082315-nws-housing

McBride apartments, a family designated public housing complex of the Alexander County Housing Authority, in Cairo.

The Southern File Photo

CAIRO — U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth continues to push Housing and Urban Development officials to get their story straight concerning the relocation effort in Cairo.

Duckworth, D-Ill., has said on numerous occasions that the lack of consistent information from HUD officials is both frustrating and confusing to residents and other concerned city leaders and federal officials.

Ben Garmisa, a spokesman for Duckworth, said the senator's continued insistence for clarity on the nuts-and-bolts issues concerning the move — including how long residents have to find a place to live after receiving a voucher and whether most people prefer to stay in Cairo or move to another location — is not intended to be adversarial.

Rather, Garmisa said the senator believes it is important that everyone is on the same page with the facts to allow for honest, even if difficult, conversations to unfold.

What do residents want? 

For example, Garmisa said the senator is still waiting for Housing and Urban Development to provide data supporting the claim by the deputy director of the Chicago-based regional field office that most residents of Elmwood and McBride public housing complexes want to leave Cairo.

HUD has been charged with the operations of the Alexander County Housing Authority since it placed it under administrative receivership on Feb. 22, 2016. More than a year later, in April, HUD officials announced that they were going to relocate about 400 people from their unsafe housing complexes and provide them with rental vouchers. They also told the residents that many would have to move to communities outside of Cairo because of a shortage of affordable housing in the deeply rooted, African-American city that has been the only home many of these residents have ever known. 

Duckworth first made the data request to HUD in early July after meeting with residents in Cairo. She told the newspaper during that visit that she also met with HUD Region V Deputy Regional Administrator Jim Cunningham. And according to Duckworth, Cunningham told the senator that although the residents who want to stay are the most vocal, the majority of families prefer to relocate to communities outside of Cairo.

Duckworth said Cunningham told her that HUD knows this is the case based on the residents' responses on their intake forms for their voucher and relocation services concerning where they want to move.

But Duckworth said HUD’s claim that most people want to relocate is confusing to her given the number of people who have approached her about their desires to stay in Cairo. Duckworth told The Southern during her July visit to Cairo that was why she requested the data from the intake reports — so that it could clear up the confusion about what it is that most residents want. 

In a meeting that took place in Sen. Dick Durbin's office, Duckworth said she also asked HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his senior advisers on Cairo who were present in a meeting the following week in Washington for the same information.

In response to Duckworth raising the question about the intake survey results, the newspaper also requested the information from HUD the day after Duckworth’s visit to Cairo. At the time, HUD spokesman Jerry Brown said the agency was not prepared to release the data because the report was not finalized. The newspaper followed up again last week, two months after making the initial request.

Brown responded to the newspaper’s email stating that HUD is not prepared to turn over the results of the intake surveys. He provided this explanation: “Publishing or sharing specifics may bring additional, unnecessary pressure on specific residents.”

“We have no doubt that given the option, most tenants would choose to reside in Cairo,” Brown added. “Sadly, the affordable housing market in Cairo will not support everyone who would like to stay.”

The newspaper responded to Brown restating, and further clarifying, its previous request for aggregate data, not specific privileged information of HUD’s housing clients.

Brown said he would check with the HUD team leaders assigned to Cairo. In a follow up response, he said the newspaper can file a Freedom of Information Act request for the information. The newspaper has filed the FOIA request, but it may be weeks before the information is released.

Though, typically, information requested by congressional officeholders does not require submission of a FOIA. It was not clear to the newspaper why Duckworth’s office had not been provided the information she claims to have requested on at least two occasions in the past two months.

Duckworth: 'Recognizing reality' is important 

Duckworth, asked about Brown’s comment stating that most residents would like to remain in Cairo given the option, said, “… I’m glad HUD is now acknowledging the clear reality on the ground: most of the families — many of whom have roots going back generations in Cairo — want to remain in Cairo and help rebuild their community.”

“Recognizing reality is certainly an important step, but the hardworking people of Cairo deserve action from the Secretary too, and I’m going to keep pressing him to help the families of McBride and Elmwood, including by pursuing all options to build or rehab housing facilities, and to work with his Administration colleagues to bring real economic development and growth to the region.”

Asked to respond to Duckworth’s comments and clarify if there was a change of story about the HUD intake data on whether people want to stay or go, Brown said he isn’t going to wade into a political debate. He said people often change their minds about where they want to go through these types of processes, as was the case during HUD’s most recent relocation effort of about 1,000 people from a housing complex sitting on a Superfund site in East Chicago, Indiana. 

Brown: HUD will focus on its clients 

The back-and-forth is confusing to the residents and not helpful to the process, he said. Brown added, “Rather than get in a debate, we’ll continue to focus on providing housing options.”

