CAIRO — On April 10, Housing and Urban Development officials crashed the cymbals on a decades-long rise to crescendo of government failure to protect the health, safety and welfare of public housing residents, including hundreds of children, in Illinois’ southernmost city.

Richard Sitler, The Southern
Emotions ran high at the HUD meeting concerning the Alexander County Housing Authority's McBride Place and Elmwood Place public housing developments that was held at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Cairo in April.

That evening, at a meeting convened inside a packed Baptist church in Cairo, as residents and city leaders who filled the pews and choir section wept and yelled at them, HUD officials announced that they would be tearing down the derelict housing complexes known as Elmwood and McBride. They also said most families would have to relocate outside of Cairo with their HUD-issued vouchers because of a shortage of affordable housing in their home city.

Just prior to the start of the meeting, Jereon Brown, HUD’s Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Public Affairs, said in an interview with The Southern that the decision was difficult to make as agency officials knew it would be painful for families being asked to move more than an hour, in many instances, from Cairo. The economically depressed city is surrounded by a region that is much the same.

Notwithstanding the heartache, Brown said, “I think anyone who looks at the conditions that these residents are living in now will come to the same conclusion we have — that it’s totally unacceptable.”

Yet, for years, HUD inspectors reviewed these housing complexes as part of the agency’s routine oversight function that applies to all public housing and multifamily complexes federally funded via HUD. In other words, HUD employees and contract inspectors working on the agency’s behalf, did look. The agency has never adequately explained why it did not declare the conditions at Elmwood and McBride "totally unacceptable" years ago.

It is perhaps more accurate to say HUD looked the other way, the records reflect. What’s not clear is why.

Richard Sitler, The Southern
For years, residents of McBride and Elmwood apartment complexes complained of issues in their units that went unaddressed. In this Oct 1, 2015, file photo, Shayla Brooker explained that her oven had been inoperable for months, and despite her repeated calls no one came out to fix it. She said it was replaced after a story featuring her complaints ran in the newspaper in the fall of 2015.  

Days before HUD Secretary Ben Carson visited Cairo in early August, he told the newspaper that he wanted to assess the situation personally because it “could be an experience that will help us predict when things like this are going to happen, when communities are going to be placed into jeopardy.

“If we can learn some things there that will prevent that from happening to others, that would be great.”

Related

To date, HUD has neither made public nor confirmed why the oversight system failed hundreds of families in Cairo. That also goes for any internal reports concerning what the agency has done to ensure it never happens again in Southern Illinois, or elsewhere.

Still, Brown, HUD’s spokesman, said, “If one looks at the costs of Cairo, human and financial, you’d have to believe the department is fully invested in not reliving this scenario.”

Persistent failures raise questions 

The Southern's analysis of HUD’s persistent oversight failures in Cairo is based on a review of inspection reports of Elmwood and McBride; a separate but related set of annual scores assessing the overall performance of the Alexander County Housing Authority; and official communications between HUD and the ACHA noting serious deficiencies dating back to 2010.

As well, the newspaper has reviewed the inspection scores of a sampling of complexes managed by other Southern Illinois housing authorities available on HUD’s website; a recent Senate report outlining various concerns about HUD’s oversight system and effectiveness nationally; and other publicized instances of oversight failures; as well as spoken in-depth with regional housing authority directors and industry experts concerning the physical inspection process.

Related

Based on its review of records obtained to date, the newspaper is unable to definitively say much.

For instance, the newspaper cannot definitively say whether the apparent dereliction of HUD’s oversight duty in Cairo was due to some degree of malfeasance involving contract inspectors, or was a case of unintentional neglect due to incompetence or miscommunication at one or multiple levels. Government inertia toward solving a difficult problem without easy answers appears to have been part of the equation, regardless.  

And unquestionably, the review of records concerning HUD and the ACHA raises many serious questions. To date, HUD has yet to provide adequate answers to those questions. 

Among them, HUD's failures in Cairo call into question whether the process by which the federal housing agency inspects properties is appropriate and useful. That applies to both the system by which the agency selects contract inspectors and the inspection tools it uses to assess the quality of complexes. 

The newspaper's review indicates an oversight system that is overtaxed, and the physical inspection process appears to be increasingly and systemically failing families as capital needs balloon for many aging and unsafe complexes across the nation’s roughly 3,800 housing authorities, as well as for other privately managed multifamily properties subsidized by the federal government. 

