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HUD long neglected these residents. Now as they move out, some feel HUD let them down again.
A scramble for housing in Southern Illinois has exposed mixed messages and false hope. “It’s betrayal, really,” one resident said of the way she’s been treated by HUD.

Editor's note: This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica; The Southern Illinoisan is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network

CAIRO — For years, residents of public housing complexes here were stuck living in aging and neglected buildings with inoperable heat, leaky ceilings, broken windows, mold, mice, roaches, and frequently clogged toilets and sinks.

And for years, federal authorities failed to step in despite regular financial reviews and building inspections that should have flagged problems and prompted corrective action much sooner.

But the solution once the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development finally faced the scope of the decay in Illinois’ most southern city has turned out to be every bit as thorny and painful.

Last spring, HUD announced it would shutter two sprawling World War II-era family housing complexes in Cairo and help residents move out. Ten months later, HUD officials delivered similar news to residents of two more public housing complexes in the nearby village of Thebes.

William Widmer, special to ProPublica 

Young residents play with plywood panels, which are used to cover up vacated properties at Elmwood.

All told, nearly 500 people, half of them children, are being forced to find new homes.

While HUD’s moves address residents’ repeated complaints about neglect, the agency is falling short in meeting the needs of those displaced, experts and some residents say.

HUD's solution in Cairo and Thebes is to offer residents spots in other public housing units or give them vouchers that subsidize rent in the private market. The resulting mad scramble for housing, however, has been fraught with mixed messages and false hope, tough conversations and hard landings.

A scarcity of rental housing in the two towns means most families must relocate to other communities, where landlords are reluctant to participate in the voucher program commonly known as Section 8. Some residents also face increased rental and utility costs.

In the best circumstances, residents with limited resources must arrange rushed moves and acclimate to new neighborhoods, in some cases, across state lines. In the worst, their social networks and support systems will be torn apart in the process.

“The chances of people ending up in better situations are not great," said David Omotoso Stovall, a professor of educational policy studies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

When people are forced to quickly relocate without adequate supportive services or assurances of improved living circumstances, "it's a structural failure of HUD," said Stovall, whose research focuses on the influence of race in urban education, community development and housing.

Communities are also left suffering in the wake of HUD’s mistakes. The Cairo school district, which has a student count of just more than 350, has lost a fourth of its students in the past two years due to the housing crisis, and will likely lose more before the start of school next fall. Thebes stands to lose its largest utility customer.

Thousands of housing authorities around the country have similarly aging complexes, many of which are degrading beyond the point of repair. But small, economically destitute places like Cairo and Thebes are often unable to leverage either the political will or private capital necessary to replace what's lost.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the agency recognizes that “moving is one of the most traumatic life experiences” and carefully weighed “a variety of housing solutions” before deciding to close the four public housing complexes. The finances of the Alexander County Housing Authority, which includes both Cairo and Thebes, were precarious before HUD took over its operations in early 2016.

“Nationwide housing vouchers were extended to each leaseholder and our relocation and mobility specialists have provided a range of options, including tours and providing school and employment information, to make families as informed as possible,” Brown said in a statement. “Experience tells us that despite our very best efforts, it's difficult to anticipate everything relocating families encounter.”

Of the about 130 families that had relocated from the two Cairo complexes — Elmwood and McBride — as of the end of March, about two-thirds of them have landed in other cities, particularly Carbondale, Illinois, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri — both about an hour away.

The process is beginning anew in Thebes.

Below are the stories of six people affected by the housing crisis:

‘I didn't want to move the first time, and I sure don't want to move a second time.’

William Widmer, special to ProPublica 

Jamarion Reed, 6, plays in his bedroom at the apartment he shares with his grandmother, Earlene Lyons.

Earlene Lyons was thrilled to get a public housing apartment in Cairo about four years ago. Lyons liked her unit at Elmwood, with the exception of the roaches and three spontaneous kitchen fires blamed on faulty electrical wiring — problems she was willing to overlook for the sake of stability.

When HUD announced plans to close the Cairo complexes, Lyons was disappointed but she jumped at an opening at Sunset Terrace, a public housing building in Thebes, about 20 minutes away. Lyons had lived in Thebes before, and her best friend lived in the unit next door. Plus, HUD would pay for the move.

