Lawsuit (copy)

The Elmwood Place apartment complex is shown Tuesday, May 10, 2016.

Richard Sitler, The Southern

CAIRO — Last week, public housing residents in Cairo received a letter from a HUD official stating that they “must relocate from Elmwood and McBride immediately” even though they were previously told that there is not a deadline by which they must vacate their complexes slated for demolition.

Residents said the letter was slipped through their door late Wednesday afternoon.

“My daughter got the letter out of the door because I wasn’t here,” said Loretta Collier, who lives at McBride with her 18-year-old daughter, Aaliyah. “She said, ‘Momma, I’m not going to be able to graduate with my friends. They want us gone immediately.’”

Kristen Simelton, who lives at Elmwood, said that residents already know that they have to move, but said they were assured they would have close to a year after signing up for a voucher. She said it was frustrating and confusing to receive that letter on Wednesday evening. Simelton said she reached out to an aide to Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who relayed to her that HUD had assured the senator’s office that the agency had not set a move-out deadline yet. Still, Simelton said the mixed messages makes it difficult to know what HUD intends. “I don’t trust them at all right now. I can’t.”

“There’s a lot of people scared right now, thinking they may have to leave at any moment and possibly before the holidays,” Simelton added.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the federal housing agency has no intentions of asking people to leave Elmwood and McBride before the New Year. “We’ve been around the housing business long enough to know that not having a home for the holidays is not a good thing,” Brown said. Asked about the letter telling people they had to move immediately, Brown said via email on Monday afternoon, “Ideally, we’d like to relocate all the residents to better housing by the summer of 2018.”

In a follow-up email, the newspaper reiterated its question to Brown about why, if no deadline has been set, residents received a letter the week before Thanksgiving saying they needed to move immediately.

Brown did not respond to the newspaper’s inquiry.

Collier said she’s presently looking for a place in Cape Girardeau, but wanted to wait for her daughter to graduate. Collier said her daughter, who turned 18 on Monday, found the letter so upsetting that she canceled her weekend birthday plans with her friends. “I saw the change in her because I know she’s depressed about that letter,” Collier said. She said her daughter told her, “You know, it’s making me think it’s bad enough where they can take my friends away from me. All I want to do is graduate with them.”

Simelton, the resident of Elmwood, said that since HUD has clarified to the newspaper that people do not have to move immediately, she surmises it is a “scare tactic” to motivate people to work harder to find an alternative location. Whatever the case, Simelton said it was in poor taste. “You can’t yank people around like that,” she said. “Why would you send people stuff like that at the holidays and get them all worked up.”

“We’re not cattle,” she added. “You can’t just shove us this way and that way.”

The letter dated Nov. 15 from Towanda Macon, the HUD-appointed executive director of the Alexander County Housing Authority, further stated that the agency is “stressing the urgecy of relocation prior to the winter months for health and safety.”

“Soon, ACHA will have to set a date certain for all families to vacate Elmwood and McBride properties,” it continued. The letter from Macon to the residents mirrored a letter that Jim Cunningham, the deputy administrator for HUD’s Chicago-based Midwest regional office, recently sent to Macon.

The letter also stated that if Elmwood and McBride continue to deteriorate “the ACHA may be forced to insist on emergency relocation sooner than later.”

In April, HUD announced that it would begin the process of relocating 185 families from Elmwood and McBride. To date, 70 have relocated, and about 115 families remain at the two properties.

In a letter also dated Nov. 15, U.S. Sens. Duckworth and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wrote to HUD Secretary Ben Carson seeking clarity on the relocation timeline and chastising the agency for — as they described it — failing to take decisive action to “stop the tide of misinformation that pervades the community.” Durbin and Duckworth said the fact that HUD officials are not taking care to send clear and accurate information and to clarify misinformation circulating in Cairo “adds insult to injury” in a time of uncertainty for many families.

The letter from Illinois’ senators states that they were notified that several residents had received misinformation by HUD-contracted relocation specialists that HUD has instituted a mandatory move-out deadline of Dec. 1.

“As you know, during our meeting in July of this year, you assured us that HUD had no plans to impose a move-out date on residents, recognizing the tremendous impact this would have on the community and local school district as HUD has been unable to identify available housing sufficient for all families wishing to remain in Cairo.”

The senators, in their letter, told Carson that after several inquiries to HUD staff they were informed that the agency has not instituted a move-out date or directed its employees to communicate a Dec. 1 move-out date. “However, when asked how HUD intends to correct and prevent misinformation from being spread to residents, we were told to refer the residents back to the very same relocation specialists,” the letter stated.

“This is not the first time we have raised issue with you or your staff about how misinformation and a lack of clarity from HUD regarding the relocation effort harms residents and hinders ongoing efforts to ensure every family living in Elmwood and McBride has access to safe and affordable housing,” it continued.

This past Thursday, HUD officials were in town for an open house celebration for Little Egypt Estates, a 10-unit complex owned by Shawnee Enterprises Inc. that is housing families from Elmwood and McBride. The newspaper asked HUD’s Brown and Cunningham if they had seen the letter from Durbin and Duckworth.

“Yeah, we’ve seen it. I don’t know that we read it all, but we saw it,” Brown said. To the specific concern about the Dec. 1 deadline, Cunningham said: “Rest assured that no relocation staff has ever uttered the word ‘Dec. 1’ as a deadline.”

“Even when they get something like that, if there’s a rumor, you probably should just let us know so we can go back to the individual and say, ‘That’s simply not the case.’ Or they could have asked us, just like your person at the governor’s office. Just ask us and we’ll tell you,” Brown added. But again, when asked why the letter said people should move immediately, Brown did not provide a response. Cunningham said the intent of the letter was to state that HUD does not intend to rehabilitate any of the buildings at Elmwood and McBride. Asked if the language in the letter telling residents they had to move immediately was a mistake, Cunningham referred all additional questions to Brown.

On Thursday, Brown said that federal housing officials were asked by residents, as well as city and state leaders, to be as patient as possible with the relocation process that was announced on April 10. “And we believe we’ve accommodated them,” Brown said. “But the bottom line is there will be a demolition of Elmwood and McBride and we would like to have people moved as soon as possible.”

Brown said the agency wants the moving process to be convenient for people. “We understand breaks in school, so maybe at the end of the school year. But 2018, the demolition order is going in.”

While HUD’s actions suggest the agency is eager to move everyone out and return the ACHA to local control, federal housing officials do not have a history of acting quickly to assist the people of this region. HUD placed the ACHA into administrative receivership on Feb. 22, 2016. As previously reported by The Southern Illinoisan, HUD knew of serious problems with the ACHA dating back to at least 2010. The federal agency charged with oversight of local housing authorities dragged its feet for years before intervening in the ACHA’s affairs in a substantive way. After placing the housing authority into administrative receivership, HUD waited another 14 months before announcing a relocation plan and publicly acknowledging for the first time on April 10 that the buildings are no longer safe for habitation.

At the time, HUD officials also stated that they had studied all viable options, including whether Elmwood and McBride could be renovated, and found that to be cost prohibitive. When Secretary Carson visited on Aug. 8, after meeting with local officials, he directed his staff to re-analyze whether any building rows could be salvaged at the two complexes. It took more than three months for HUD to send a letter to Mayor Tyrone Coleman stating that HUD was sticking to its original plan, which by all signals, it always intended to do.

Further, Macon’s letter to residents states that the ACHA is finalizing the Section 18 demolition plans for the 278 units at Elmwood and McBride. As well, Brown said in the interview, “The bottom line is there will be a demolition of Elmwood and McBride and we would like to have people moved out as soon as possible.” However, HUD will not commit to tearing down the complexes before returning the housing authority to local control in 2018. In fact, Brown said it is highly unlikely that the demolition will take place by then. He also refused to put a timeline on when that would take place.

“The normal thing that we would do would be to fence off, secure off the area, and once funding is acquired for the demolition, that would take place. There’s also environmental and other things that need to take place as part of the demolition,” Brown said.

Because leaving two large vacant public housing complexes sitting for years as decaying and dangerous eyesores would be problematic for Cairo, and potentially lead to safety issues for the residents who call the city home, the newspaper asked Brown if demolition within two years was reasonable — or five. “I’m not going to set a timeframe because we don’t know about the funding. You have to go through a process. Where we’ve been able to do it in other places it hasn’t taken years, but I’m not going to go out and say it will be done by ‘this’ timeframe.”

As well, HUD has yet to make a determination on the future of the Mary Alice Meadows apartment complex in Thebes. That building also is aging and failing. It scored a 26 out of 100 possible points at its last inspection in 2016 — a failing score. That building, though not as old, also shows signs of neglect. HUD asked Alexander County, one of the poorest counties in the state, to utilize $400,000 it has in a fund that can be used for infrastructure projects to renovate the Thebes property. The county said no as the money already is earmarked for repair of the Len Small Levee, and commissioners also questioned whether they would be throwing good money after bad since the complex has structural issues that need to be addressed. HUD has yet to announce what’s next. Brown said there are a number of possible options under review, but that HUD does not want to alarm anyone by discussing them prematurely.

In their letter, Sens. Durbin and Duckworth outlined several questions for HUD. Those questions are about what HUD is doing to make sure the information disseminated to residents is clear, whether HUD intends to still help all families secure housing, and what the agency is doing to maintain Elmwood and McBride while families remain there.

“We don’t have any comment on the senators’ letters,” Brown said. He noted that if there’s a response from HUD, it will come from the agency’s congressional staff directly to them.

Mayor Coleman said he has a good working relationship with a few people at HUD, including Cunningham, who he said communicates clearly and keeps his word. But overall, he said HUD's mixed messages speak to what he perceives to be an attitude of indifference to the people of Cairo by some of HUD's higher-ups in Washington. "It’s just unreal," Coleman said.

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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