Though the process was recently reformed, again, experts continue to question whether it is sufficient in alerting HUD’s regional offices and the agency's enforcement center in a timely manner to where there are failing properties that present serious health and safety risks to the families that call them home — such has apparently been the case in Cairo for years.

This should be of particular concern in economically depressed neighborhoods, cities and regions, such as Southern Illinois. South of Interstate 64 in downstate Illinois, much of the housing stock is old, and the options for accessing enough money, from the public or private sector, to address the vast backlog of capital needs for existing facilities — or to build new where complexes have outlived their useful lifespan — is woefully inadequate.

With President Donald Trump’s budget proposal to slash $6 billion from HUD, and with roughly a third to half of that slated to come from public housing, the problem may be heading from bad to worse.

Inspection scores unusually high, swing wildly 

Between 1998 and 2016, the timeframe for which The Southern received and has reviewed inspection reports for Elmwood and McBride, inspectors regularly assigned unusually high scores, by HUD’s own admission, to buildings that appear to have been neglected for years, if not decades. For some years in which there likely should have been physical inspections at one or both complexes, the reports are missing, and HUD has not been able to explain why.

Richard Sitler, The Southern
In this file photo, Kimora Edwards, 4, stands in the doorway and talks to her grandfather Kenny Simelton at the apartment Simelton shares with his wife, Kristen, in Cairo. The apartment is at the Alexander County Housing Authority Elmwood property in Cairo. 

As well, the inspection scores — allocated on a 100-point system — fluctuated wildly from one inspection to the next in some instances.

For example, Elmwood Place scored a 93 in 2002 and a 38 in 2005 — a 55-point swing in just three years.

By the following year, in 2006, Elmwood Place was back in HUD’s good graces with a 90 — though the reports, or physical conditions of the buildings, do not adequately explain a variance that large, nor was that 38 failing score apparently enough of a red flag for HUD to step in and take substantive corrective action.

Through this span of years, it’s likely that the buildings were consistently obsolete, or close to it. McBride also scored in the 90s as late as 2006; it received a 94 that year, dropping just two points from the 96 it received in 2002.

Scores in the 90s are enviable for even what are considered some of the newest and best managed public housing developments and multifamily properties. Across the country, owners, in many cases, spend thousands of dollars preparing for routine HUD inspections by hiring pre-inspection companies that swoop in for a dry run in an attempt to identify and quickly rectify deficiencies before HUD’s contract workers arrive.

This type of score chasing has been criticized as leading to shoddy repairs, in some cases, at failing complexes, and as a waste of money for otherwise above average and adequate — safe, healthy and decent — properties.

Still, such high marks often evade them, according to numerous people familiar with the federally subsidized housing industry. Yet a review of records shows that across Southern Illinois, aging housing complexes have routinely scored in the 90s.

Asked if HUD believes that scores in the 90s were likely appropriate for Elmwood and McBride even a decade ago, HUD’s Brown said, “Scores in the 90s are normally reflective of newer or remodeled facilities.” Though Brown did not directly answer the question, Cairo’s housing complexes were neither new nor remodeled at that time.

Beginning in 2008, HUD began inspecting the Elmwood and McBride complexes together rather than separately, as part of a programmatic shift at HUD; combined, they scored a 64 that year. Two years later, in 2010, they scored a 71, and at least one life-threatening health and safety deficiency was noted. In 2010, HUD began to pay closer attention to the ACHA and conducted what it calls a Tier II review, which is a form of heightened monitoring outside the normal review process. According to HUD's 2010 report, it was intended to identify “improper payments and other high-risk elements.”

From 2010 forward, the inspection scores at Elmwood and McBride began to fall. In 2011, they scored a 61; in 2012, a 42; in 2013, a 28; and in 2016, a 17. HUD conducted additional and more extensive nonroutine and comprehensive reviews of the housing authority in 2013, 2014 and 2015, raising increasingly serious concerns about management practices, and alleged violations of civil and disability rights.

In 2013, the year Elmwood and McBride scored a combined 28 — and the AHCA was labeled an overall "troubled performer" — HUD’s enhanced review that year suggested that the ACHA direct resources toward maintenance work at those two complexes to improve the score, as well as address the deteriorating plumbing system and evaluate the properties for obsolescence.

In response, the ACHA replied to HUD, in part, “There is no doubt that both Elmwood and McBride are obsolete at age 73 — Where do you get the funds to replace approximately 300 units of public housing?” The sprawling World War II era complexes, one originally built for white families and one for black families, were constructed in the early 1940s. 

In 2015, HUD and the ACHA entered into voluntary compliance agreements in an attempt to further rectify the concerns the federal housing agency noted, but those agreements failed to provide a specific path forward for McBride and Elmwood. As well, numerous aspects of those compliance agreements, though signed by the ACHA’s board, continued to be ignored at the local level. Families languished in shameful conditions while the political circus paraded on. 

The records show that through all of these years, dating back to at least 2010 when HUD stepped up its monitoring of the ACHA, the federal agency made attempts to chip away at the edges of the problem but did little to address the most pressing issue in Cairo: that at least 200 families were living in obviously substandard conditions.

On Feb. 22, 2016, when HUD seized control of the housing authority from local management, the agency cited a “years-long pattern of financial and operational mismanagement, poor housing conditions, and alleged civil rights violations against the households the housing authority was responsible for assisting.” At the time, HUD made no mention its own years-long oversight neglect concerning the ACHA and the residents of Elmwood and McBride.

While HUD dragged its feet, residents lived in squalor  

ISAAC SMITH THE SOUTHERN
Jacklyn Davis ties up a bag filled with dead mice Dec. 26, 2016 outside her Elmwood apartment in Cairo. Davis said when she complained to housing of mice in her apartment, the administration did not believe her. In turn, she decided to save the dead mice to prove the problem exists.

The residents of these complexes, the vast majority of them African-American, describe horrid living conditions that include rampant infestation — units overrun with mice and roaches, and at times, bedbugs and maggots; uncontrollable mold; inadequate plumbing that leads to unsanitary conditions such as sewage backing up in the buildings' lawns; second-floor toilets that leak into the downstairs kitchen areas; and an inadequate heating system that forces residents to use their gas ovens to heat their units in the winter, among many other issues.

Related

Of the dozens of residents The Southern has interviewed over the course of more than two years, most report that these conditions have persisted for years and years, and that complaints went unaddressed by local management. At least a few residents also have claimed they attempted to call HUD’s Region V office in Chicago — located five and a half hours to the north, on the other end of a long state — for help, to no avail.

HUD now says the buildings have fallen into such disrepair that the cost to rehabilitate them is well beyond the financial reach of a housing authority that Secretary Carson, in a May letter to the school district, described as "nearly bankrupt." As of this spring, some 40 percent of the schoolchildren at Cairo Unit District 1 were living at Elmwood and McBride. Many children already have left.

“It seems unfair that the people who are here now have to suffer the consequences of the mistakes that were made by others,” Carson told public housing residents on Aug. 8, at a meeting in the high school gymnasium. “But unfortunately, that’s the world that we live in. There is a lot of unfairness in our world." Carson said that's when "you begin to work and to fight even harder to be able to" turn around the situation.  

Richard Sitler, The Southern
HUD Secretary Ben Carson speaks at a public forum in Cairo Jr./Sr. High School on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, as Mayor Tyrone Coleman listens.

Carson made several commitments during his visit to Cairo as he vowed to see what more could be done. He said he would ask his staff to review, again, if some of the buildings at Elmwood and McBride could be saved and rehabilitated, and he offered to speak to the president and other cabinet members who are part of a committee on rural America about the potential for economic development he saw in the city that sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. To date, the agency has yet to follow through on communicating with local leadership the outcome of those commitments.

It is most likely that HUD plans to move forward with demolishing Elmwood and McBride once everyone moves. Ultimately, it was the high cost of repairs, and an inability to attract a private developer with which to partner for the development of new housing, that led HUD to that emotional April 10 meeting, during which housing officials announced that the agency would provide each family with a Tenant Protection Voucher and financial assistance to help them relocate.

Bost: 'This can never happen again' 

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, whose office reviewed the inspection reports and provided them to The Southern, said the scores appear to have been “flat out wrong for years” and “nobody did anything about it.” Bost asked for the inspection reports this summer from HUD, and the agency provided them to his office. The newspaper also sought them in a public records request filed in early September that HUD had yet to fulfill when Bost’s office, with HUD’s permission, handed them over earlier this month.