But the transition was harder than she imagined. She has custody of her 6-year-old grandson, Jamarion, who is autistic. He had to switch school districts and, though behavioral issues were never a problem before, he got in trouble at school shortly after he transferred. "They said he threw something at a student," she said.

He’s done better with each passing month, Lyons said, but since HUD officials told Lyons she has to leave Thebes by the end of the year, her anxiety level has been “high, high, high.”

“It’s betrayal, really,” she said. "I didn't want to move the first time, and I sure don't want to move a second time."

She worries how the next move will affect Jamarion. "He's not good with change," she said.

After receiving custody of Jamarion when he was a baby, Lyons said they were homeless for several months, forced to bounce from couch to couch among relatives. Prior to that, she spent close to a year living at a women's shelter.

Lyons said she's thankful that Jamarion was too young to remember the early years of his life. "He should not have to go through this," she said. "We're not homeless, but it's still bouncing from house to house."

One of Lyons’ biggest fears is that if her home life becomes too unstable, child welfare services could step in.

"It's not my fault. It's those people down there," she said of federal housing officials. "They don't understand the consequences to everything."

A 5-year-old cries and says he wants to go to school

Andrew Spear for ProPublica 

Myra Rayford at her family's new apartment in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rayford left Cairo in August.

During the 20 years she lived in Cairo, Myra Rayford said her family didn't always have enough to eat. She struggled to hold down steady work as she often lacked reliable transportation. Her McBride apartment was so infested that she had to spray Raid around her youngest child's bed at night, concerned a roach would crawl in his ear. She worried about her children's safety when they played outside because of gun violence and other crimes.

In May 2016, well before the complexes were designated for closure, Rayford was among 30 residents who sued the Alexander County Housing Authority alleging persistent poor living conditions violated the civil rights of housing authority residents, most of whom are African-American. A settlement agreement stemming from that lawsuit provided plaintiffs with cash settlements of about $10,000 each. It also provided them access to vouchers and relocation expenses, which HUD extended to all families living in Elmwood and McBride.

While HUD's decision to close the complexes drew vocal condemnation in town, Rayford and many other residents privately wanted out. They hoped for a place that offered more opportunities for their children in the long run.

Last August, she left Cairo.

But wanting to go didn't make the transition any less jarring. The family landed hard in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Rayford grew up and her older sister lives. Rayford had to juggle apartment and job hunting, enrolling her children in school and transferring their benefits to a new state.

“It was rough in the beginning," she said.

The family's decision to relocate meant Rayford had to separate from her 18-year-old daughter, who moved in with her father to finish her senior year in high school in Cairo. It also meant leaving behind a tight-knit network of families that lean on one another for support and friendship.

Rayford's 14- and 12-year-old daughters, who made the move with her, missed a month of school because Rayford didn’t have the paperwork she needed to prove to the school that she was their mother. (Her last name had changed and did not match the name on their birth certificates.)

By the time she could place her 5-year-old on the long waiting list for pre-kindergarten in Cincinnati, all the slots for low-income families were already filled.

“He cries and gets upset and says he wants to go to school," she said. "When the bus rolls by, he says, ‘That’s my bus right there, momma.’ I’m like, ‘I’m trying, son. I promise I’m trying to get you in there.’”

With her son home during the day, Rayford said she's only able to work part-time at night at a tax preparation office, while her girls watch their little brother after school. She plans to look for full-time work when he starts kindergarten this fall, but she doesn't know the city well enough yet to feel comfortable leaving him with someone else.

A few months after they moved, Rayford found a two-story townhome for the family. That meant the girls had to switch schools again. But Rayford said they are adjusting well, and the whole family loves their new house. It's a big improvement, she said, and the family is growing more comfortable with their new home city, too. Rayford said she hopes Cairo sees better days.

She's going to make sure her family does, regardless.

Also slated to go: Thebes’ volunteer fire chief

William Widmer, special to ProPublica 

The Hull family (from left, Sheila, Rebecca, Reuben, and Jimmy) in the living room of their apartment at the Mary Alice Meadows development.

When public housing complexes close, it's not just the housing resources a community loses. Thebes, for instance, may soon be searching for a new volunteer fire chief.

