CAIRO — Public housing residents from Cairo and Chicago are expected to gather for a demonstration in Chicago on Wednesday afternoon to demand that Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Ben Carson “meet their responsibilities” to provide safe and decent affordable housing throughout the state of Illinois.
That's according to Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Ameya Pawar, Chicago’s 47th Ward alderman, and his running mate, Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman.
Cairo public housing residents and other interested citizens and community leaders are expected to leave Cairo, in a bus paid for by Pawar’s campaign, around 5 a.m. Wednesday morning and join with Chicago public housing residents and other community activists for the 2 p.m. news conference.
According to a press release from Pawar's campaign, the Chicago press conference and demonstration kicks off a multi-stop campaign tour throughout downstate Illinois they’ve billed as the “Don’t Close Our Communities Initiative.”
In addition to sharing his opinions on HUD policies and oversight failures Pawar believes are negatively affecting Cairo and some Chicago neighborhoods, Pawar also plans to talk about, according to a campaign aide, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 decision to close 50 public schools in predominantly poor, minority communities in Chicago’s south and west sides, which Pawar opposed.
The demonstration is scheduled to take place at 2 p.m. at City Hall, followed by a march to the Ralph H. Metcalfe Federal Building, where HUD’s Region V office is located, to demand a meeting, according to the campaign aide to Pawar. The Region V office oversees housing programs in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
“The people of Cairo refuse to sit idly by while their community dies. I’m inspired by their strength and resilience, and Mayor Coleman and I proudly stand with them to call on HUD Secretary Ben Carson to do his job and save the public housing units in Cairo,” Pawar said in a news release announcing the event.
“While millionaires and billionaires and political insiders continue to get wealthier and more powerful, the rest of us are struggling to get ahead. It’s time we come together as one state and demand investments over closures.”
HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said that where it concerns the effort to relocate Cairo residents from their unsafe housing complexes, "We've listened throughout this entire situation and we'll continue to do that."
"Hopefully it isn't true that someone would leverage this terrible situation as a public relations opportunity," Brown said in response to the planned demonstration in Chicago. "That would be really sad."
In April, HUD announced that it planned to begin relocating about 185 families, or 400 people, from two sprawling World War II-era public housing complexes because they have fallen into such poor condition that they likely cannot be rehabilitated.
The families are receiving Tenant Protection Vouchers, which subsidize rent paid to a private landlord for as long as they remain eligible for the program, as well as relocation counseling and financial assistance with their physical move. Some families have said they are optimistic about the opportunity HUD has provided them to find a place to live outside of Cairo, which has faced decades of economic decline and lacks basic amenities such as a grocery store and gas station.
But for other families, the idea of having to leave their home based on HUD’s plan to raze their public housing complexes is upsetting because they want to remain in Cairo. At issue is that there is an extreme shortage of affordable housing in Cairo, and HUD officials say the agency is no longer in the business of building public housing through an investment of federal taxpayer dollars alone.
When new affordable multifamily housing developments are constructed in communities, it’s almost always through a private-public partnership, Brown, of HUD, has said.
Because of Cairo’s extremely depressed economy, Brown said HUD, which has been operating the Alexander County Housing Authority in administrative receivership since early 2016, has been unable to attract a private developer to the city. Still, he said as a result of HUD Secretary Carson’s visit to Cairo in early August, staff is continuing to study whether there are ways to provide additional housing options for some of the families of Elmwood and McBride in Cairo.
For example, the agency is studying a suggestion made during a meeting with city leaders about whether certain rows of buildings in the Elmwood and McBride complex can be spared in the demolition and rehabilitated, and what opportunities for families may exist at other developments in the ACHA’s portfolio, such as the Connell F. Smith Sr., senior high-rise complex located on the Ohio River or the Shuemaker building that sits directly behind it. HUD also has been working to identify a partner willing to reopen the Ralph T. Stenger apartment complex that Delta Center closed when the nonprofit folded in 2015.
Even as HUD prepares a massive response to displaced residents affected by hurricanes and related flooding in Texas, Florida and elsewhere, Cairo is still being worked on, Brown said recently. More information should be available soon, he said.
Mayor Coleman said he’s confident that there are buildings at Elmwood and McBride that can be saved. He said that it’s his belief that not all of the buildings are uninhabitable. “Whatever structures are still sound, whatever structures can be rehabilitated by whatever means, do that,” he said.
Coleman said he helped organize the bus trip from Cairo to Chicago “to bring attention to the situation that’s impacted the lives of many of the residents of this city, adults and children.” It was unclear to the newspaper at press time how many people from Cairo had signed up to go on the trip.
“I don’t think it is fair the way it’s been done and dealt with and if we can still continue to bring attention to this, at some point, hopefully, HUD will take responsibility for the outcome of this particular situation,” Coleman said. “They (HUD) are the main culprit in all of this, so they need to make these people whole in the best way that they can by keeping them here, not causing them to have to leave this community.
“They were made victims, and they are innocent,” he said of the residents.
After Wednesday's event in Chicago, Coleman is scheduled to visit Urbana, Springfield and Decatur on Thursday; Brookport, Eldorado and Carbondale on Saturday; and East St. Louis, Chester and Kaskaskia on Sunday. Coleman will represent the campaign solo at these stops. Pawar is expected to join Coleman in Cairo on Friday for an event at one of the public housing complexes.