Provided by Rep. Bost's office
HUD Secretary Ben Carson (left) meets with U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, in Washington in July concerning the public housing situation in Cairo. 

“Was it lack of oversight? Did inspectors turn their heads the other way and fail to do their jobs? Either way, this is a violation of the public trust.

“Remember,” said Bost, a former firefighter, “we didn’t start this fire, but the house is burning and we need to put it out. This can never happen again.”

Yet, it appears to have happened numerous times before. And HUD, despite interacting with the ACHA in a heightened manner for seven years, has yet to offer a comprehensive public explanation of how this happened, and what measures have been implemented to attempt to prevent it from happening again.

A recent U.S. Senate report addressing concerns over HUD’s oversight role and inspection protocols provides some insight into the scope of the agency's failures on a national level to protect low-income families who rely on subsidized housing. 

While it applauded HUD’s efforts to quickly issue Tenant Protection Vouchers where families are found to be living in unsafe complexes across the country, the report also called issuance of these vouchers a “tacit acknowledgement that the department has failed to ensure units are maintained as decent, safe and sanitary.”

“Additionally, failure to maintain the physical condition of HUD-assisted properties results in a loss of critical affordable housing and tenant protection vouchers are of questionable value to families that encounter a lack of affordable housing in their community.”

Though this could have been written in the wake of the housing situation in Cairo, it was not. This report was published in April 2016 alongside the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill for HUD. It came on the heels of a hearing earlier that year before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development stemming from a different high-profile case of inadequate housing in multifamily complexes managed by a religious nonprofit foundation, Memphis-based Global Ministries Foundation.

Media reports of woefully inadequate housing in Florida and other Southern states operated by GMF drew the ire of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and prompted the Senate hearing.

Asked about this report, Brown, of HUD, said the inspection process is “imperfect” and captures a “snapshot in time representative of a number of units.”

“Remember,” Brown said, “it’s humans, armed with standardized checklists, who are sometimes making subjective decisions. Global Ministries Foundation wound up selling most of their properties after failing multiple inspections. Their maintenance practices compelled HUD to change the inspection process.”

On the heels of changes in 2016, HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center published its latest round of tweaks to the inspection protocol on Oct. 2.

HUD says it was part of the problem, along with others

The federal takeover of the ACHA occurred under the previous administration, at least six years after serious management and building deficiencies were cited, records indicate. HUD let another 14 months pass before taking meaningful action to address the unsafe and unsanitary living conditions of Elmwood and McBride residents.

It was not until Carson was confirmed in March, and shortly after The Southern published a story as part of its ongoing coverage of the ACHA titled “People Still Live Here” at the one-year anniversary of HUD’s takeover of the local agency — that HUD publicly acknowledged the buildings were unsafe and beyond repair, and that residents would need to be relocated.

In 2016, the sites received a combined inspection score of 17. Last year’s inspection report stated that one site, 26 buildings and 25 interior units were inspected and 159 health and safety deficiencies noted. “If all buildings and units were inspected, it is projected that a total of 1,376 health and safety deficiencies would apply to the property,” the report stated.

HUD has accepted some fault in the housing crisis in Cairo, though in doing so, the agency is generally quick to note that it was only part of government failures at all levels.

“There is no doubt there were a series of failures surrounding the evaluation of ACHA developments,” Brown said. “The failures began at the local level and extend to HUD. The lack of maintenance should have been noticed by local housing officials, the board, the mayor and HUD.”

Further pressed on the extent of HUD’s failures in Cairo, Brown responded: “In the case of Alexander County Housing Authority, regrettably, there is shared blame at every echelon.” That’s why, he said, HUD made the decision to issue vouchers to every family. “The only entity that has consistently provided money to keep a roof over the families’ heads, in many cases for life, is HUD,” he continued. “We’re still committed to doing that through the voucher program.”

At face value, few familiar with the saga that created this current housing crisis in Cairo would take issue with Brown’s statement that there is “shared blame.” In numerous articles, the newspaper has outlined allegations of highly questionable spending and management practices of the ACHA’s former managers, namely James Wilson, who served as executive director for 24 years, from 1989 to 2013. Wilson also served as mayor of Cairo for 12 of those years, from 1991 to 2003, which HUD allowed by approving a waiver. 