Reuben Hull, who lives at Mary Alice Meadows, one of the complexes designated for closure, has held that title since 2010. He’s often the first on scene at house fires and car crashes. He’s kept heart attack victims alive waiting for the ambulance to reach this remote village.

About five years ago, Hull helped pull a woman to shore near Thebes after she fell from a bridge in Cape Girardeau and drifted eight miles down the Mississippi River.

“She calls me a hero. I told her, 'I’m not no hero,'” he said. “I’m just here to do my job.”

Hull doubles as the neighborhood Mr. Fix It. Several residents at the complex, many of them single moms, mentioned that Hull is the one they call when their furnace won’t kick on or the toilet gets stopped up. They say he responds faster than the housing authority, especially lately. “I’ve always wanted to make sure I took care of people,” Hull said.

Hull was raised by his grandparents on a 40-acre plot just outside of Thebes. Their restroom was an outhouse; meals consisted of garden produce, fresh eggs and farm-raised pork. They kept warm at night by a wood-burning stove. Hull and an uncle helped his grandparents upgrade to indoor plumbing in the late 1990s. What constitutes adequate housing conditions is subjective, he said.

Hull lives at the complex with his wife, Rebecca, and three of their children. He delivers equipment to restaurants for a living; she works in a packaging company in nearby Missouri. From his couch, Hull can hear turkeys gobbling in the woods. He loathes the idea of trading the sounds of nature for that of nonstop traffic. “They’re going to have to drag us out of here kicking and screaming,” Rebecca Hull said.

“We just don’t call this the housing," Reuben Hull added. "We call this our community, because it is our community. If somebody needs help, hey, we’re going to help them. But HUD don’t look at it thataway.”

A review by an architectural firm last fall showed that the Mary Alice Meadows complex has serious structural issues throughout. The firm estimated it would cost almost $650,000 to fix 10 vacant units — nine at Mary Alice Meadows and one at Sunset Terrace next door, where someone ran a car through the front door. That price tag did not include testing and remediation of any environmental hazards or repairs to other units, which HUD says would substantially increase renovation costs. HUD posted the properties in Thebes for sale in February and sought a private buyer, but none had responded as of the agency’s late March deadline.

A friend’s overdose sealed a mom’s decision that it's time to go.

William Widmer, special to ProPublica 

India Williams sits in her kitchen at the Mary Alice Meadows development with her three daughters, from left, I'Riell, 8, Ariana, 1, and Ivyana, 7.

Some units in Thebes are in worse condition than others.

In India Williams' apartment in Mary Alice Meadows, there’s mold along baseboards and holes in the walls. The window in her bedroom is broken; the heat and toilet have been out of commission for weeks at a time over the past few years.

Williams represents a number of Thebes families who say they were overlooked for months while HUD focused on Cairo. A year ago, Williams stood up at the meeting HUD convened in Cairo and asked when help would arrive for the residents of Thebes, where she and her three young girls live. It was another 10 months before Thebes residents were offered access to relocation services.

This past winter, Williams said she was without heat for about a week. When she reported the issue, housing authority workers brought her two space heaters. But a maintenance worker didn’t show up to repair her furnace for another two weeks, she said.

“We piled up in this living room and laid up on this couch under blankets,” Williams said. When she mentioned the issue to Reuben Hull, one of her neighbors, he came over and fixed it, she said.

A drug epidemic has taken root here, primarily heroin and methamphetamine. On March 16, Williams said she lost one of her best friends, a 28-year-old mother of two, to an overdose.

She worries one of her children might step on a hypodermic needle, a concern raised by several parents.

She said her friend’s death sealed the decision in her mind that it's time to go.

After Williams left her public housing unit in Cairo eight years ago, Thebes offered a unit in better condition, and a quieter place to raise her children. But in the past few years, she said, the village and the complex where she lives have deteriorated.

Her future is in limbo.

Once HUD announced that the Thebes residents had to move, Williams acted quickly to pick out a home in Cape Girardeau.

She was thrilled when she found a six-bedroom house that sits across the street from a grocery store. But soon after, she got a call from the landlord. The house was rented to someone else while she waited for her paperwork to be processed by the housing authority.

Williams was deflated. She knows the transition will be difficult for her girls, which is why she's eager to get it behind them. “I’m scared, but mamma said there’s nothing to be worried about,” said her daughter, Ivyana, 7.

