeal has landed Branthoover and her granddaughter in a better place, she says. Her toddler finally has room to play. “For the first time in the three years in her little life, she’s got all her toys out of storage. She’s happy and she’s playing and she’s busy. She runs in circles all around the house,” Branthoover says.
In the fifth-wheel, her granddaughter was never out of Branthoover’s sight. The toddler is adjusting to all the extra space. Branthoover was in the bathroom on a recent early morning when her granddaughter began calling out for her. “She was like, ‘Grandma! Grandma! Grandma!’”
The toddler had gone looking for her, but walked through the wrong doorway, into one of the bedrooms. For the first time, Branthoover says, her granddaughter felt what it’s like to be lost.
Mike Green, 55
The place looks like a bachelor pad. A couple of posters of bikini-clad women are tacked to the walls. There’s a bundle of fishing rods on the floor. A large tube TV has been repurposed as an end table, replaced by a smaller flat screen that’s playing “Let’s Make a Deal” on a Tuesday morning.
Mike Green’s Nintendo Wii sits on a table. He grins when asked about it. Wii Golf is his favorite game, Green says. “Do you play?” His neighbors — his “best friend” Bubba and Jim and Joe — like to come over, drink a beer and swing virtual clubs in the living room. Green tracks his best scores: four double-eagles, four holes in one. He says Bubba is even better. “I still get some bad shots now and then.”
Green wears a Nike baseball hat, jeans and a southwestern patterned vest that could fetch good money on a secondhand store’s vintage rack. He’s an easygoing guy whose body is worn out from a career installing drywall and painting. Green, 55, says he retired last year and now receives federal disability checks each month.
Green moved to Missoula from Great Falls in the summer of 2013. He was living in his van at the time. He found work on his first day in town, and a week later he bought this trailer.
Green liked Skyview. He still does. The neighborhood is quiet, he says, other than all the dogs. “You’re thinking you got your spot for the rest of your life,” he remembers thinking when he moved in.
But by the time a woman came by last fall with certified eviction letters, Green wasn’t all that surprised.
“I was sitting outside. It was a sunny day,” he says. “The next day, I started driving around [looking for a place to move]. I just thought, ‘Well, I knew this would probably come one day.’”
Green knows the landlord, Loran, and says he sometimes does work for him. Green knew Loran was getting frustrated with the park. “He’s old and nobody pays him. I would be disgusted, too,” he says.
Unlike most of the tenants still living at Skyview, Green has his next house lined up. You can see it through the kitchen window, parked next to Burns Street.
It’s a fifth-wheel — Wendy Branthoover’s fifth-wheel, the one his next-door neighbor and friend lived in with her granddaughter last year.
Green bought it from her after Branthoover secured her new apartment. He’s just spent the last four days cleaning it out and installing new carpet and curtains. This morning, he’s relaxing on the couch and drinking coffee with his friend Joe Levi Cowell, who lived in Skyview until this month. In the afternoon, they’ll move some of Joe’s stuff into his new place at the Poverello.
“I’m really happy about it,” Green says of his new fifth-wheel. “It’s super nice.”
Green isn’t one to complain, especially on a sunny spring day. Thinking positive, he says, is how he’s gotten everything he has. Plus some help from God and Mother Nature: “The lord and the sunshine — that keeps me going,” he says.
His neighbors have a harder time understanding. Since he bought Branthoover’s trailer, Green keeps fielding the same question. “Where are you going to put it,” he says they ask, imitating a nebby tone.
The question is particularly annoying because Green doesn’t yet have an answer. Even with his bad credit, the credit union offered Green a loan that will enable him to relocate once he finds a lot to park his fifth-wheel. He says he worked out a deal with Loran whereby he won’t pay rent for the months following the eviction notice until after he finds a new place. And he has a friend with a truck who’s willing to tow the trailer whenever he needs to.
The only problem left is finding a lot.
Green found one in the first week of his search last November, back when he was thinking he’d move his current trailer somewhere else. He says he was approved, but the court managers wanted a $2,500 deposit as a way to ensure he’d repaint the outside of the trailer to comply with court rules. He didn’t have that kind of money at the time and had to turn the place down. Someone with a motorhome rented the spot instead.
Open trailer lots are scarce in Missoula, which is where Green says he wants to stay. He’s looked beyond the valley, but likes the urban lifestyle, where he can walk downtown or along the riverbank to fish. He prefers the privacy of a trailer over apartment living, too — not that there are many apartments he can afford on his fixed income.
Green says he’s considered moving across the street to Hollywood Trailer Court, which has had its own well-publicized problems. He’s not sure that park management would accept his trailer. Nor is he sure that Hollywood will be around much longer. (The property’s owners have suggested that if they’re unable to keep the court profitable, they’ll sell or redevelop the site.)