Still, HUD’s willingness to only acknowledge failure in Cairo in a broad sense — qualified by stating that many people made mistakes at all levels of government — dances around the fact that the nation’s public housing system is set up for the buck to stop with HUD. The agency is charged with allocating billions of federal housing dollars, and with ensuring that taxpayer money is spent properly.

Related

Presently, the HUD Office of Inspector General, an investigatory arm of the agency, is reviewing HUD’s oversight role concerning the Alexander County Housing Authority at the request of Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. In May, they called HUD’s “negligent oversight” of the housing authority  “inexcusable” and asked that the probe evaluate HUD’s interactions with the ACHA dating back to 2010. OIG is also investigating the allegations of mismanagement and misspending of local housing authority directors.

Durbin, Duckworth: Inconsistent scores 'extremely troubling'

Upon reviewing the inspection scores for Elmwood and McBride that The Southern shared with Durbin and Duckworth’s offices, the two senators said, in a joint statement, “There is no question that government — at all levels — failed the citizens of Cairo, and these wildly inconsistent scores are another extremely troubling example of that failure.”

ISAAC SMITH, The Southern
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill. (right) shares a quiet word with Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman on Friday, April 21, 2017, during a sparsely attended town hall meeting at the Alexander County Housing Authority office in Cairo.

“While it may be too early to say if recent reforms to REAC can solve this problem, it is abundantly clear that such obvious problems should not have gone unnoticed for so long,” their statement continued. “HUD simply must improve its oversight of the housing it helps provide to real human beings who should not be forced to live in dangerous conditions."

“We are hopeful that the forthcoming Inspector General investigations will bring some measure of accountability to those responsible for what happened in Cairo, and we will continue to work together to address Elmwood and McBride residents’ immediate needs as we all push to rebuild a strong Cairo economy that will last for generations.”

Tip of the iceberg? 

Today, this man-made social disaster, years in the making in Cairo, is ripping at the fabric of this storied little city that sits at the confluence of two mighty rivers at the bottom tip of Illinois.

©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.

But HUD’s failures in Cairo may be just the tip of the iceberg where it concerns the federal agency’s ability, or lack of, to sufficiently identify HUD-funded public housing and multifamily complexes that are unsafe.

The Southern has asked on numerous occasions for HUD to release the names of the inspectors or inspection companies who were responsible for the questionable reports for Elmwood and McBride over the course of at least a dozen years. Brown said he was unable to provide that information. He suggested the newspaper file a Freedom of Information Act request, which it has done.

There are a small number of inspectors — 40 — who are employed directly by HUD, but most are contract inspectors procured through a reverse auction process that also has been scrutinized by industry experts and congressional leaders. 

Carson, in the August interview with the newspaper, said that one thing HUD has done to improve the process is "fire" 42 inspectors where problems were noted, such as inconsistencies in scores.

Brown further clarified that the agency has implemented a tracker that flags score variances and when they are noticed, a career quality inspector does another inspection to verify the score.

Brown has never been specific about how far back the agency looked for these variances, or whether any complexes were subjected to a re-inspection in Southern Illinois. As well, HUD has never said whether any of the contract inspectors who were restricted from participating in the process due to documented poor performance had ever inspected complexes in Cairo, or elsewhere in Southern Illinois. 

Brown has said that HUD is in the process of hiring more career inspectors who would work directly for the federal agency's Real Estate Assessment Center, rather than on a contractual basis. 

The process of restricting contractors with poor performance began in 2014, Brown said. Asked for the number of contractors curtailed by year, Brown said several weeks ago that it was 10 in 2014; 10 in 2015; 28 in 2016; and 44 in 2017. Though the process apparently started under a previous administration, according to Brown’s figures, HUD has taken action against what the agency considers problematic inspectors this year at a greater clip.

Given that it’s possible, and plausible, that some of the same contract inspectors or inspection companies, or HUD employees, that reviewed housing in Cairo in recent years also may have reviewed public housing complexes in other cities throughout Southern Illinois, the newspaper asked Brown if HUD has conducted a review to see whether there were mistakes elsewhere in the region, as well.

“We have not reviewed all of your housing in the region,” he said. “We believe that Cairo is a rare case.”

HUD keeps some inspection scores online, dating back to 2000. Though, only the scores are publicly available online, and not the reports that explain them. As well, the online reports are difficult to follow as they are located in four separate files, and some years appear to be missing. Under the Freedom of Information Act, The Southern is seeking from HUD inspection reports for public housing complexes in 25 downstate counties, as well as the names of the inspectors who reviewed those properties, dating back to 1998. Those requests are pending with the agency. 