After moving out, she was evicted from her new home. Then she moved back in.

William Widmer, special to ProPublica 

Koree Simelton sits with her son Joshua on a bed in her parents’ apartment at Elmwood.

Koree Simelton, 21, was pregnant with her first child when HUD announced plans to move everyone from the complexes in Cairo. She was living with her parents at the time, having moved back in after suffering a basketball injury in college and taking a break from school.

But because Simelton was not considered the “head of household” on the family’s lease, she was not eligible for a voucher or moving expenses. Even so, HUD made a special effort to help Simelton find a place.

She moved to Herrin, about an hour away from Cairo, just a few weeks before the baby was born.

Simelton liked her new place, though she struggled to furnish the apartment after bringing baby Joshua home. For weeks, about all she had at her new public housing unit was a bed for herself and a crib for him. The living room was bare.

Simelton said she enrolled in a job placement program, but transportation was an ongoing issue that delayed the process. She paid $1,000 for a car on Facebook, but it broke down after only a week — and she wasn’t able to get her money back. There’s bus service in the small town she was living in, but catching a ride requires more careful planning than it does in a big city with more regular routes. Simelton said it was hard for her to be that far from her own mom, who was unable to visit regularly.

Then she got behind on rent. She was evicted in February.

At the time, she owed the housing authority a couple hundred dollars in rent, utilities and late fees. But when she was evicted, she was charged an additional $250 in attorney fees, bringing the total she now owes to close to $550, according to court records.

Simelton said she could have come up with the money, but she was frustrated and overwhelmed living on her own, juggling a baby and new environment. She didn’t realize the paperwork she signed at the courthouse means the eviction will show up on her record during a background check, which could severely limit her housing choices in the future. She moved back into her parents’ apartment in Elmwood, which they all will have to vacate soon.

Simelton and her mom, who did receive a housing voucher, are now looking for a place to rent together. Back in Cairo, she's working full-time as a clerk at a liquor and convenience store, sharing her mom's car to get to and from work. Simelton said she's setting aside money to pay off the late rent and court fees, aware they might haunt her when she's ready to set out on her own again.

“I went through a lot moving on my own, and getting my own apartment having no help,” she said. “I was left out.”

The keys to home ownership make for a happy family

William Widmer, special to ProPublica 

Miracle Childs, 9, stands with her mother Terri Childs, who just purchased this house in Cairo.

Earlier this week, Terri Childs closed on her dream house in Cairo. It's yellow with white shutters and has a garage where she plans to build a photography studio, a storage shed and a nice back yard for entertaining family and friends.

Childs was devastated when she learned last April that she had to move out of her McBride apartment. She was determined not to leave Cairo, though.

After HUD told residents they could stop paying rent, Childs combined some of that money, part of her 2017 tax refund and help from a few relatives to purchase the $15,000 home outright. The day the seller accepted her offer, Childs said she was "so excited I couldn't sleep." It's right around the corner from the elementary school where she's worked as a teacher's aide for about 24 years.

“I want everyone to hear my story because I thank the Lord it ended up good and we didn’t have to leave," she said.

All told, 40 people who have left the public housing complexes in Cairo remain in town. Some have moved into the few remaining public housing complexes in the city, or into a new 10-unit complex that a private developer opened specifically to serve the displaced residents. Eight people, including Childs, have purchased homes or are renting to own in Cairo.

Childs said the home she picked out is in good condition and ready for her to move in. It belonged to her former English teacher's mom, and she's confident it was well cared for. But she worries about how the exodus of people will affect those who remain. Childs said it's been hard to watch children leave the school where she works.

Some of her friends who have moved to Carbondale or Cape Girardeau have told her they want to move back to Cairo one day. Childs said she couldn't imagine moving away. "I said, 'I ain't going nowhere.' I meant that," she said. "The Lord opened a door for me. He sure did."

Miracle, Childs' 9-year-old daughter, said she is a little sad about leaving McBride, but she's excited about the new house because it means she will have a room of her own.

As families move out of McBride, workers are securing windows and doors with fresh plywood. HUD says it's to protect the safety of residents who remain from vandals and squatters, but it also gives the appearance of eerie abandonment in a place where people still live.

