Lawsuit (copy)

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

CAIRO – Thirty residents of Elmwood and McBride public housing complexes in Cairo and their lawyers are to receive a combined $350,000 under the terms of a settlement agreement between the tenants and their landlord, the Alexander County Housing Authority.

The settlement agreement stems from a lawsuit filed just more than a year ago in which the tenants accused the local housing authority of breaching its lease agreements with residents by failing to maintain housing units in safe and sanitary conditions.

The residents alleged the failure of the ACHA and its senior staff to maintain basic living conditions either caused or exacerbated health conditions that they and/or their children suffered. The development or worsening of asthma directly related to their housing conditions was cited as a top health-related complaint in the lawsuit.

Collectively, the 30 plaintiffs alleged that 13 of their young children are suffering severe breathing problems as a result of ACHA’s failures as a landlord and stewards of a housing program for low-income people living in one of the poorest cities in America. 

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ACHA board meeting, June 28

The Alexander County Housing Authority board on Wednesday, June 28, 2017, voted to approve a resolution ratifying a settlement agreement in the amount of $350,000 with tenants of Elmwood and McBride. The residents filed a civil lawsuit this past year alleging breach of their leases by the ACHA's failure to maintain their units in safe and sanitary conditions. Pictured left-to-right is ACHA Executive Director Towanda Macon, and co-board members Kimberly Wize and Lindsey Reames, all of whom are HUD employees assigned to Cairo. 

The plaintiffs are to receive either $10,000 or $10,500 each under the terms of the settlement agreement, splitting a combined $306,000, according to a resolution to ratify the agreement that the Alexander County Housing Authority’s board of commissioners approved by a 2-0 vote on Wednesday afternoon.

The ACHA’s two board members who ratified the deal, Lindsey Reames and Kimberly Wize, are members of Housing and Urban Development’s recovery team assigned to the ACHA. Federal employees have been charged with daily operations of the ACHA since Feb. 22, 2016.

On that day, which followed months of back-and-forth seeking corrective action, HUD officials removed the local governing board and assumed control of the agency, citing years of poor, inappropriate and potentially illegal management practices that were harming the residents for whom the ACHA managers were entrusted to provide adequate shelter. Questions have been raised about how the millions of federal taxpayer dollars they were allocated to carry out that mission in recent years were spent, given that it appears so little of it went to maintaining developments. 

During the board meeting, Towanda Macon, a HUD administrator from Chicago who is serving as executive director of the ACHA while it is in federal receivership, said that the settlement agreement will be paid by the housing authority’s insurance provider.

The resolution states that the executive director signed the agreement on June 16. 

In addition to money for the tenants, the settlement agreement provides for the Chicago-based entities that provided legal representation to the tenants in to receive a combined $44,000. They were represented by Christopher Wilmes, of the law firm Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, Ltd and Kate Walz, director of housing justice for The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

The law firm of which Wilmes is a partner is to receive $15,138.02 under the terms of the agreement and $28,861.98 is to go to The Shriver Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide national leadership in advancing laws and policies that secure justice to improve the lives and opportunities of people living in poverty, according to the organization’s website.

The lawsuit named as defendants the ACHA as an entity, as well as two of its past directors, James Wilson, who headed the housing authority from 1989 to March 2013, and Martha Franklin, who was Wilson’s longtime assistant and finance director and then served for about a year and a half as executive director, from March 2013 to December 2015. Wilson and Franklin are not required to pay any portion of the settlement personally. 

The original complaint also named Jefferson County Housing Authority Executive Director Tom Upchurch and Pulaski County Housing Authority Executive Director Joann Pink as defendants, though both were dismissed from the suit. Upchurch and Pink both served temporarily in dual roles as executive director of the ACHA in addition to their regular jobs while the housing authority was without stable management, prior to HUD’s takeover.

