Tupelo orders about a half-dozen properties to be torn down each year

TUPELO – Two weeks ago, the city forced Johnnie Shannon from her dilapidated home on West Jackson Street so it can be demolished, even though Shannon still owes several thousand dollars on her mortgage.
Shannon, who has paid more than $80,000 toward her house, now lives in a small apartment on Ida Street.
The house where she resided the past two decades sits empty, awaiting the wrecking ball.
“I miss being there, I miss the privacy,” Shannon said Tuesday. “That’s why I bought the house, to get out of the projects.”
If Shannon’s eviction sounds like a cruel move by the city, it’s not. Her house, built in 1930, is infested with termites and was slowly crumbling around her.
She needed to evacuate for her own safety, said Lynda Ford, city building inspector.
The city’s Department of Development Services orders about a half-dozen demolitions annually and has had five properties torn down so far this year, with another 10 on the waiting list.
Most are abandoned long before the city takes action, but sometimes – as in Shannon’s case – they’re still occupied.
That puts the city in a “heartbreaking” situation, said BJ Teal, the city’s director of Development Services, during a recent City Council work session.
Teal said her staff members work with affected residents to either find them suitable lodging or avoid demolition altogether, even though that’s not technically their job to do so.
In one ongoing case, staff members donated their own supplies to an east Tupelo man whose house was deemed unfit for habitation so he can repair it.
Ford said he still needs about 20 squares of roofing to finish the job, but no one can afford to buy it for him.
Depending on the effort’s outcome, the man’s house still could wind up on the chopping block.
In another case last year, the city moved a woman from her Park Hill residence into an apartment. Two days later, the property collapsed on its own. The city’s eviction likely saved her life.
“If we’re aware of a problem like that and we’re not taking action and somebody gets hurt as a result, I would expect a lawsuit if there were any family members around to figure out what happened,” said Pat Falkner, city planner. “You really don’t feel like you can wait.”
In Shannon’s case, Ford and another building inspector, Debra Byrd, have been in contact with the woman’s mortgage company to try to get her loan forgiven. They’re also working with Habitat For Humanity, which might build a new house for Shannon on the site of her existing property.
“I’m glad somebody cares enough to help me,” said Shannon, who shared her home with a grown daughter and twin infant grandchildren, who also have been displaced.
A problem from the start
Shannon’s woes began almost as soon as she bought her house 20 years ago. The roof started leaking, the floors sagged, the back of the structure began sinking into the ground.
Shannon said the house looked great when she got it, but she admitted she didn’t know what to look for. It was her first house; she was an inexperienced buyer.
“Every year, when I got my taxes, I’d put a little bit aside to fix it up, but it was never enough,” Shannon said.
So when she got her mortgage paid off in 1997, she took out a second loan for the same amount – $28,500 – and hired a contractor to fix the roof, floors and siding. Shannon said she can’t recall the contractor’s name but that her mortgage company, Southern Mortgage, found him for her.
Southern Mortgage’s Tupelo office has since closed, and Shannon’s loan was sold to another company not related to the first.
In any case, the contractor didn’t do his job correctly and charged Shannon more than three times the typical price for such work, said Byrd.
Beyond repair
A year afterward, the house began deteriorating again. Shannon said she couldn’t keep up with the repairs.
Then, on Jan. 26, a neighbor complained to the city about Shannon’s property. When code enforcement officers went to investigate, they determined the house was so decayed that it was beyond repair.
“It’s not because of neglect on Ms. Shannon’s part,” Byrd said. “She kept her house clean and tidy. It was just falling down.”
According to city code, if repairs would cost more than 50 percent of the property’s assessed value on the tax rolls, the city can order demolition. The code also says the city can repair such properties itself, but Ford said her department has never had enough money to do that.
“We’d need $200,000 to $300,000 in our budget,” she said. “If we repair it and put a lien on it, we could be sure to get our money back. Or we could get the house and sell it.”
As it stands, the Development Services Department gets $35,000 a year from the city’s general fund to demolish properties, a task it outsources to contractors. It tries to recoup that expense through liens.
Shannon’s house likely will be torn down before summer’s end. She’ll be sad to see it go but admits it needs to happen.
“It’s for the best,” she said. “I couldn’t keep it up.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com. Also read her Government Grind blog at NEMS360.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal