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Need for Jefferson City low-income housing has grown five years since 2019 tornado


Five years after the May 22, 2019, tornado hit Jefferson City, local leaders say low-income housing is a problem that's only grown in the area.

According to a 2022 Jefferson City Housing study, 152 units were destroyed and over 4,000 were damaged. Ninety-five percent of the units destroyed were rentals.

Jefferson City Salvation Army Center of Hope Director Brian Vogeler says the tornado affected hundreds of low-income housing units in Cole County.

"We really haven't seen those built back," Vogeler said. "So that's probably our biggest problem."

Vogeler said after the tornado, a lot of families needed a place to live.

"We're a 31-bed shelter, but after the tornado, we had over 60 people in here because a lot of them didn't have places to go," Vogeler said.

One of those families was the Walker family: Natile Walker, John Walker, Ja-Syia Walker, Samar Walker and the twins, Jyson Walker and Nekhi Walker.

The family, along with a niece and nephew, were living in their rent-to-own home on Jackson Street the night of the tornado. They were planning to close on their home in November.

Family photos in the Walker's home on E. Ashley St. in Jefferson City on April 24, 2024.

Natile Walker said one of her sons and nephew had gone to bed minutes before the tornado hit.

"Literally a siren went off and the tornado was happening and I was screaming for my children," Natile Walker said. "If they probably would have been in a deeper sleep, there's no telling what would have happened."

She said she had to nearly throw the children down the steps and hold onto the wall because she didn't have time to go downstairs herself.

"Maybe about 10 or 15 minutes after getting downstairs, [we] really realized like 'oh my God, this was a tornado,'" Natile Walker said. "I remember my neighbors coming over and screaming our names and telling us to come upstairs."

Natalie Walker's husband, John Walker, was working nights at Unilever at the time and raced home.

"Once I got out, it didn't look like anything was going on until I hit Broadway," John Walker said. "Once I got to my street, it looked like a complete war zone, like a bomb dropped on it."

The family returned to 709 Jackson St. the next day to look at all of the damage done to their home. Natile said she was still in shock.

"We had lost everything," Natile Walker said. "We lost the car. The room that my younger ones were in, the whole roof came off."

"My husband and I got up that morning to come over to kind of see what was left of our home and people were walking through our home," Natile Walker said. "I just remember how violating that kind of felt. That's when it really, really hit us, how tragic this was."

Before the tornado, Vogeler said, placing people in Cole County in affordable housing wasn't great.

"But we were always able to find people housing," Vogeler said. "Our average stay prior to the tornado, I believe was around 60 to 90 days."

He said the wait at the Center of Hope Shelter is now up to six months.

The Jefferson City Salvation Army Center of Hope Shelter in the Capitol City on April 23, 2024.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition says over 205,000 Missouri renter households are classified as 'extremely low income'. The organization says a household needs to bring in at least $38,553 a year to afford a two-bedroom rental at $964 a month.

The Jefferson City Housing Study says that "as of 2020, 46% of all renter households had incomes at or below $30,700 a year."

That means those households can realistically only afford a rent of $768 a month.

According to the Jefferson City Housing Study, a large number of low-income households can be found in the central and northeast parts of Jefferson City.

Median Household Income Graphic from the 2022 Jefferson City Housing Study; Credit: RKG Associates INC

"I don't think people realize is even you know a teacher starting out, would qualify for low-income housing," Vogeler said. "Some of your police officers, your non-profit staff, you know, your major retailers, all of those [people who] are working. They're great people and hardworking people, but they're the ones that really qualify for that low-income or that working housing."

Page 22 of the study states that four out of the top five largest employment sectors in Jefferson City, on average, pay less than $35,000 each year, as of 2021.

  • Office and Administrative Support - $34,986
  • Sales and Related - $26,761
  • Business and Financial Operations - $59,582
  • Food Preparation and Serving Related - $23,329
  • Transportation and Material Moving - $31,402

After the tornado, the strain for available and affordable housing only grew in the city. Many families were left without homes, including the Walker family. For the next few months, the family of eight lived in separate places because nobody could take them all in.

But River City Habitat for Humanity had a large home for a family in need. That home happened to be located just around the corner and down the street from the Walker's home.

The Walker Family's current home on E. Ashley St. in Jefferson City on April 24, 2019.

Susan Cook, executive director for River City Habitat for Humanity, said she remembers that night all too well.

"Everyone always said it's not going to hit Jefferson City and it was just unfathomable," Cook said. "When I woke up the next morning, I saw the news and it was just surreal."

Cook says River City Habitat for Humanity builds homes for people who otherwise couldn't walk into a bank and get a traditional loan.

"[People still] pay the mortgage, the taxes, insurance, just like any other homeowner," Cook said. "They just get a good deal at 0 percent interest," Cook said.

Natlie and John Walker said River City posted on Facebook, looking for a family in need of its large home on East Ashley Street. The post had been tagged dozens of times by friends and family.

"You never know what circumstances you're going to be in and your life," Natile Walker said. "You never know when you're going to end up being the person in need."

After attending a meeting, the Walkers learned more about the qualifications for a Habitat Home.

"In certain situations, my family would not necessarily qualify for Habitat," Natile Walker said. "But because of the tornado and because of all that happened, we were really blessed to be able to be one of the families who qualified for this house."

On Sept. 4, 2019, the Walker family moved into their new home at on E. Ashley St.

A photo at River City Habitat of Humanity of the Walker Family when they moved into their Habitat Home on E. Ashley St. in Jefferson City in Sept. 2019.

The Walker Family also received another heartwarming surprise: cherished memories and important documents they thought had been lost in the tornado.

"Our landlord had some people come a clean the house out like a couple of weeks after the tornado," Natile Walker said. "We couldn't go back into the home for a while because it was considered dangerous."

Natile Walker said a woman with a church group was able to save meaningful items for the family. She found an old business card of Natile Walker's and eventually got in contact with the family to give them Natile's wedding dress, birth certificates, social security cards, a wedding certificate and photo albums.

"She was about to get some of that stuff and that just speaks to the community and how they helped us through that time," Natile Walker said.

ABC 17 News Anchor/Reporter Meghan Drakas looks through photo albums and important documents saved from the tornado with Natile and John Walker on April 24, 2019, at their home in Jefferson City, Mo.

Since the 2019 tornado, Cook says about half a dozen families who lost homes from the storm were awarded a Habitat Home.

"I always say that the tornado kind of ripped the Band-Aid right off," Cook said. "We always had a housing crisis and I think many different things were kind of holding it together... so we have definitely seen an increase in the need."

This year, Cook says the organization had around 150 families contact them with interest in a home. Typically the organization builds about four to five homes a year.

"There's still a great need out there, even five years after the tornado," Cook said. "There's just not enough properties for people here in Jefferson City."


Article Topic Follows: May 2019 tornado

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Meghan Drakas

Meghan joined ABC 17 News in January 2021.
The Penn State grad is from the Philadelphia suburbs where she interned with several local TV stations.


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