CAIRO — A gathering of Cairo residents erupted in anger Monday night as federal housing officials informed them that close to 200 families residing in two sprawling World War II-era family housing developments of the Alexander County Housing Authority will have to move out of their units in the coming months, and that there is no immediate plan to provide new government-assisted housing in Cairo to replace the developments they intend to demolish.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials said that they came to the decision to move people out because the developments have deteriorated past the point of repair, and are a hazard to their health and safety.

For more than a year and a half, The Southern Illinoisan has detailed the inhumane living conditions of ACHA's Elmwood Place and McBride Place complexes, which have been in poor condition for years. The problems include mold, plumbing and electrical issues, inadequate heating and cooling, rampant infestation and other health and safety issues.

There are presently 82 families living at Elmwood and 103 families at McBride. Many units are vacant, as those that have been vacated since the housing crisis began and are not being filled, HUD officials said. 

Monday’s meeting marked the first major announcement HUD has made about the future of the developments since seizing control of the ACHA on Feb. 22, 2016. The condition of the developments deteriorated as past managers — namely James Wilson, who was director for 24 years, part of which time he also was the mayor of Cairo — are alleged to have misspent money on their own excessive travel, benefits, golden parachutes and sweetheart retirement deals.

One by one at the standing-room only meeting, residents expressed anger and frustration that HUD does not have a plan to provide adequate housing for the displaced residents within the city, and that no one has been officially held accountable for the alleged mismanagement of the complexes by ACHA administrators, or the lack of oversight by HUD as millions of federal dollars were squandered.

“You have decimated a whole community and you don’t care,” one resident said to cheers and applause.

Towanda Macon, a HUD administrator assigned to Alexander County since the federal takeover a little more than a year ago, said that there is not a firm deadline for people to have to move out of the Elmwood Place and McBride Place family apartment complexes — but they will have to move out. At the top of the meeting, before taking questions, Macon stressed that the residents please remember this point: “You are not alone and we will help you in this process every step of the way.” Residents were instructed in a handout not to pay rent in April or going forward, and that HUD will work with those behind in rent so that they do not have to move with any debt to the ACHA. 

Cairo City Councilwoman Connie Williams said she was told by HUD officials during a private meeting that residents would have about six months to move. A question-and-answer document provided by HUD put the timeline at nine to 11 months. HUD officials said they intend to begin the process in May, and prioritize working with families with children to allow them to finish up the school year in Cairo, and be settled in a new location by the start of the next school year. Regardless, Williams expressed her displeasure with the decision, and said that HUD Secretary Ben Carson should have been at the meeting to see first-hand the effects of his agency's decisions. 

Macon noted that each resident will be given a Tenant Protection Voucher, which the agency describes as unique form of rental assistance for households forced to relocate from their homes. They are a close cousin to HUD's Housing Choice Vouchers, officials said. Residents can take their rental assistance voucher to anywhere in the country where a voucher program is being operated by a housing authority.

“After months of research, property studies and what you guys have said, we have determined that the units at Elmwood and McBride are unsafe and have stood far beyond their life cycle,” Macon said. The complexes were constructed in 1942. 

HUD has contracted with CVR Associates to provide each resident with access to relocation services, it was announced. More details will be announced in the coming days, and be made available to residents door-to-door, according to HUD. 

Macon said that efforts still are underway to provide alternative housing in Cairo for people who want to stay, but she noted that the reality is there is a shortage of affordable housing options in Cairo. One of the questions on HUD’s Q&A is, “Will I have to move away from Cairo?”

“Finding adequate housing in or near Cairo will be difficult,” the agency writes. “The demand for affordable housing in Cairo is extremely high yet the supply of available housing is low. Families will have the option to live anywhere in the country, including available units in Cairo and surrounding communities. However, given the availability of vacant units in the area, Elmwood and McBride residents may be moving to communities outside of Cairo and Alexander County.”

But many people at the meeting said they do not want to leave Cairo. They told HUD officials that this is their home, that they want to stay, and that they expect adequate housing to be provided in their city.

“What you’ve been doing is glossing over all the questions,” Kevin McAllister, a resident of Elmwood, said in an impassioned tone toward the end of the roughly hour and a half long meeting. “We want the answers.”

“Is this set in stone or is there something else that can be done?” he said, continuing his line of questioning. McAllister said it seemed to him like there were efforts underway to “get the ghetto people out” so that Cairo can be taken over by private developers for port operations and other business ventures. Macon assured the residents this is not the case, but said that HUD came to the conclusion that residents could no longer remain in unsafe housing, even as talks continue in an attempt to increase the affordable housing stock in the city. 

McAllister is a contract bus driver for the Cairo Unit School District 1 and has a child that attends the school. Echoing a concern expressed by many, he said he's terribly concerned about the future of the school if the families are forced to move out of the developments prior to other options being made available within Cairo. About half of the roughly 475 students at the school live in Elmwood and McBride, the superintendent has said. 

“Until you feel our reality, you can’t feel how we feel,” he said.

As he talked, people jumped up, waived their arms in the air and shouted, many of them demanding, “We want answers. We want answers.”

The meeting was held at the First Missionary Baptist Church. All of the pews were filled, as was the choir seating, and dozens stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the walls.

The church’s pastor, Jimmy Ellis, took the microphone and said that when he was asked this past week if he would agree to let HUD host the meeting at the church, he didn’t know what they were going to announce. Ellis said he found out on Saturday, after he had given them his word they could use the house of worship to make an announcement that was hurtful to so many.

“If I had known you all were coming to break our hearts, you wouldn’t have done it here,” he said.

“These are real people,” he said to the HUD administrators, some of whom traveled from Chicago and Washington to deliver the news, alongside Macon. “They are not numbers.”

Ellis said he had a message for those flying back to the nation’s capital in the morning. “Please let them know that we’re not lying down,” he said.

It’s been a little more than a year since HUD took control of the housing authority, citing a years-long pattern of mismanagement, poor housing conditions, and alleged civil rights violations against the households the housing authority was responsible for assisting.

“When we first took over control there we were stunned, really, at what we saw, not just in terms of the deplorable living conditions that we encountered but the poor or even absent record keeping, the staggering backlog of critical repairs, all of this going to the very health and safety of the residents living there,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD, in advance of the meeting.

Several residents noted that HUD continued to allocate upward of $20 million to the housing authority over the course of a number of years even after officials at the agency’s Chicago office charged with oversight noted concerns in letters dating back to at least 2010.

“Why hasn’t no one been brought to justice? Why hasn’t anything been done?” asked Coretta Cornelius, who lives at McBride Place with her 3-year-old daughter.

“Give us our $20 million back,” someone else shouted, seconding her point. The room erupted in applause and shouts of approval.

Asked numerous times why no one has been held criminally responsible for the allegations of misspending of federal dollars, Macon said that she cannot speak for the Office of Inspector General, which is charged with investigatory matters concerning possible misspending or other criminal misdeeds involving federal funds. But she reassured the residents that the matter has not been forgotten.

“I will honestly tell you that the case is still very much open and alive,” she 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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