The “worst case scenario,” Green says, is that he starts asking friends if he can park his fifth-wheel outside their house.
The other option is parking it in the street. In December, however, Missoula City Council strengthened the city ordinance that bans camping in the public right of way, citing a few problem campers who were causing sanitation hazards or refusing to comply with police orders to move along.
But Green doesn’t want to waste his time thinking about what could go wrong. There’s still a month and a half to find something, and he’s confident that the last piece of his housing puzzle will fit into place.
“Things seem to be going my way,” he says. “I just need a spot now.”
Joseph Levi Cowell, 67
On a hot summer day, Joseph Levi Cowell saw a man fall down near the Toole Avenue roundabout. The man appeared to be drunk. Cowell stopped his car, got out and helped the man up. “When’s the last time you had a drink of water?” Cowell says he asked. Then he helped the man into his car and drove him to a supermarket, where Cowell left him in the care of a store manager.
Cowell relates the story while drinking coffee on Mike Green’s couch. Cowell is here to gather some personal belongings he hasn’t yet removed from the trailer court. The day before, he had moved into a room at the Poverello Center’s wing for homeless veterans, the Housing Montana Heroes program, which provides transitional housing and support for up to 20 veterans, with prepared meals and semi-private rooms. Cowell is relieved to have received a room, but he’s worried about where the rest of his former Skyview neighbors will go.
“Everybody isn’t a Vietnam vet,” he says. “It helped me. What about these other people in the park? Where are they going to go?”
Like them, he says, he’s struggled to make ends meet. Like them, he has a lot working against him in his search for stable housing. Cowell is on the state sex offender registry for a 1993 conviction in Washington. He’s a level-one offender, meaning his likelihood of reoffending is considered low, but most landlords don’t want to rent to people on the registry. Cowell, 67, is also on a fixed income, relying on monthly disability checks and food stamps that total about $900.
“There’s a lot of people like me here. And I feel I should speak up,” he says.
That’s where Cowell’s story about the drunken man comes in. Asked how Missoula is letting his neighbors down, Cowell talks over his friend Green, who says the problem is high rents. Cowell insists it’s friendship that’s in short supply. “I’m a believer. As the book says, if your brother needs a coat, take yours off and give it to him,” Cowell says — like he did that day for a stranger, and like the Pov is doing for him now.
Cowell looks pallid in yellow-tinted glasses. He wears a leather jacket fitted with a paperclip as a zipper pull. Cowell says he ended up in Skyview a year ago — March 15, 2017 — thinking he’d stay there for the rest of his life. His expenses illustrate why. Cowell had previously lived alone in the Colonial Motel, where his $475 rent (cable, heat and water included), consumed more than half his income. A friend who’d purchased a trailer in Skyview offered Cowell a room if he would split the lot rent, which, at $290, was already one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, in Missoula. Cowell was suddenly saving one-third of his monthly assistance.
Every one of those dollars counted. Cowell still wishes he had enough money to afford a Costco membership ($60 annually) so he could buy his groceries in bulk instead of shopping at Walmart, where the heart-healthy turkey burgers he buys are more expensive.
While it was cheaper, living with a roommate was also a challenge. Cowell says he’s bipolar and schizoaffective, conditions that he says can be triggered by high-pressure situations. Cowell’s new roommate was younger and liked to stay up late partying, Cowell says. For six months, Cowell says, his roommate pocketed Cowell’s share of the rent instead of paying the landlord. Then came word that the park was shutting down. The combined stress nearly caused Cowell to have a nervous breakdown. He called an ambulance, and while he was at the hospital, another friend in the court called to ask what had happened. Cowell told him he couldn’t go back to the trailer he had been living in.
In December, Cowell moved into the friend’s spare bedroom a couple of trailers over, while he searched Craigslist for a more permanent place. He overstayed his welcome before finding anything. He checked into the Poverello this month and, shortly after, Cowell’s case manager helped secure a spot in the Pov’s floor for homeless vets.
Cowell lists off the names of fellow Skyview residents he met during his year in the trailer court. He feels sorry for them, but says the court might not be shutting down if they’d been more neighborly themselves. Cowell suggests that court residents could have set up their own “neighborhood watch” system, referencing the citizen crimestopper groups that tend to spring up in wealthier neighborhoods. Self-policing could have kept “squatting” and “doping” in check, he says, and relieved the landlord of the frustration that led to the residents’ collective displacement.
The feeling of displacement, no matter its cause, is hard for Cowell to stomach at his age. He’s found another roof to sleep under, but he talks like someone still searching for a place he can call home.
“We need something to make us feel … that we don’t have to worry no more,” he says. “Would you do that to your grandma? Would you do that to your grandfather, or your mother or your father? Take their home away from them?”
Cowell’s voice starts to crack.
“That hurts. It hurts,” he says.