Linda Engle-Harris of Tunica says she has paid repairmen up to $10,500 only for them to take the money and compound her problems with shoddy work. Credit: Vickie D.King/Mississippi Today

Mardis Jones, a government contractor, had just secured a sweet deal with the Tunica County Board of Supervisors to run the county’s one-of-a-kind housing rehabilitation program when he got the call from Linda Fay Engle-Harris in late 2014.

Engle-Harris, a now 66-year-old retired schoolteacher, was living in a white cottage with bright blue detail that was left to her by her parents and on the verge of collapse.

Under his county contract, Jones earned $12,000 a month to vet applications for county-funded home repairs and manage the expenses, according to a 2019 report by the state’s legislative watchdog committee that sharply criticized the program administration and eventually led to a State Auditor’s investigation.

He stole an additional $765,000, soaking up 80% of the program funds over about six years, State Auditor Shad White alleged in embezzlement charges announced Thursday.

“Not livable,” Jones concluded after visiting Engle-Harris’ Robinsonville home, according to a 2015 Washington Post article detailing the county’s use of hundreds of millions it earned since its casino boom in the 1990s. “An immediate need … Messed up.”

Jones also turned Engle-Harris away, telling her: “We have a huge waiting list and the board doesn’t want me to move you ahead of the others … You’re looking at a wait of about five years … It’s not my call. The money is shorting up … I wish I could do more.”

For the next five years, Jones allegedly diverted payments from the program to himself, including funds he claimed he was using to help Engle-Harris, while Engle-Harris lived through worsening conditions. The floor in her bathroom had caved in, but a contractor could not properly repair it because of the muddy foundation underneath, so he built her a wooden box and installed the toilet on top of it.

“That’s how we were using the bathroom, on top of a wooden box,” she told Mississippi Today this week.

“Gosh it was just horrible. We spent four years with a heater that we had to MacGyver a line through, through the furnace which had fallen to the ground.”

Last June, after the walls in Harris’ home completely separated from the wooden floor, she said she took $10,500 from her retirement — all she had left — and paid a contractor to make whatever improvements he could.

“He tried to do his best,” Engle-Harris said. “When he finished, he told me, ‘Let me know when you want me to tear it down.’”

Rehab is a critical type of assistance in a place like Mississippi, which has a much higher percentage of homeowner households compared to other states, but where dwindling populations and industry have perpetuated poverty and left structures to decay in many rural communities.

Across the state, nearly 60% of all housing units are over 40 years old and about 15% are valued at under $50,000, according to census data gathered by the Mississippi Home Corporation.

The need far outweighs the resources available for these kinds of home improvements, especially when the bulk of government investment in low-income housing — namely Section 8 rent vouchers and the tax credits developers use to build affordable units — is targeted towards renters.

Low-income apartments might be the most cost efficient model for addressing immediate housing needs, advocates admit, but this ignores the role home ownership plays in a family’s upward economic mobility — the kind of multi-generational wealth building that can break cycles of poverty and strengthen the middle class.

Some funds are available for homeowner rehab through a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant called the HOME Investment Partnership Program, but it is one of the only sources of these dollars.

That’s what made the now defunct Tunica County-funded program so unique and one reason the misspending represents such a missed opportunity for local residents.

The 2019 report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review scrutinized the Tunica County Board of Supervisors’ role in giving the contract to Jones, but only Jones has faced criminal charges.

Auditor’s agents arrested Jones and issued a demand letter for nearly $1.1 million, which includes interest and investigative expenses. The office said it is the second largest demand letter in its history. He could face up to 40 years in prison and a $45,000 fine. Mississippi Today could not reach Jones on his publicly listed phone numbers and because he had not yet been arraigned, the court did not have information about who his attorney will be.

“I can’t help but be discouraged when another program intended to help the poor is stolen from,” White said in a release, referencing a massive alleged embezzlement scheme his office uncovered within the state’s welfare agency last year.

PEER revealed convoluted and sloppy contracting practices as the administrative structure of the program, originally run by the North Delta Regional Housing Authority when it began in 1998, changed over the years.

Jones had been working as the Tunica County Housing Director for the authority, the public housing agency that administers HUD programs in the area, in 2014 when he splintered off to create his own nonprofit.

The board immediately moved to give the contract to Jones’ nonprofit, Tunica County Housing Inc., which was distinct from but close in name to another nonprofit, Tunica County Housing Project Inc., that helped run the program in previous years.

But a 2014 attorney general opinion stated that the county must operate the program through a public housing authority, not a nonprofit, so the board created a contract with North Delta Regional Housing Authority that required it to pass the money and operational duties of the program to Jones.

The contract, which county officials never actually signed, did not outline any oversight responsibilities for the authority, so taxpayers essentially paid the agency “$6,000 annually to write twelve checks.” PEER described the deal as “excessive and deprives the housing program of funds that could be better used for the program’s intended purposes.”

“Is it equitable? Probably not,” North Delta Regional Housing Authority administrator John Schmidt said of the contract. “That’s what we agreed on.”

Schmidt said he was skeptical of the county’s deal with Jones and justified the money his agency received by saying they have to “stock pile money for situations such as this — having to talk to reporters, maybe having to get attorneys, whatever.”

The county completely shut down the program, which faced a dwindling budget in addition to alleged theft, last June amid the investigation into Jones’ dealings. John Perry, attorney for the board of supervisors, said no supervisors have been implicated in any crime and he strongly believes they had no involvement in the scheme.

The county funded the program using revenue from the casinos, which meant as the economy declined, the budget shrunk from roughly $1 million a year in its early years, Schmidt said, to $330,000, making it more challenging to administer.

Additionally, the program capped awards to each homeowner at $25,000. This amount is much less than what many homes need for the investment to be worthwhile — including Engle-Harris’. (There is no cap for rehab projects through the HOME program; it can go as far as tearing down and rebuilding a qualified homeowner’s house).

Tunica County Administrator Billy Willis told Mississippi Today he is looking at ways to jump start more rehabilitation projects in the county and assist Engle-Harris.

After more than five years, Engle-Harris has not received any help to salvage her home — despite the nation reading her story, locals setting up a GoFundMe in her name and even a university architecture school designing and drafting blueprints to build her a new home. All they needed was for the county to tear the house down, she said.

“About a month after everything kind of died down, they just did a complete about face and I didn’t see them anymore. They didn’t talk to me. They didn’t come over. Conditions got worse,” Engle-Harris said of county officials.

At one point, she said she called the housing office to ask for an update and a receptionist told Engle-Harris her file was gone.

County code enforcement has recommended condemning the house and a homeless services agency helped Engle-Harris and her mentally disabled brother Johnny move into an apartment — a government subsidized development — in December.

The organization, Mississippi United to End Homelessness, has agreed to pay their rent for several months. But the assistance won’t last forever and she doesn’t think she’ll be able to afford rent in the future. The last time she stopped by her house, she discovered the window on her front door shattered.

“We’re considered homeless,” Harris said. “We thought we were secure. Like any other homeowner: This is my home. This is where I live. I don’t need to go anywhere else.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.