Miracle shrugs it off, saying she doesn't let it bother her. "We'll be moving soon," she said.

breaking featured
SIU Carbondale chancellor, legislators urge against proposal to shift funding to Edwardsville

CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University Carbondale Chancellor Carlo Montemagno, downstate legislators and the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce are all decrying a proposal to reallocate some state funding from Carbondale to Edwardsville to reflect changes in enrollment levels at the two campuses.

The proposal, which will appear before the SIU Board of Trustees at the April 12 meeting in Carbondale, would shift about $5.1 million in funding to Edwardsville for the upcoming fiscal year in its initial phase.

In a statement posted on his blog earlier this week, Montemagno said the initial reallocation would be equal to the layoffs of 110 faculty and staff and could threaten the university’s financial stability.

Carlo Montemagno

Montemagno argued that the proposal bases its recommendations strictly on enrollment, but that there are other factors to consider. He said hiring faculty at a doctoral research university is more costly, and that a number of SIUC programs require a small teacher/student ratio.

“Since 2014, SIU Carbondale has reduced its budget by more than $31 million and has about 500 fewer employees. We cannot absorb any part of the additional $5.1 million reduction by further increasing tuition, by further deferring maintenance of our facilities, or by reducing staff without damaging the quality of programs and services we provide,” Montemagno said.


In a statement, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro — whose district includes both Carbondale and some areas close to Edwardsville — cautioned that SIUC is currently taking the first steps in a reorganization plan.

“I’m concerned there is a push to make a quick decision to divert funds from Carbondale to Edwardsville by a Board of Trustees that currently has a vacant seat. We’re talking about moving a lot of money out of Carbondale’s economy. I think we should slow down, study this, and at the very least have a fully-slated Board of Trustees before making such a vitally important decision,” Bost said.

Paul Schimpf

State Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, said he supports evaluating and possibly updating the funding ratio, but only after a period of careful study.

“The current proposal is scheduled to go before an incomplete Board of Trustees, without the benefit of outside, impartial study, at a time when SIUC is in the midst of a reorganization. I urge the University President and the Chair of the Board of Trustees to rethink their decision to press ahead with this vote,” Schimpf said in a statement.


State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, called on the board to postpone their vote.

“This is a decision that will require careful consideration and demands input from the SIUC community, weighing the impact such a cost shift would have on staffing, future enrollment and the surrounding economy. I encourage the Board to postpone their vote, ensure the community has a voice in this decision and move forward in a cooperative and thoughtful manner,” Fowler said in a statement.


“I share my constituents’ concerns that a major diversion of funding from SIUC to the Edwardsville campus will hurt the local and regional economy,” State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said in a statement. “This move would further downgrade the capabilities of the University to be the world class research facility and economic engine that we need in southern Illinois. The jobs that could be lost due to this funding plan will hurt the Carbondale economy and losing more programs at SIUC will only make the problem of dropping enrollment worse.”


State Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton, urged that the full board be seated before taking action on the proposal.

“I am calling on the Board to slow down and study this from every angle. SIU Carbondale is an economic driver for the region and we need to protect it and continue to work to grow enrollment,” Severin said in a statement.

Phelps Finnie

State Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie, D-Elizabethtown, said SIUC is “the cornerstone of education and research as well as the economic engine for Southern Illinois.”

“Southern Illinoisans cherish the Carbondale campus as a part of their lives and as part of the town’s iconic history, and our entire economy is heavily dependent upon its success. We need to find a better way to increase funding and reestablish SIU-C as the educational beacon that attracts our own students, as well as those from across the United States,” Phelps Finnie said.

In a letter sent to the Board of Trustees, the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors asserted that SIUC needs time to grow enrollment.

“We respectfully request that you give SIUC, and the region it impacts, time. Time, so that we might reap the results and rewards of the work currently in process. We assure you that this administration and business community are committed to seeing SIUC restored to its former glory,” the statement reads.

The board will discuss the proposal during the April 11 work session and vote on the matter the following day.