Richard Sitler, The Southern
A sidewalk with chalk drawings is seen Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, at the Samuel Gompers Homes in East Saint Louis, Illinois.

To the best of its ability given the limited information online, The Southern reviewed the scores for several regional complexes and noted other instances of big swings from one year to the next.

These examples are not meant to suggest that there is, or is not, a problem at these particular complexes, but simply to point out that the scores of Elmwood and McBride in Cairo are not the only ones to fluctuate broadly from one year to the next in this region over the past roughly 20 years.

For example, the Samuel Gompers complex in East St. Louis scored a 40 in 2006 and an 82 in 2007, a 42-point variance in one year. In 2009, it scored a 64, and in 2010 a 50.

Richard Sitler, The Southern
Smokestacks rise up in the background of the John DeShields Homes of the East St. Louis Housing Authority is shown Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. 

Also in East St. Louis, John DeShields scored a 27 in 2005 and an 83 in 2007, a 56-point variance in two years. That same complex scored a 76 in 2009 and a 35 in 2010, a 41-point variance in one year. Notably, during this time frame, the East St. Louis Housing Authority was still under HUD receivership, a status it held from 1985 until this past month, when Carson visited East St. Louis for a ceremony during which it was returned to local control.

Elsewhere, in Harrisburg, the Blackman Highrise scored a 38 in 2001 and a 94 in 2002, a 56-point variance in one year. Following that, it scored a 62, 70, 95 and 83 during inspection years between 2003 and 2008.

Asked if these and other specifically noted wide single-year variances might raise a red flag and warrant a more comprehensive review of the oversight and inspection process regionally, Brown said that the agency declines comment at the time. 

Related

Senate committee questions HUD oversight nationally 

The above-mentioned Senate Appropriations report concerning HUD has a lengthy section on the quality assurance of physical building inspections. It reads, “The Committee is deeply troubled by reports of deplorable living conditions found in some HUD-subsidized properties across the country.”

“The scope of this issue spans geographic regions, highlights systemic problems, and calls into question the effectiveness of HUD oversight, and the Real Estate Assessment Center’s inspections of HUD-assisted housing.”

Mike Gantt, senior vice president of The Inspection Group, based out of Maryland, is a full-time Real Estate Assessment Center (the HUD agency charged with inspections) compliance consultant — an independent company not aligned with HUD that does compliance consulting and training — with 20 years experience in the business. 

He works with housing authority directors and multifamily property owners nationwide. Despite HUD’s numerous attempts to tweak its inspection protocols every time a massive mistake makes headlines, Gantt said the underlying fact remains that the scores are “so unreliable as to become virtually meaningless.”

“Believe me, I’ve been involved in this for 20 years. You’re very quickly arriving at a conclusion it took me a couple of years to get to” he said, asked for his insight on why some of the building inspection scores vary wildly for complexes not just in Alexander County, but throughout Southern Illinois. He said it’s not just an apparent regional concern but a national one.

“These inspections notoriously vary,” he said. Gantt said the result of the defective process is that buildings that are new and well designed, and to the common person would appear a great place to live, can flunk a HUD inspection while older, obviously failing buildings that present immediate health and safety issues for residents can ace it.

“A very nice single building property can fail based on five simple, inexpensive issues that can be fixed in an hour,” he said. Because a failure can cause all kinds of headaches, property owners and public housing authorities often call on the expertise of people like Gantt to make sure they pass.

Though he makes a living off of it, Gantt said he still disagrees with the inspection protocol because it fails to deliver HUD the information it needs to know whether intervention is warranted because families are being, or could soon be, harmed. “The property owners are wasting a bunch of money they could spend on better things chasing these scores,” he said. “It’s like the common complaint in schools about teaching to the test.”

Asked about the inspection process, HUD's Brown responded, “How were the inspections working in Paducah?”

The Southern recently published a story titled “A tale of two Elmwoods” examining Cairo’s Elmwood, which has fallen into a state of abject squalor, to a complex by the same name, and built around the same time in Paducah, Kentucky, that has been well-maintained.

“Inspections work where inspectors are good, and everyone is invested in maintaining their housing stock,” Brown said. “Is there room for improving the inspection system? There’s always room for improvements.”