The settlement agreement states that the parties agree it “does not constitute and shall not be construed, interpreted, or treated in any respect as an admission of liability or wrongdoing” — language that is standard for a lawsuit settled without a trial. The defendants were represented by Stephen Moore, of the law firm Galloway, Johnson, Tompkins, Burr & Smith, P.C., of St. Louis. A call to Moore seeking comment was not returned as of deadline.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also declined comment on the settlement agreement. Several of the plaintiffs did as well, saying they were instructed by their legal counsel not to discuss matters concerning the lawsuit. The agreement, a copy of which HUD provided to the newspaper following the ACHA board’s vote to ratify it, includes a confidentiality clause in which the plaintiffs’ attorneys agree not to issue news releases about the settlement or discuss it with members of the media. Though, it says that the attorneys are allowed to share details of the settlement with housing advocates, program providers, public officials and others for the purpose of education and information sharing.

In addition to the health-related concerns that residents alleged were a result of their poor housing conditions, they also complained of inadequate heating forcing them to use their ovens to stay warm in the winter, plumbing problems causing sewer water to back up into their bathtubs and sinks, rampant infestation and security issues. Theras Heard, a McBride resident, claimed in the lawsuit that his unit was infested with roaches and bedbugs — and at one point the fridge issued to him by the ACHA was overrun with maggots.

Shameka Nelson, also a McBride resident and mother of seven children, alleged that the family has been exposed to “terrible conditions” including roaches, mice, peeling paint, mold and bedbugs. According to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court-Southern District of Illinois, roaches pour out of her kitchen cabinets when they are opened. 

The lawsuit claimed that the Chena Brazil’s McBride place apartment is “so infested with roaches and mice that her five-year-old daughter is afraid to get out of bed.”

Angela Mitchell, a resident of Elmwood, also complained in the lawsuit that when her daughter was younger, the infestation in their unit meant she was unable to sleep alone. Mitchell also alleged that when her heat wasn’t working and she called for assistance with maintenance, ACHA staff told her to use her oven to stay warm, which caused her to become ill. A replacement fridge provided to her at one point by the ACHA was infested with roaches, the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit claimed that Beverly Davis, an 18-year resident of Elmwood, has two children with asthma conditions aggravated by mold in their apartment, and that she has suffered mental health issues “from living in the deplorable conditions.”

Further, the lawsuit claimed that past managers of the ACHA engaged in a “pattern and practice” of segregating residents on the basis of race, and allowing the McBride and Elmwood complexes, which almost exclusively house African Americans, to fall into complete disrepair while taking better care of some of the other developments in the ACHA’s portfolio.

“If you go and sit on a balcony at Connell Smith and watch the barges go by in a nicely maintained unit on the sixth floor and then you go over and see some of these roach infested units at McBride, you think you’re on two different planets,” Wilmes said in an interview with The Southern Illinoisan in 2016 around the time the original complaint was filed.

Further, the lawsuit alleged, citing The Southern Illinoisan's August 2015 investigative report "Chaos in Cairo," that while residents lived in inhumane conditions, past ACHA managers spent excessively on trips, generous benefits and questionable contracts. 

At the time, Wilmes said attorneys intended to seek class-action status, but that did not happen. Because the attorneys signed a confidentiality clause precluding them from discussing the settlement with the media, the newspaper is not able to inquire as to the official reason why that did not come to fruition. What many residents and others say they were told is that it was because the ACHA’s insurance policy would only cover claims up to $1 million, and this lawsuit is one of several claims that have been filed against the local agency, though the newspaper has not been able to independently verify that information.

Because it was not a class-action claim, only the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit will receive payment for their alleged suffering. In total, HUD officials have said that about 185 families are living at Elmwood and McBride, meaning only about 15 percent of them will receive financial compensation though they are all living in similar conditions.

On April 10, federal officials announced that they would begin relocating everyone from Elmwood and McBride this summer by helping them find another public housing unit within the ACHA or another housing authority, or providing them with a Tenant Protection Voucher that can be used to subsidize rent paid to a private landlord, similar to the Housing Choice Voucher program commonly referred to as Section 8.

The settlement agreement includes these requirements of the ACHA, as well as that the local agency must help with moving expense and start-up costs such as rent and utility deposits and relocation counseling services, which HUD has promised to provide to all residents of Elmwood and McBride, not just those plaintiffs included in the settlement.

By signing the agreement settlement, the plaintiffs forfeited their rights to bring future legal claims, generally speaking, against the ACHA or HUD related to their housing conditions at Elmwood and McBride through the date of the agreement.

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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