Ms. 3000

After climbing to eighth in state history in scoring, Gallatin County's Hailey Chubb is our Girls Basketball Player of the Year. Sports, Page B1

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In small-town America, the public housing crisis nobody’s talking about

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica; The Southern Illinoisan is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network

It's a Sunday morning in late February at the tiny Baptist church atop the hill in Thebes, a remote village of about 400 people in the southernmost part of Illinois. I'm here for a story assignment, but to know people is to worship with them. Faith is as much a part of these small communities as the rivers that run outside their doorsteps.

My heart twists seeing the church's sign out front that reads, "Pray for America."

It twists a little tighter when the pastor calls the dozen or so people gathered that morning to lay hands on Laverne Williams because she's about to lose her home, through no fault of her own.

Earlier that month, officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development called a meeting in Thebes to inform some 85 residents of two public housing complexes, including Williams, that they have to move out by the end of the year. I was at that meeting, too. I stood outside with residents as a long caravan of vehicles bounded over potholes and past weather-beaten homes.

It resembled a funeral procession — the federal government arriving to bury yet another small town in my backyard. A year ago, I sat in a Baptist church in the nearby town of Cairo as HUD delivered similar news to 400 residents.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

India Williams pleads with HUD officials to address the living conditions of Thebes public housing residents during an emotional meeting during which the federal housing agency announced the pending closure of public housing complexes in Cairo on April 10, 2017. 

This has been a long time coming. Housing complexes have been crumbling around families while the region’s infrastructure and economy collapsed.

And it’s not unique to Cairo and Thebes. Public housing is aging across America. Federal officials are increasingly looking to shift people from housing run by the government to affordable dwellings that are privately owned or managed, and to encourage state and local governments to help pick up the tab. But some regions like ours lack the resources to replace what’s being lost.

©Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos 

John Lewis (second from left), then age 22, who would go on to be chairman of the SNCC, and presently a U.S. representative from Georgia, and others demonstrate in 1962 at the Cairo pool, which did not allow blacks.

Cairo, which sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, is one of the most important African-American cities in the Midwest — a haven for blacks seeking freedom during and after the Civil War and a site of important demonstrations during the Civil Rights movement. Stubborn racial strife brought the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to town in 1972.

The late journalist Paul Good, known for his coverage of the civil rights era, authored a report  the next year in which he painstakingly detailed the unfairness Cairo’s black residents reported to the commission.

That included poor living conditions — chipping paint, roaches, rats, bad plumbing, cracked ceilings and walls — in their segregated public housing complexes, and HUD’s failure to enforce fair housing laws.

For the past three years, I’ve been telling strikingly similar tales of residents, most of them African-American, affected by unsafe and unsanitary living conditions at complexes run by the Alexander County Housing Authority, and HUD’s recent decision to close them down rather than renovate or build new ones in Cairo or Thebes. (Cairo and Thebes are located in Alexander County.)

In countless stories, The Southern Illinoisan has detailed alleged mismanagement and questionable spending by the housing authority’s past directors, and HUD’s failure to intervene.

The federal housing agency is charged with regularly inspecting complexes and reviewing housing authorities’ finances. For years, HUD gave the county housing authority high marks. From the time HUD began documenting concerns in 2010, it took seven years before officials announced a plan to address residents’ living conditions. That plan: To ask nearly a fifth of Cairo’s citizens, and a fourth of Thebes’, to relocate.

HUD has admitted that government agencies at all levels, itself included, contributed to the current-day Alexander County housing crisis. But HUD — the chief overseer — has been painstakingly slow to offer a detailed explanation of what led to its mistakes, and what has been done to prevent them in the future. Many here feel the agency’s response, though costly, is not proportionate to the agony those mistakes have caused.

William Widmer, special to ProPublica 

A faded mural depicting civil rights and African American political history on the side of an old building across the street from the McBride housing development.

The opening line in Good’s 1973 report — “Cairo, Illinois: Racism at Floodtide” struck me hard: “This is about a small American city named Cairo that raises large American questions.”

This year, The Southern Illinoisan is partnering with ProPublica to explore these questions — and try to answer them.

Today, we are reporting on the lives and communities upended with the slated closure of complexes in Cairo and Thebes.

In the coming months, I plan to report on other communities in downstate Illinois and elsewhere where aging housing has led to unsafe conditions. I will examine the quality of housing inspections and what happens when HUD takes over a housing authority. Given the ongoing push for privatization, which this administration is advancing even more aggressively, I also will look into the quality and availability of privately owned, HUD-subsidized housing, and barriers to finding adequate housing for Section 8 voucher holders.