But Duckworth has maintained her aim is not to create confusion, but to clear it up. 

Duckworth relayed to the newspaper during the July interview that she said to Cunningham during their meeting, “You’re telling me a lot of the residents don’t want to stay here, and yet every resident I’ve talked to has said, ‘We want to stay.’ So I want the intake report.

“Why is it you in Chicago are getting a different picture through your chain of reporting than what is happening here?”

At the time, Duckworth said the lack of facts led her to draw the conclusion that “we’re still in crisis mode” in Cairo.

Other concerns of confusion raised  

Late last week, the newspaper also was provided by Duckworth’s office a response to questions that had been posed to Secretary Carson following the meeting in Washington with Duckworth and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and other HUD officials. There were additional discrepancies between HUD’s responses and what Duckworth and Durbin previously said Carson and his staff previously agreed to do.

In a July 20 letter, following their meeting with Carson, the senators thanked Carson for agreeing to visit Cairo “to witness firsthand the unacceptable and outrageous public housing conditions” and to hear directly from residents.

Durbin and Duckworth also wrote that they fully supported HUD's decision under Secretary Carson to provide Tenant Protection Vouchers “that have no time limit or restrictions on their use.” “These special TPVs will afford families the necessary time and comfort to make the right decision in determining when and where to relocate from Elmwood Place and McBride Place,” they wrote. 

Given that the The Southern Illinoisan was not present at the meeting, the newspaper cannot determine where the breakdown in communication occurred — but it’s apparent there has been one. On Aug. 25, HUD’s Seth Appleton, acting assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental relations, responded to several questions previously posed in a joint letter by Duckworth and Durbin, including about the deadline for use of the vouchers once they are issued to tenants.

Appleton wrote that the Menard County Housing Authority is administering the vouchers, and that according to MCHA staff, the vouchers can be active, with extensions, for up to 330 days. Appleton further qualified that by adding, “…while the vouchers may be active for up to 330 days, circumstances may change that require residents to move prior to voucher expiration.” He did not further clarify what those circumstances might entail. Brown, the HUD spokesman, recently told the newspaper that the agency is encouraging residents to move before winter, because there might not be money to repair boilers that break, which provide heat.

Duckworth and Durbin had also previously stated that Secretary Carson had agreed to remove a 250-mile limit on full-service contract moves for residents. But again, the letter contradicted that, restating the same facts that HUD staffers had previously provided to the newspaper and residents. Residents have three options for moving expenses.

They can chose to move themselves, and receive a flat rate based on unit size. They can opt for a full-service move up to 250 miles, or if they are moving a longer distance, they can be reimbursed for expenses, for up to the amount that would be covered for a contract move up to 250 miles. According to HUD, this amount is likely to fully cover a move, even one across the country, for someone who opts for the self-move option, such as by renting a UHaul truck and seeking reimbursement of expenses.  

Finally, HUD’s Appleton also responded to Duckworth and Durbin’s request for information about who wants to stay, but Garmisa, with Duckworth's office, said the response was not clear.

Appleton wrote that 213 households are eligible for vouchers, including some families that lived in Elmwood and McBride from when HUD began administrative receivership in February 2016 but who moved prior to the April relocation announcement.

Housing counselors have worked with 174 households between April 10 and Aug. 9, and since that date 133 vouchers have been issued and 9 families have moved. In April, HUD said there were 185 families still living at Elmwood and McBride. Of the 133 vouchers issued, 34 households have indicated a desire to remain in Cairo, HUD’s Appleton wrote to Sen. Duckworth.

As of deadline, it was not clear to the newspaper if these numbers reflected the intake survey data discussed earlier in this article by HUD officials and Duckworth. 

In addition to the communication issues, the Cairo relocation effort also apparently has been snagged by an unwillingness for residents to participate in tours to see housing in other communities coordinated by the company HUD has contracted with to provide mobility counseling services.

Some residents have reported feeling threatened to participate because of the pressure by those who want HUD to rebuild in the city – including other public housing residents, city leaders and community activists – not to sign up for or participate in the relocation activities.

Other residents say they don’t want to go because it is not comfortable piling onto a bus with several of their neighbors for a house-hunting activity that feels deeply personal and is at times emotional.

Even some of the residents who say they are interested in looking outside of Cairo for other living arrangements, or at the very least exploring their options, say they feel conflicted about going through with it. Since April, residents of Elmwood and McBride have not been required to pay rent. There also have been discussions among community leaders about hopes of recruiting a private developer to town to build houses so that most people can stay, but there's been no groundbreakings to date and this remains an uncertain and long-shot prospect.

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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