CAIRO — A recent inspection of the Elmwood and McBride properties in Cairo revealed 1,376 health and safety deficiencies, according to a Housing and Urban Development report provided to the newspaper last week.
The report indicates that an inspection conducted by HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center in September 2016 assigned a score of 17 out of a possible total of 100 to both properties while noting deficiencies that included mold, infestation, lead paint and water in the apartments, and numerous other serious structural problems.
The report HUD provided to the newspaper is dated Sept. 1, 2017, and includes a synopsis of the 2016 inspection report in which the health and safety deficiencies are cited. The most recent report was conducted at the request of community leaders during HUD Secretary Carson's visit to Cairo on Aug. 8.
The community leaders asked the federal housing agency to review whether any of the buildings at McBride and Elmwood could be salvaged and rehabilitated to allow more families the option to stay in Cairo. Several local officials said they thought it appeared as though some buildings could be rehabilitated, even if not all.
McBride and Elmwood, sprawling World War II era public housing complexes on the south and north end of the city, are each comprised of numerous two-story buildings laid out in rows, with each row containing numerous apartments.
The report provided to the newspaper does not directly answer that question. HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said he would provide an update to the newspaper, and the public, after a letter is sent explaining HUD's final decision to the stakeholders with whom Carson met in Cairo. Brown said the letter is expected to go out soon, though he was not specific about a date.
Though, based on the report, it appears HUD's conclusion is that there are no buildings that can be salvaged. The report states that there were site visits conducted on Aug. 17 and Aug. 31 during which the condition of buildings in the 200, 300 and 500 rows of McBride Place were reviewed.
It was determined, according to the report, that the condition and physical characteristics of the buildings reviewed are "consistent with the other buildings at the sites."
Therefore, it is highly unlikely that HUD plans to salvage any buildings at Elmwood and McBride, given the cost and extent of damage caused by years of neglect to their maintenance needs. HUD officials have said on numerous occasions that the Alexander County Housing Authority is teetering on brink of bankruptcy, and they have not changed their tune as of late.
In fact, operational resources are so tight for the HUD staff managing the ACHA in receivership that they are struggling to keep up with routine tasks such as mowing and trash pickup.
The ACHA receives $670,000 annually under HUD's Capital Fund Program, money that can be used for capital improvements and new development. But the needs are extensive across the housing authority's housing portfolio. At the end of the day, that amount of money does not go far.
The Sept. 1 HUD report provided to the newspaper additionally states that a physical needs assessment of the complexes conducted in April of this year determined it would cost $51 million — or more than $184,000 per apartment — to rehabilitate all existing buildings at both properties. It would cost $3 million to abate lead-based paint and asbestos containing materials, or more than $11,000 per unit, according to the report.
At the amount of $184,000 per apartment that HUD claims it would cost for renovations at McBride, the ACHA could only make three units suitable for families with a year's worth of capital funding. That price tag also is almost four times the median price of a private home in Alexander County.
Brown said the review was conducted by an independent entity. The newspaper asked for the name of the contractor, as well as how much the review cost, but Brown declined to provide either of these details at this time, saying he would consider doing so after the letter was received by the stakeholders.
The newspaper also asked on several occasions why HUD would pay for another review of Elmwood and McBride when there already had been several extensive reviews previously conducted drawing the same conclusions. For example, a document that he provided the newspaper in early April, as the agency announced that it would begin relocating residents from the unsafe complexes, concluded of the conditions of Elmwood and McBride, "Quite simply, these developments are beyond repair."
A physical needs assessment was conducted by a private architecture firm, Herrin-based Eggemeyer Associates Architects , in the fall of 2015, prior to HUD placing the ACHA into administrative receivership. Though apparently more limited in scope than the review conducted this past spring, each of the reports have drawn the same general conclusion: given how long routine maintenance at the complexes was neglected, it would cost substantially more to rehabilitate than to build new.
Brown said the most recent review was specifically in response to a promise Carson made to community leaders who asked HUD to take another look at some of the buildings they believed could be saved.
Carson visited Cairo on Aug. 8, during which time he toured the grounds of the Elmwood and McBride projects and also spoke with community leaders, including the school superintendent, mayor and others, as well as the residents who are being relocated from their unsafe apartments.
