CAIRO — When federal housing officials gathered residents of two Cairo public housing complexes into a Baptist church in April and told them they would have to relocate, Vida Kyles was nervous.
“I was worried,” she said. “I was real worried. It was stressing me out. It was.”
Kyles, who lived for years at McBride Place, was eager for better living conditions, but also wanted to stay in Cairo.
On April 10, when Housing and Urban Development officials informed the residents that Elmwood and McBride would be demolished, they also said that most families would have to relocate to other cities because of the shortage of affordable housing units in Cairo.
The stress of finding a new place in her beloved city was lifted last week for Kyles when she moved into the newly renovated Little Egypt Estates, a 10-unit apartment complex owned and managed by Marion-based Shawnee Enterprises Inc.
“I love it,” Kyles said on Thursday as she welcomed visitors into her apartment as part of an open house celebration.
Little Egypt Estates doesn’t solve the dilemma for everyone looking for new housing, but it marks a positive step for the little embattled city between the mighty rivers that has been through so much. Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman called the ribbon cutting that signified the official re-purposing of the building a “joyous occasion.”
Kyles has neatly decorated her place with the special touches and personal effects that make a house a home. Word art on her wall reads, “In this house, we count our blessings” and “Have faith.” Those words of encouragement hang next to a picture of an angel kissing a baby girl and a cross. Red apple décor in her kitchen neatly ties together the red curtains and couches in her living room. “I love it because it’s more peaceful. It’s real peaceful. I don’t have to worry about crime or nothing like that,” she said.
As her neighbor, Barbara Jackson, showed off her apartment, Jim Cunningham, the deputy director for HUD’s Midwest regional office based in Chicago asked her, “This feels like home? “Oh yes,” Jackson said. “It’s wonderful.” Jackson also had lived for years at McBride, which, like Elmwood, was built in the early 1940s and is no longer considered safe and appropriate housing.
In total, HUD is helping about 185 families relocate. Thus far, about 70 have found new homes, in Cairo as well as other communities, according to Cunningham.
During opening remarks, Coleman gave a special thanks to Shawnee Enterprises co-owners Tom Logan and Jim Covey “for stepping in and alleviating a portion of this situation here in the city of Cairo.”
“To those of you who are residents here, I just wish you Godspeed,” Coleman said.
Little Egypt Estates’ owners have set aside all 10 units for the families being displaced from Elmwood and McBride. The new apartment complex is located in what used to be known as The Delta Center’s Stenger building, which housed people with disabilities until that agency folded in the face of financial difficulties in the fall of 2015. The HUD-financed complex was left sitting vacant.
Because of the need in Cairo, Cunningham said HUD expedited the foreclosure process and then sold the building at auction to Shawnee Enterprises, a nonprofit with a long and reputable history in providing affordable housing in Cairo and throughout Southern Illinois. “These 10 units will provide opportunities for 10 families to live in an extraordinary environment and improved living conditions,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham also thanked Shawnee Enterprises’ owners for stepping up to provide much-needed housing in Cairo. Cunningham said he was immediately impressed with Covey and Logan’s work upon meeting them not long after HUD placed the Alexander County Housing Authority into administrative receivership in early 2016. Cunningham added, “To the residents, welcome home.”
With a Christmas tree in the freshly painted lobby glowing in the background, Logan paused for a moment to steady his emotions as he began his remarks. “Most of you won’t know this, but Cairo has a special place in my heart,” he said. “Let me try to explain that to you.”
Logan said he came to Cairo in 1972 — 45 years ago — to work for Egypt Housing Development Corp. During a period of great racial strife in Cairo, the company had received state funding to build 150 homes that were purchased with USDA loans.
That year, 60 workers, including Logan — half black, half white — built those homes throughout the region in a year and a half, he said. “Only together can we be who God created us to be,” he said. “Together, the impossible is the possible. Apart, the possible is impossible.
“Now, why did I bring that up?” he continued. “I brought it up because Cairo is proof of what happens when we are apart, separated from each other. Cairo is also proof — and I didn’t say an example, I said proof — of what happens when we tear down walls that separate us.”
In this particular case, the falling of walls that symbolize that separation has given way for the building up of walls that represent new beginnings for 10 families in Cairo who have been without adequate housing for many years.