CAIRO -- More than 50 people packed the board room of the Alexander County Housing Authority on Tuesday evening to hear from the new federal directors who have taken over the local agency.
Co-administrators Towanda Macon and Stephen Schneller and four other team members from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development introduced themselves to those in attendance and spent nearly two hours answering questions about what the federal takeover means for residents and the community.
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At the opening of the meeting, Schneller told the crowd that the intent of the meeting was to hear their concerns. HUD announced its decision to move into Cairo on Monday morning, citing “a years-long pattern of financial and operational mismanagement, poor housing conditions, and alleged civil rights violations.”
Macon stated she was glad to see so many people attend the meeting on such short notice. That interest from the community, she said, “tells us a lot.”
“We are here in partnership with you,” she said. “We know that you all have been gathered in this room many times, and you all have probably been told a lot of things that were going to happen, and some things that were not going to happen.
“We want to move forward. We know that there are things we want to get accomplished as a team, but we need your help in getting those things accomplished.”
At the meeting, residents voiced numerous concerns, many they have been complaining about for months or even years. Those concerns included crime, infestation, broken appliances, not enough maintenance workers, and a belief that master keys have fallen into the wrong hands.
Members of the HUD team recorded each person’s concern, name and unit number and promised to follow up individually regarding unit-specific concerns. For all complexes, Macon said infestation control and safety are top priorities.
One person asked whether HUD was there to lock the doors and move everyone out. Macon assured that was not the case. She reiterated on several occasions that the team was there to try to make things better for residents, and to stabilize the housing authority so it can be returned to local control.
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The meeting was cordial throughout and even included a few light moments and some laughter. But some of the comments were pointed. Gerald Watkins Sr., who lived for years in Cairo and is now a resident of nearby Mounds, asked what took so long for the federal government to show up, as people have been living in deplorable conditions for years. “Now all of the sudden HUD is here?” he said. “HUD should have been here years ago.”
Macon responded saying only, “It’s frustrating, I know.”
Several people at the meeting also asked about the status of executive director Jason Ashmore, who was appointed to the post in January by former members of the ACHA board, but has continued to work without pay because a contract was never approved. Paul Lambert, a longtime resident of Elmwood and president of a citizens’ advocacy group, said his concerns about Ashmore are not personal. But, he believes the way Ashmore was brought into the office was disrespectful to the people of Cairo, and that there should be a do-over on selecting a director.
Ashmore attended the meeting and stood against a side wall but did not speak.
Several other people expressed similar concerns. Macon would only say that their concerns had been heard, and that while there have been no changes to anyone’s employment terms, a review of staff and responsibilities will take place.
Schneller noted that HUD’s actions to seize control of operations on Monday means the five members of the Alexander County Housing Authority (ACHA) board were dismissed, and Macon and Schneller appointed to a two-member board in their place.
Macon and Schneller, as HUD's appointed co-administrators, are ultimately in charge of day-to-day operations moving forward, he noted, regardless of what title others may hold.
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Most of the people who attended the meeting are residents of the ACHA’s public housing complexes in Cairo. Several other concerned citizens also were in attendance, including Mayor Tyrone Coleman and Councilwoman Connie Williams.
Coleman said he was relieved to see HUD in town after facing months of issues with former board members he felt were not listening to the people. He noted that Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t hostile, and everyone was able to speak their mind.
“That’s all people have been wanting,” Coleman said.
He said he’s hopeful HUD’s presence means improvements are headed Cairo’s way, but he added that tenants and other community members also must play a big part in making positives changes, and building Cairo up.
Williams said she knows the new HUD team on the ground needs a little time to get acclimated, but she's hopeful for some breakthroughs quickly. “I’m hoping it’s not going to take months to get some things done,” she said. “We need something positive to make people feel good and also so that they know we’re moving forward.”