Residents like Laverne Williams have welcomed me into their homes to share their concerns and hopes for the future. In Cairo and Thebes, some were thrilled by the opportunity to receive vouchers and help relocating; others do not want to leave the only hometowns they’ve ever known.

William Widmer, special to ProPublica 

The Mary Alice Meadows complex in Thebes was constructed in 1988. A recent architectural assessment found extensive moisture damage, plumbing leaks, broken windows and sagging floors.

After church, Williams invites me back to the Mary Alice Meadows complex in Thebes. Her apartment is tidy and decorated with pictures of her family. As she makes us meatloaf for lunch, she talks about her feelings of uncertainty about leaving Thebes and the community she’s built here, and also about the struggles she faces in this remote village, which sits along the banks of the Mississippi River. She doesn’t have a car and can’t always get a ride to the store. Williams says that HUD's decisions here are perhaps God's way of letting her know better things await.

It can be difficult to talk about where to draw the crooked line between holding on and moving on.

Because home is a concept that beats a powerful pulse inside people. Because people lean on neighbors they know. Because it’s almost always minority residents forced to move, versus the opportunities coming to their communities.

Increasingly, the latter is true for rural citizens, too, regardless of race. It’s a dilemma that families living in aging complexes have to wrestle with, as well as the towns in which they are located. It’s also a broader policy debate that HUD and Congress must answer as public housing complexes age.

To tell the story, I could use your help.

I want to hear from people in downstate Illinois and other small and mid-size cities who are living in public housing, federally subsidized private properties or who rent homes using Section 8 vouchers. Please get in touch if:

● You are a resident living in HUD-subsidized housing that has problems (such as: heat doesn’t work, infestation, leaking ceilings, plumbing or electrical problems, mold or lead paint that hasn’t been removed).

● You have been forced to relocate from a complex that was closed because it was considered unsafe.

● You work or have worked as a HUD contract inspector or as an agency quality assurance inspector.

● You are a current or past manager of HUD-assisted housing.

● You are a housing advocate, community leader or citizen with concerns about a HUD-subsidized housing complex in your town.

You can reach me via the following ways: or 618-924-0826 (text or call).

SIUC still has several steps to take before restructuring

CARBONDALE — Last fall, the newly minted chancellor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale announced that he intended to rebuild the struggling institution from the ground up.

Carlo Montemagno’s all-but-unprecedented restructuring plan eliminates the basic academic unit in traditional university structures — departments — and combines degree programs into schools, which in turn belong to larger colleges.

The plan has proved controversial on campus, as some faculty protest that jettisoning departments will take power away from professors and upend a model that has worked for decades.

The chancellor, for his part, says the reorganization is the bold move SIUC needs in order to provide new forms of collaboration and to make programs attractive to prospective students.

SIU board mulls restructuring plan, tuition hike

At a standing-room-only work session Wednesday, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s new chancellor presented his controversial academic reorganization plan to the SIU Board of Trustees, eliciting an apparent mix of skepticism and support.

Stances on the plan aside, one thing is clear: restructuring a university is a complicated business. This article attempts to map out the thorny reorganization process and determine where SIUC stands now.

School-level proposals

Montemagno’s academic reorganization occurs on two levels: colleges and schools. The more complicated process takes place on the school level because it is subject to faculty union review.

Based on Article 9 of the SIUC Faculty Association contract, the university must develop proposals for changes to programs.

“What the faculty union here bargained with the administration is a process to organize how changes would take place to academic programs … and it requires that there be a proposal developed to, in this case, merge such programs or such units, and that that proposal provide enough information for people to make a reasoned judgment on whether it was a good idea or not,” Faculty Association President Dave Johnson said.

In November, a series of proposals were distributed to affected academic units. Once those were handed out, the clock started ticking for 90 days of faculty review and discussion.

David DiLalla, associate provost for academic administration, is overseeing the bulk of the proposal review process.

“We had meetings with faculty with administrators present, we had meetings with faculty without administrators present, and then somewhere during that 90-day period, if the faculty said, ‘You know what, we already have all the information we need, we already had the discussion we need, we’re ready to move on,’ they could vote to close the 90-day window early. One or two did, but most did not,” DiLalla said.