A stubborn weed knocks Paducah's score

Richard Sitler, The Southern
Mowed lawns and trimmed bushes surround the Elmwood Court housing complexes of the Housing Authority of Paducah, shown here Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017.

Since Brown mentioned Paducah, The Southern reached out to Tommy Hollimon Jr., the executive director of the Housing Authority of Paducah. Hollimon said he sees the inspection process as helpful in some ways, and not as much in others. For example, he said that it’s helpful for the purpose of having a HUD inspector note areas of concern the housing authority may have unintentionally overlooked, and provides education on where they should place more emphasis.

During the housing authority’s most recent inspection process, the complexes HUD reviewed scored a combined 79, which for Hollimon represented a disappointing score drop for the housing authority's complexes. Hollimon said, as an example, one deficiency on the inspection was a unit where an electrical socket was missing a wall plate. “With that, there’s access for little fingers to the wires,” he said. “I agree with that.”

Hollimon said he does not hire pre-inspectors, but his staff is trained in the inspection protocol. That’s helpful on two fronts, he said.

One is that workers are looking year-round for items that should be addressed. Also, annually, they conduct their own “pre-inspection” of all units, which helps when the HUD contractors show up but also keeps the housing authority alerted to potential issues before they evolve into a bigger problem.

Provided by the Housing Authority of Paducah
Tommy Hollimon Jr., executive director of the Housing Authority of Paducah, said it seems as though the HUD inspection process has gotten tougher this year. He had hoped for a score of 80 or higher based on the average scores received in past recent years, and he was a bit frustrated that a single stray weed next to a building in the Dolly McNutt complex knocked him 2.85 points, and below his goal. The Paducah complexes HUD examined earlier this year scored a 79 on a 100-point scale, he said. 

That said, Hollimon said it does seem as though the inspection process has gotten tougher this year. He had hoped for a score of 80 or higher based on the average scores received in past recent years, and he was a bit frustrated that a single stray weed next to a building in the Dolly McNutt complex knocked him 2.85 points, and below his goal. This is noteworthy because one of the first things a visitor to the Paducah Housing Authority notices is that the agency keeps its groups immaculately landscaped. 

Related

The deduction was technically for overgrown vegetation, and the same point loss would have been assigned if there had been many more weeds. It's frustrating, Hollimon said, but he also acknowledged that overgrown vegetation next to a building can lead to cracks in the foundation if left unchecked. It would have taken a long time for this weed to cause structural damage, but he did order the maintenance crew to remove it immediately. 

Hollimon, who has years of experience at another housing authority but is new this year as the executive director in Paducah, said in the future his team will strive for scores in the 90s. Overall, Hollimon said the inspection system is more helpful than not. “It lets everybody know, ‘Hey we’re watching. We’re making sure you’re doing what you need to do with the federal money,’” he said.

Richard Sitler, The Southern
Tommy Hollimon Jr., shown in his office Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, is the executive director of the Housing Authority of Paducah, Kentucky.

But where it’s perhaps not as effective, he said, is in letting HUD officials at regional offices know if there’s a major concern requiring immediate intervention — since the scoring process is subjective and can vary so much. The Southern, in its story comparing the Elmwood in Cairo to the one in Paducah, noted that at times, Cairo’s Elmwood scored considerably higher than Paducah’s.

“When you’ve got Cairo scoring higher than us, and you can tell the difference is night and day, does that number mean anything? If you have HUD up there seeing a 90 on an inspection report why would they bother contacting Cairo to follow up? They put a lot of trust in their contractors that do the inspections,” Hollimon said.

Inspector selection process, failure to identify health risks criticized  

The Senate committee report from last year noted that it had been apprised of action items developed by a working group within HUD related to the inspection process and was “underwhelmed by the results.”

“The committee is disappointed that the department has not taken the opportunity to develop a broader departmental strategy that includes, for example, a review of whether a reverse auction is the best procurement practice for this line of business or address improvements to the oversight of inspections.”

It continues, “The committee is particularly disappointed that despite acknowledging that issues impacting the health of residents, including mold, do not trigger a sufficient subtraction of points to the inspection score, and the need to adjust the scoring system, those actions have not been identified by the working group as issues to address.” 

In Cairo, residents regularly complained of mold in their units that would come back around no matter how hard they tried to scrub it, indicating the problem was deeply rooted. Earlier this year, about 30 residents settled a lawsuit with the ACHA, with each receiving about $10,000.

