HUD Secretary Carson addresses housing crisis in Cairo

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, before a June 7 Senate panel, discusses the housing crisis in Cairo in response to questions from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.

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CAIRO — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said he plans to visit Cairo on Tuesday with an open mind because he wants to see for himself “if there’s anything that can be done to really salvage the situation.”

“You know, in medicine, many times I was confronted with a patient who was dying. We didn’t just give up because the patient was dying,” Carson told The Southern Illinoisan in a phone interview Thursday.

“We did everything we could but we had to study the situation carefully and look and see if there were any alternatives, if there were things that could be done. Sometimes they would not be traditional things but they got done and in some cases we were able to save the patient and we need to look at it that way.”

Carson, who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican presidential primary, spent his career working as a pediatric neurosurgeon prior to being tapped by President Donald Trump to oversee HUD.

An aide to Carson said he plans to travel to Cairo on Tuesday following a visit on Monday to East Chicago, where residents of a housing complex were relocated this past summer due to lead and arsenic contamination of the complex where they resided.

In Cairo, on April 10, HUD officials overseeing the Alexander County Housing Authority in administrative receivership announced that they would begin moving about 185 families — close to 200 people, about half of them children — from the 1940s era Elmwood and McBride housing complexes because they have fallen into extreme disrepair.

Many residents were taken aback by the decision. Some yelled and others cried at the town hall style meeting that lasted for several hours. Carson was not at the meeting, but other HUD officials told the residents that while they sympathized with their anger, sadness and frustrations, the decision was based on the fact that there is an extreme shortage of affordable housing options in the city, and that attempts to secure a private developer to partner with the government for new housing was unsuccessful because of Cairo’s devastated economy.

Carson said that concerning the housing situation in Cairo, which is unique from other housing crises in that the relocation of residents threatens to dismantle an entire city, he wanted to put his own eyes on the situation and hear directly from the people affected.

In addition to seeing if there are ways the situation can be salvaged, Carson said he also sees Cairo as a place that can serve as a learning tool for other similarly situated communities throughout the country.

“I’ve gotten a lot of second hand reports, seen a lot of pictures, read a lot of stories, and I want to see for myself what’s going on because, you know, this could be an experience that will help us to be able to predict when things like this are going to happen, when communities are going to be placed into jeopardy,” he said. “And if we can learn some things there that will prevent that from happening to others that will be great.”

Carson indicated that he is well aware of the strong desire expressed by some residents to stay put.

“I think we need to be cognizant and respectful of the desire to stay, because some people, that’s the only thing they’ve ever known. The concept of moving away is a bit much for them to handle at this point,” he said.

But his staff has said repeatedly that they studied this issue for more than a year, and explored all possible options. Maren Kasper, Carson’s senior adviser on Cairo, also was on the phone call with the newspaper Thursday, and said that there has been some movement to provide additional housing in Alexander County. She said the ACHA, under HUD’s control, desires to renovate several family units in nearby Thebes.

She said the ACHA has sent a letter to Alexander County Board Chairman Chalen Tatum asking for the board to consider turning over $400,000 in HUD Community Development Block Grants the county is sitting on to help the housing authority redevelop the Thebes complex. Reached on Friday, Tatum declined comment on the letter. It was unclear to the newspaper at deadline what options the ACHA had for renovating the Thebes complex if the county chooses not to partner in this endeavor. Further, while Thebes is in the county, the children who live there attend the neighboring Egyptian Community Unit School District 5 in Tamms.

“I think one thing I would add is we are continuing to look at all the options we can and we are always willing to talk to partners that are looking to come to town,” Kasper said. She also said that the ACHA is attempted to secure a buyer for a 10-unit complex HUD owns that was formerly known as the Ralph T. Stenger apartment complex. The Stenger complex had provided housing for people with mental disabilities, but they were evicted when the Delta Center closed in the fall of 2015. It has sat vacant since. The building's units would most likely be made available to seniors as none of the units are large enough to accommodate large families.

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Cairo

The Ralph T. Stenger apartment building in Cairo has been vacant since the Delta Center folded in the fall of 2015. It recently was purchased by Marion-based Shawnee Enterprises Inc.

Asked if there was still the potential to provide for other more extensive housing options, particularly for families that include several children, Carson said, “There’s always potential.”

“As Winston Churchill said, never give up.”

Carson said he’s looking forward to hearing from town leaders and others who may have outside-the-box ideas. “Well you always keep an open mind, and you know, I would be interested in hearing from some of the people there too. If they have some good ideas, I want to hear them.”

But he also said he is aware of the harsh economic realities facing Cairo and Alexander County. “You’re looking at a community that has been going downhill economically not for just a few years. This has been going on for decades,” he said.

He said the bottom line is “you have to temper compassion with logic and common sense.”

“If you allow all of your decisions to be driven just by compassion, you’re going to end up on the short end of the stick,” he said. “And if you allow everything to be driven by just logic, you’re going to end up on the wrong end of the stick as well. So you have to merge those two things together. And that’s what causes you to really want to look at all the possibilities — not simply to exclude something.”

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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