At the end of 90 days, the discussion window closed, unless faculty voted to extend the discussion an additional 30 days — a power granted in the faculty union contract.

For the several academic units that voted for an additional 30-day extension, the discussion window closed in mid-March.

At that point in the process, “proposals” became “program change plans” — documents that include adjustments made to the original proposals based on discussion and feedback, but also include the form known as a “reasonable and moderate extension” (RME).

An RME is the mechanism by which program changes are implemented through the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

DiLalla and Associate Provost for Academic Programs Lizette Chevalier are currently putting together program change packets that go out to faculty, the Faculty Association, the Faculty Senate and Graduate Council.

Each department will have the opportunity to cast a vote, and the union will make reports to the Faculty Senate and Graduate Council.

“Faculty don’t have a veto over changes in the contract, but we do get to vote, we do get to suggest changes, we do get to make our voices heard. So it’s an example where the union has worked hard to make sure that faculties are partners in running the university,” Johnson said.

The Faculty Senate and Graduate Council will also then take votes and make recommendations, and the plans are returned to the chancellor.

“The chancellor at that stage will have access to everything — he’ll have department vote, he’ll have the Faculty Association report, he’ll have Faculty Senate report, Grad Council report … and then the chancellor is making a determination about whether this proposal or plan should continue and go forward or should not,” DiLalla said.

As program change plans leave campus review, they will be brought before the SIU Board of Trustees. DiLalla said it is unclear at this point whether the board will take a formal vote on the plans.

The chancellor originally hoped to get the plans before the Board of Trustees at the April 12 meeting in Carbondale.

The process is behind schedule, but DiLalla said he could not provide an updated timeline.

“I really can’t speculate. It takes the time that it takes. … It is a complex process, and we had some goals about how we would like to see the process move forward, but we recognize that it takes the time that it takes,” DiLalla said.

Once the RMEs are completed, they will be submitted to the IBHE for review and approval, either by staff or by the board itself, according to Stephanie Bernoteit, IBHE deputy director of academic affairs.

If there are issues with an RME application, a staff member will issue technical questions to provide SIUC to clarify or add missing evidence and information, Bernoteit said.

“The typical process is to use technical questions and responses to bring an application to a place where it can be fully considered,” she said.

Bernoteit said she couldn’t say how long the review process might take, as it depends on the workload of IBHE staff at a given time.

DiLalla said he wasn’t sure whether the RMEs would be submitted individually or all at once.

“It’s not moving in lock-step — we’re moving at varying rates depending on where a given proposal is … my guess is that these are probably going to go to the IBHE in phases, but I can’t say that for sure,” DiLalla said.

College-level RMEs

In late March, departments were asked to vote to approve college RMEs, which are not subject to faculty union review. Some departments were given as little as a week to vote, according to Johnson.

The union saw this move as an “end run around the Article 9 process” because it would lay the framework for the reorganization without waiting for votes on school-level plans, Johnson said. In other words, new colleges would be established without any schools to fill them.

Later, the administration changed tack and retracted deadlines for college RME approval. DiLalla said renaming the colleges while simultaneously pursuing the proposals for schools “raised confusion” among faculty.

Instead, newly formed schools will temporarily report to the provost rather than to a college.

“ … We temporarily place that school kind of in a holding pattern in the provost’s area, and when we finally get the schools that are all going to be in a college through the system, we’ve got them all ready to go, then we turn our attention to the college renaming and then independently prepare the college rename or whatever we might need to do in order to then have those schools assigned to the college,” DiLalla said.

Bret Seferian, a Uniserv director with the Illinois Education Association who works with several of SIU’s unions, said he believes having schools report to the provost could lead to workload issues.

“The administration keeps changing what the plan is, and my guess is it’s because they don’t really know what they’re doing. It looks like they’re scrambling to me,” Seferian said.

DiLalla said he could not estimate when the college renaming might be in place or how long schools will report to the provost.

“I think it’s best to say that it’s dependent on the speed with which school-level proposals were to emerge,” DiLalla said.

This story has been updated to correct Bret Seferian's title. 


SIU Carbondale Chancellor Carlo Montemagno