CAIRO — Several dozens of residents and concerned citizens packed into the board room Thursday at the Alexander County Housing Authority and demanded action related to the conditions they are living in at the public housing developments.
The residents came out after multiple reports in The Southern Illinoisan, based on an analysis of federal and agency documents, showing a pattern of gross mismanagement, and citing federal allegations that employees spent money on themselves in the form of contracts, excessive travel and retirement incentives, intended for resident programs and capital improvements.
“Where is the money?” chanted one attendee at the meeting, as one-by-one, residents there detailed their primary complaint against the housing authority.
Some asked why they should have to continue to pay full rent when former employees are alleged to have misspent funds on themselves as their housing developments deteriorated into horrid conditions.
Residents detailed to the board complaints of roaches and rats, concerns about black mold and asbestos they believe may be making their children sick, and violent crimes — described as a “war zone” where gun shots begin every evening around 9 p.m. — in two of the family housing complexes, the McBride and Elmwood developments, that almost entirely house African-American residents and their children.
“All I know is they lived in luxury and we are living like dogs,” said Lena Nelson, a resident of the Connell F. Smith Apartments, a low-rise complex on the Ohio River designated for older adults and people with disabilities. “Justice needs to be done.”
After hearing from attendees, the board went into executive session for several hours, before reconvening a public session.
There, they approved on a 3-2 vote a voluntary compliance agreement with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development to address the laundry list of issues for which they’ve been cited, including segregation of African-American residents into the worst of the developments while spending more on the complexes that are more racially integrated, discriminatory hiring and pay practices among employees, and a failure to adequately supply units that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or to accommodate residents with physical limitations.
The agreement requires housing authority staff to, within 60 days, canvass residents living at the Cairo family developments in the worst condition, and inquire about their interests in moving to the family development in Thebes that is in slightly better shape, or other scattered sites. The housing authority is required to move Elmwood and McBride apartment residents interested in moving to the top of the waiting list for open units elsewhere for which they are eligible.
The agreement also calls for the authority to conduct within six months an assessment of the viability of those complexes moving forward, and to make a determination as to whether the authority plans to renovate and enhance those units to an equitable level of those developments that are more racially integrated, and predominately white, or whether to bulldoze the Elmwood and McBride developments and develop an alternative plan for housing displaced residents.
It additionally says authority management is to offer the Cairo Police Department access to space at the family units where an officer can live, or from which a satellite office could be located, in an attempt to try to control the dangerous crime issues.
Ramona Stacy, an English teacher at Shawnee Community College and concerned citizen, said her heart broke when a young child recently approached her who lives in one of the family developments and was covered in bedbug bites.
“I can’t sleep like a baby at night knowing these issues are going on,” Stacy said. She was referencing the newspaper’s Sunday article titled “Chaos in Cairo” in which former, longtime executive director James Wilson is quoted saying he doesn’t have “any problem sleeping at night at all” even as he’s accused of misspending funds on himself and others, and playing a large role in driving the housing authority into the ground financially.
In response to some residents who said they are going to protest by not sending in rent, Interim Executive Director Tom Upchurch said he sympathized with their anger, but told them that is only going to make matters worse. Already, roughly 25 percent of residents’ rents are delinquent, he said.
Jessica Penrod, a mother of three who lives in McBride Apartments, said she’s concerned about the health of her children after discovering what she believes is black mold in places throughout the apartment. Penrod said she’s had to pull teeth to get someone from the authority to come out and look at it, and have stalled at cleaning it up or offering another unit. Penrod said she’s temporarily moved in with a relative in a less-than-ideal situation after vacating the apartment awaiting a cleanup, but has still been required to pay full rent.
“It makes us mad,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”
The two board members who voted against the agreement were Irene McBride, who is the tenant representative on the board, and Judson Childs, who in the 2000s became Cairo’s first black mayor. The agreement with HUD requires that they be removed from the board within a year, though it doesn’t say why. HUD says in its review that McBride, who was chairwoman for a long time, was uneducated regarding major HUD policies and regulations.
Board chairman Andy Clarke also had previously served on the board, though he had stepped off at one point before being reappointed in January. It was unclear to the newspaper at press time why the agreement required McBride and Childs to exit while Clarke was not mentioned.
Childs said he agreed with the reforms listed in the voluntary compliance agreement, but solely rejected to a requirement he step off the board. He noted that he and McBride are the only minority representatives on the board.
After disgruntled residents and citizens spoke their concerns, Childs said he was committed to righting the wrongs they have experienced. “I know what you said is true. It’s nasty. It’s nastier than it’s ever been,” Childs said.
The compliance agreement with HUD additionally requires the authority to review its hiring and pay practices, and if it’s determined that relatives or others were given preferential treatment in the hiring process, they must be terminated, and the application process opened back up. In its review, HUD cited the authority for what appeared to be a pattern of inappropriate hiring and pay practices, including allegations that some black workers receive tougher assignments and less pay than their white counterparts, and that some employees appeared to receive preferential treatment.
Previously, Kevin Starr, the business manager for the International Laborers’ Union Local 773 that represents housing authority employees, said his lawyers are in the process of reviewing these and other issues, and while calling the contract between the union and authority “sloppy,” vowed it would be done much better in the next round of negotiations. The contract expires at September’s end.
On Thursday, the board additionally voted 3-2 to reinstate two employees who had been suspended recently for reasons that were not disclosed. Childs and McBride voted against their reinstatement. Childs said he voted against bringing the employees back, because while he declined to discuss the specific allegations that led to their suspension, “it was wrong, and everybody knows that it was wrong.”