Richard Sitler, The Southern
Dr. Kirk Wong is shown at Community Health and Emergency Services Inc. in Cairo Friday, Aug. 6, 2017. In an interview with the newspaper earlier this year, Wong said that while he could not speak about any particular clients, he could confirm that his office has had patients who live in Elmwood and McBride complain of breathing problems.He stopped short of drawing a direct correlation to mold in public housing units and any specific health complaints from patients, saying that would take extensive testing to confirm conclusively. But Wong said mold can cause serious health problems, particularly for people who already have underlying breathing problems. “Mold is going to worsen any kind of asthma conditions causing more serious lung problems,” he said. 

Several of the plaintiffs who sued claimed that either they or their children had breathing difficulties either caused or aggravated by the conditions in their homes, namely mold. A family physician in Cairo also has expressed concern about this issue.

Gantt said one of the many flaws of the system is that where it concerns mold and mildew, the inspection protocol makes no distinction between that which is caused by a minor housekeeping issue by the resident, and a deeply rooted mold problem caused by blatant neglect of the landlord and/or extreme failure of an aging property. “That’s one of the many serious design flaws of this inspection,” he said. “It does not allow the inspector to record data which tells HUD the difference between these things."

Richard Sitler, The Southern
Peeling paint and mold around a toilet is one of many issues on display at Elmwood Place apartments in Cairo on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. A class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of past and present ACHA residents against the ACHA and four of its past executive directors.

To name a few other examples illustrative of this problem, Gantt said the same point deduction is taken if an inspector sees one roach or 100 in a unit. The same goes for an inspector who notes a broken piece of glass anywhere on the grounds. That’s 5 points, as is broken glass visible everywhere. He said a fence that is functional but may have an oddly designed repair can result in a 5-point deduction, as can a fence that was completely crushed by a bulldozer.

Gantt said changes to the process in 2016, which were further tweaked in 2017, "completely ignored and even covered up" the underlying concerns. He said the changes are forcing scores downward overall, but only resulting in a "marginally higher detection rate for bad properties, while greatly increasing the number of false negatives (i.e. good properties failing the inspections), exacerbating the burden on all other parties: the HUD Field Offices, the HUD Departmental Enforcement Center, and housing providers." That leaves less time and money to deal with situations that are truly in need of attention, he said. 

'It's far from a perfect process' 

Tom Upchurch, director of the Jefferson County Housing Authority, agreed with his colleague in Paducah in calling the inspection process a mixed bag that is useful for some purposes but not others.

Further, Upchurch said that in light of recent issues in Cairo and elsewhere, housing authority directors are worried the process has become “unreasonably tough.” Upchurch said he's due for a visit from HUD inspectors this spring. Tough is fine, he said, as long as tough remains fair to property managers doing the best they can with the resources they have to maintain safe and healthy housing.

Upchurch said the quality of the inspections also can depend on who wins the bid for the job. Upchurch said he’s worked with excellent and experienced inspectors over the years who were tough, fair and educational. He also recalled that a few years ago, an inspector showed up with what he perceived as an attitude, declaring from the start, according to Upchurch, “I hate everything about Southern Illinois.”

Richard Sitler, The Southern
McBride resident Myra Rayford (left) shows pictures on her phone to then-Alexander County Housing Authority Interim Executive Director Tom Upchurch of things in her apartments that need repaired as they stand in front of her apartment in Cairo on Friday, Aug. 23, 2015. 

Upchurch said he would support HUD bringing the entire inspection process in-house. He said employees working directly for HUD, rather than on a contractual basis, also would have an easier line of communication with HUD regional and enforcement staff to send red flags up the chain of command as needed.

“I believe the intent is to have higher quality housing and keep the housing authority in check, but unfortunately, due to it being so subjective, sometimes it’s not a fair representation of a housing authority,” he said. Upchurch also served for six and a half months in a dual role as director of the Alexander County Housing Authority beginning in the spring of 2015, at HUD’s request, as an effort was undertaken to attempt to correct deficiencies there prior to HUD placing the housing authority in administrative receivership.

“It’s far from a perfect process,” he said. “My experience in Cairo, the scores did not reflect that which I knew they should be.” “It’s a very complex issue,” he added. “There’s no simple solution to it.”

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

Outbrain