Duckworth in Cairo.jpg

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth tours the McBride Place apartment complex on Sunday, July 9, in Cairo. 

Provided by Sen. Duckworth's office

CAIRO — An official with Housing and Urban Development has confirmed that the agency’s investigatory arm is undertaking a review concerning Public and Indian Housing’s oversight of the Alexander County Housing Authority.

Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin requested the review in a letter dated May 25. In making their request to the HUD inspector general, Illinois' U.S. senators said it was clear on the heels of a financial assessment of the ACHA released in April, which stated the housing authority was insolvent, that “HUD shares responsibility for the gross mismanagement that created the current federal public housing crisis” in Cairo.

In a letter to Duckworth dated Aug. 25, Seth Appleton, HUD’s acting assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental relations, confirmed that the review they requested was underway by the HUD Office of Inspector General’s Office of Evaluation.

“Based on that review, HUD will make a final assessment of its operation and oversight and provide your staff with a full briefing of findings,” Appleton wrote in a letter last week to Duckworth. According to its website, the HUD OIG’s Office of Evaluation provides independent assessments of HUD programs, operations and policies to determine efficiency, effectiveness, impact and/or sustainability.

This review is separate from another that HUD officials and federal lawmakers have indicated the Office of Inspector General either still is or has conducted into the alleged mismanagement of the ACHA by past local directors and board members.

In Cairo, many people are equally as upset with HUD as they are with the past ACHA managers because HUD’s Public and Indian Housing employees also played a role in ensuring that the local housing authority was appropriately spending federal dollars for low-income families in need. As well, periodic inspections of the ACHA’s properties were conducted, and the buildings may have been given passing scores long after they should have received them.

The newspaper has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for inspection reports dating back to 1995. As well, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost and three of his House colleagues have requested these inspections and other reports dating back more than 20 years. An aide to Bost said that HUD has provided the congressional offices with the information requested, but they are in the early stages of sifting through it.

The newspaper has not received the documents to date, but HUD is still within its legally prescribed window to respond to the media request made late last month.

In an August 2015 interview with The Southern Illinoisan, former longtime director James Wilson, who has been accused of, along with past board members, driving the ACHA financially into the ground, admitted that there were some employee benefits that were “too fat.” He likened the ACHA to the state of Illinois in offering benefits it couldn’t sustain, and said that after periods of federal sequestration, the ACHA's financial situation quickly turned south.

Wilson recalled during that interview a visit by various agents of HUD to Cairo in early 2013, as he was retiring. He accused the HUD review team members of trying to intimidate his employees and ACHA board members. “They even slipped out some badges in one instance,” he said.

“They did look through everything, and of course, they came up with a list a mile long,” Wilson said of the HUD’s multi-pronged program review that year. “A gillion Title VI violations, Section 3 violations, 504 violations. You know, it just … I mean, you wouldn’t believe it ...

“You look at it and say, ‘Wow.’ And you know, I’d been there so long, I said, ‘Well, I’ve been doing it this way for 24 years,’ you know,” said Wilson, who was executive director from 1989 to early 2013. “There’s not that much different. But when they inspect you they put every little spot and (inaudible) down and it’s a nightmare and I don’t know anybody can ever … And they still haven’t dealt with the things they put down and I don’t think they ever can or will.”

Wilson also said that during the 2013 visit by HUD agents that he got in their face, as he described it, because he was upset they were asking employees and board members questions and telling them not to discuss the interviews with each other. Asked if the exchange of words was heated on his end, Wilson said “very much so.”

“That’s always been my nature — good or bad — and sometimes it’s bad,” he said. “I was controlled but I was just very absolute … I come out of a background, of course I was mayor for 12 years, and in Cairo, being mayor, you deal with … you’ve got to be pretty tough to be around that long.” Wilson served as mayor from 1991 to 2003. 

From the time of this review in early 2013, per Wilson’s estimation of when it took place, it was another three years before HUD placed the housing authority into administrative receivership. In the meantime, the agency entered into several Voluntary Compliance Agreements with the ACHA in which the local housing authority agreed to address the many violations cited by HUD concerning fair housing and accessibility, misspending of federal funds, conflicts of interest and other problems, but little actual progress was made toward meeting the outlined objectives.

In their May letter requesting the review of HUD’s apparent oversight failures, Durbin and Duckworth noted that HUD had knowledge of administrative problems at the ACHA dating back to at least 2010, and perhaps sooner. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, whom Duckworth defeated in last November’s election, was the first to publicly criticize HUD for continuing to send federal housing dollars to Alexander County even while administrators in HUD’s Region V office based in Chicago knew of brewing problems. The review should make clear to what degree and when higher level officials in Washington, D.C., also were notified of the problems, whether some HUD officials pushed for corrective action sooner, and if so, whether there was a breakdown in the chain of command where efforts to take corrective action were stonewalled at higher levels of the bureaucracy in Washington. 

Before placing the housing authority into administrative receivership in February 2016, HUD sent letters and made numerous site visits to identify problems, and to attempt to correct them. But it appears that the local managers ignored most of the strongly worded letters and in-person requests – and with little consequence to them. Meanwhile, residents say their pleas for help and improved living conditions went unanswered for years.

The buildings they are living in are unsafe, and a they have been so for many years. In April, HUD announced they would begin relocating residents from the complexes, which were constructed in the early 1940s. McBride was originally called Pyramid Court and was constructed exclusively for black families; Elmwood was for white families.

Despite the federal government ordering the buildings to be integrated in the 1970s, both complexes today almost exclusively house black families. They live in buildings beset by rampant infestation, mold, inadequate heating and cooling systems, unsanitary plumbing problems and many more issues. As of the 2010 Census, the city was about 70 percent black, and 30 percent white. Roughly a fourth of Cairo residents live in public housing. The ACHA has been cited with numerous Civil Rights violations for the housing conditions in Cairo, which has a long history of racial strife.  

“Based on the findings, it is clear that HUD had knowledge of the mismanagement of the ACHA, misuse of federal funds, and the deteriorating conditions of the ACHA housing,” Durbin and Duckworth wrote in the May letter, calling HUD’s oversight failure “inexcusable.”

“Despite HUD’s claims that it repeatedly pushed local authorities to fix the well documented problems of the ACHA, it did little to intervene until it took over the ACHA in February 2016. At the time, the damage had been done and options to address the situation were few.”

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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