When does a shed become a house in Leflore County? It all comes down to when you first moved in.
Regina Harper has appeared before the Leflore County Board of Supervisors twice this month so far, pleading her case to be allowed to move back into a compound of three storage sheds she has put together at the end of a side road on the edge of Itta Bena.
The buildings at 2394 County Road 138 are of various size and color, but all are distinctly storage sheds with metal walls and roofs, despite the plastic pumpkin on the crate outside one, the wooden covered walkway connecting two of the sheds, wooden porches and entrance ramps made of plywood and two-by-fours, a partial fence with solar-powered lighting, flower boxes hanging below windows with colored curtains, and the Christmas wreath on one door. A swing set and a riding lawnmower sit behind the buildings.
Harper had a permit to have one of the sheds installed on her property, which otherwise is vacant. She had it dropped close to the road and then used it to open a flea market shop, selling odds and ends to the public. When a neighbor complained, the county ordered her to stop operating a commercial enterprise in a residential area.
After that, the additional sheds appeared on the property, work was done to each, electricity was added, somehow the city of Itta Bena allowed the sheds to have running water, and Harper installed a sewage treatment system.
Then a neighbor complained that Harper was living inside a storage building on her property and allowing others to occupy the other sheds, and the county again demanded she cease and desist. She has agreed not to reside in the buildings while she argues her case before the supervisors, although various cars were parked outside the structures Thursday.
County Tax Assessor Leroy Ware and Building Inspector Victor Stokes say that lone permit was issued in error and that storage buildings should only be located on a piece of property as an accessory to an existing residence and not as the only building on the property. Stokes further argues the buildings didn’t comply to housing standards because they hadn’t been inspected and certified by someone besides the manufacturer.
Harper has provided various convoluted scenarios explaining how work had been done to the property without the correct permits; has told the board there were one, two and three buildings on the property (there were three on Thursday), and even claimed Stokes had come and inspected the property himself, which an obviously shocked Stokes strongly denied.
But one argument that Harper has made that can be proved true is that the county allows people to live in similar storage buildings on properties along Grenada Boulevard. There are a few such buildings, not hiding at the back of property but facing the street, one of them currently for rent. But they were there before 2015, according to county officials.
Ware explained Thursday that the county adopted the 2012 International Residential Code in 2015, giving Leflore County its first set of rules and standards for what could be built in the county and how people go about building it. The state had encouraged all counties to do so after a tornado in the southern part of the state shredded substandard housing, he said.
As a result, the supervisors hired Stokes, Greenwood’s full-time building inspector, as the county inspector also, although on a part-time basis.
“For a long time, people knew they didn’t have to get a building permit in the county,” Ware said. Structures that were already in existence prior to the 2015 adoption of the code were generally grandfathered in, although if the county receives a complaint about the condition of a property, the matter is brought before the Board of Supervisors, he said.
To encourage contractors to come to the county for permits before any work is done, Ware said the county has set up various stop-gap measures. The Leflore County Sheriff’s Department has agreed not to issue an E-911 address to a residential unit under construction unless the applicant can show she has applied for the correct building permits. The county has also worked with the utilities to ask them not to provide power or water to a residential site unless the owner is displaying the right permits.
In Harper’s instance, however, she was able to obtain the E-911 address, electricity and water, without all of the proper permits, demonstrating the system doesn’t always work.
“We’re also in the process of talking to all of these companies that sell these storage sheds to ask them not to sell them until people can prove they have the proper permits,” Ware said.
Along Grenada Boulevard, and in neighborhoods around the city where people have been living in storage sheds, Ware said the county can only wait until the sheds fall down or require repairs that would need a building permit. That permit can then be denied, and the occupant of the storage building would need to move out or go before the board to explain why he should be allowed to live there.
A man who didn’t identify himself but appeared with Harper to argue her case, demanded that supervisors tell him how much money has to be spent before the county will allow someone to live in a structure, raising the question of whether such regulations impact poor people more harshly than people of means.
And in a county with hundreds of decrepit houses, mobile homes, and sheds, Ware admits the matter is much larger than Harper’s lot or the buildings on Grenada Boulevard. And with the lifespan of a building — even a decrepit one — longer than a person’s lifespan, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.
“We have a bunch of substandard housing in the Delta,” Ware said. “How do you solve this situation? I don’t have an answer for that.”
• Contact Gavin Maliska at 581-7235 or email@example.com.