He addressed this request, in general terms, in opening remarks at the Cairo Junior/Senior High School Gym.
“…the thing that makes sense is to look at every possibility that exists for those who want to stay,” Carson said. “To make sure that those places that are too dangerous to put anybody in are eliminated, and to work with the people here and with other areas of government including the state — see if we can make the appropriate type of investment to once again bring back the financial viability of this area.
“And most importantly — and the thing that got me through a lot of difficulties in my career — was don’t forget who’s really in charge. That’s God.”
The report the newspaper received from HUD does not outline all of the 1,376 health and safety deficiencies cited during the September 2016 HUD inspection, nor does it include the entire assessment of the facilities completed by a registered architect in April 2017.
The newspaper asked for these and other reports in several Freedom of Information Act requests made weeks ago, but has yet to receive them. The newspaper has reviewed the report conducted in the fall of 2015 by Eggemeyer Associates Architects outlining many of the same problems cited in the abbreviated review provided to the newspaper by HUD that is dated Sept. 1.
The Eggemeyer report cited a need to immediately address plumbing issues that cause sewage to back up into parking areas and lawns, inadequate outdoor lighting, aggressive mold and infestation problems, and construction deficiencies allowing for the nesting of rodents under foot stoops, among many other problems.
HUD’s most recent report also cites inadequate cooling and heating systems, the latter of which causes many residents to heat their homes with their ovens, a highly dangerous practice that could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
In the meantime, while this request of local officials as to whether HUD can salvage any of the buildings at McBride and Elmwood still is pending, the Alexander County Board has denied Housing and Urban Development’s request to utilize up to $400,000 in the county’s possession from a fund that was once used for revolving business loans, but that the state has since said could be used for infrastructure projects.
HUD Region V Deputy Regional Administrator Jim Cunningham appeared before the county board at its Sept. 19 meeting to formally make the request to use the funds to repair nine vacant units at the Mary Alice Meadows complex and one at the Sunset Terrace apartments, both in Thebes. These vacant apartments are mostly three bedrooms and could accommodate larger families who want to remain in the immediate area, Cunningham said.
HUD estimates it would cost a total of about $700,000 to renovate all 10 units so that families being relocated from Elmwood and McBride could move into them. He said the Alexander County Housing Authority has $250,000 it can allocate toward the project.
Board Chairman Chalen Tatum told Cunningham that the county is not interested in partnering on rehabbing the Thebes complexes at this time because of a competing need for the funds. He said the money already is obligated to repair the Len Small Levee.
“The $400,000 we’ve obligated a long time ago to the levy that has a three-quarter of a mile (wide) hole in it,” Tatum said, essentially denying HUD’s request, though no vote was taken on the matter. “It protects about four towns. … That’s where we’re at on that."
A section of the Len Small Levee collapsed during the New Year’s flood of 2016. Heavy rains this past spring stretched the hole even further and stalled repair plans. Tatum did not completely rule out helping, but said the county had to wait and see what is the status of the levee repair.
“We thought we’d get the project started and we can see what’s left, maybe it won’t take as much to do the project and we can keep you posted,” he said. “But we done voted a long time ago after they come the first time, Towanda came, and she didn’t come back.”
He was referencing a request that HUD administrator Towanda Macon, who is managing the ACHA in administrative receivership, made about a year and a half ago to tap into the funds to replace locks at Elmwood and McBride. The city ended up helping with that venture from a similar fund, and Mayor Tyrone Coleman said HUD helped the city access other state grants in excess of what it provided HUD to take care of the infrastructure needs it had slated for its use of the money.
Asked what is Plan B given the county is not willing, at this time, to use any of its money to repair the projects at Thebes, HUD's Brown said the ACHA would repair as many units as it could with the $250,000 it is able to earmark for the project.
County Commissioner Joe Griggs asked why HUD would invest that kind of money in a complex with extensive repair needs, given that it isn't enough to fix the extent of all of the problems there.
Griggs asked if HUD was essentially throwing good money after bad. The cost range is between about $45,000 and $106,000 to repair each of the 10 units in Thebes, according to HUD. Asked to explain why HUD would allocate this type of money in a region where new construction would cost substantially less — as "this isn't going to make sense to the average Joe," is how the newspaper phrased the question -- Brown responded by saying, "We're spending $250,000 on several units."