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2018 Person of the Year
Our person of the year is Kathie Chwalisz, whose FOIA request exposed Randy Dunn’s work to split SIU campuses

CARBONDALE — Love her or hate her, Professor Kathie Chwalisz is proof of the power of the pen.

This year, her pen, aided by almost 1,900 pages of internal SIU documents, brought down an SIU president.

“People have accused me of being paranoid,” Chwalisz said. “But then it turned out I wasn’t paranoid, I was paying attention.”

Chwalisz submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request, this April, to get a closer look at the decision making process behind a controversial proposal to transfer $5.1 million from SIU Carbondale to SIU Edwardsville.

“The reallocation proposal caught us all by surprise,” Chwalisz said. “Like, where did this come from?”

Dunn said the move would address a longstanding funding error. For the last 40 years, he said, the state’s contribution to SIU was divvied up 60/40 between SIUC and SIUE. Over time, SIUC had begun to receive more than its share.

But the documents Chwalisz received, including meeting notes and internal emails, revealed a disturbing backstory.

So Chwalisz penned an editorial that rocked the Carbondale community. Then, she released her documents to the press.

“Budget-related documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act show that SIU President Randy Dunn actively concealed from SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno his plan to transfer $5.125 million from the Carbondale to Edwardsville campus. He sought to use the fictitious 60/40 split formula to — in Dunn’s words in an email exchange ... ‘shut up the bitchers from Carbondale,’” Chwalisz wrote in a May 17 editorial, called “Dunn’s SIU agenda revealed.”

The $5.125 million wasn’t an evidence-based solution to a proven funding inequity, Chwalisz continued, it was “the groundwork for the system separation legislation” later announced by SIU Edwardsville Chancellor Randy Pembrook.

Chwalisz’s claims set off a rush of activity.

Dunn released a point-by-point rebuttal of Chwalisz’s accusations, calling them “misleading and frankly intentionally and grossly misrepresenting the situation.”

Further reporting in the Southern and other media outlets agreed with Chwalisz’s claims about the fabricated 60/40 figures, and revealed Dunn had been counseling Pembrook throughout the development and unveiling of legislation that sought to split SIUC and SIUE, all while publicly claiming a neutral stance on the issue. Amy Sholar, sitting chair of the Board of Trustees, and John Charles, SIU’s Executive Director for Governmental & Public Affairs, were also implicated in the behind-the-scenes work on the controversial bill.

Chwalisz, meanwhile, had begun to receive calls, emails and Facebook messages from people who had stories to tell about improprieties at SIU.

She began to see Dunn’s influence everywhere, as she heard more about alleged acts of manipulation and professional retaliation that went beyond what was reported in the news.

But much of it she couldn’t prove.

“The last year took a decent toll on me psychologically, having some sense of what was causing something and not being able to do anything about it because I couldn’t corroborate it,” Chwalisz said. “It takes a lot of energy, because you don’t want to dismiss what people want to tell you. People are telling you because they think you can do something about it.”

By the time she published her May editorial, Chwalisz was no stranger to that pressure. She’d already endured a year of controversy, as one of the most vocal supporters of Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s plan to reorganize SIU Carbondale.

Montemagno believed that by rearranging the university’s structure of colleges and departments, he could spur faculty to collaborate in new ways, streamline administrative duties and help SIUC market its programs as distinctive, relevant and cutting-edge.

Critics have called his plan rushed, poorly designed and weakly supported by data or evidence.

“Faculty do not know when, or even whether we will find ourselves, voluntarily or involuntarily, in a new school, nor do we know what our college structure will look like,” said Professor Dave Johnson, one of the plan’s most vocal critics, in November.

But Chwalisz believes a reorganization is long overdue at SIUC.

She came to the university in 1992, just a year after enrollment hit its all-time high of 24,869 students. Carbondale was booming, and the counseling psychology program that Chwalisz was hired into, and which she now directs, was known as one of the best in the country.

“When I was on the market it was a no-brainer,” Chwalisz said. “I cancelled other interviews for this job.”

She had always paid attention to the administrators setting university policy, Chwalisz said. But as enrollment crumbled, Chwalisz decided to get more involved.

“Over the last decade, the whole university suffered from planning by attrition,” she said. “People would leave and, rather than replace them, those faculty positions would just go away to cover budget cuts.”

Her department — one of the larger ones on campus — began to feel the strain.

“When I first got here we had 31 faculty, 500 undergraduate majors, and 100 doctoral students,” Chwalisz said. “In 2017, we had 16 faculty, 400 majors and 100 doctoral students. We were half the faculty doing almost the same amount of work.”

In 2015, Chwalisz joined the Faculty Senate, which represents professors in the university’s internal government. Her quick ascent to a leadership role, was “happenstance,” she says.

Seeking a level-headed leader to guide the Faculty Senate through the impending search for a new chancellor, the 2016-2017 President Judy Davie asked Chwalisz to consider running.

“I agreed to be on the slate,” Chwalisz said, “I just didn’t realize there wasn’t going to be anyone else on the slate. The next thing I knew, I was Faculty Senate president.”

After SIU hired Montemagno, Chwalisz began networking all across campus to advance his reorganization plan. She felt drastic change was necessary at SIUC, and she believed that Montemagno would adjust his vision according to faculty feedback.

She polled professors and deans on the plan, and reported her findings to the Board of Trustees. She encouraged faculty to propose their own solutions to the challenge of restructuring, and enter the dialogue. She prepared a report on positive developments at SIUC to counter negative media coverage, highlighting new research and recognition for top faculty.

She also clashed with her biggest opponents in the reorganization debate: the Faculty Association, an SIUC union for tenure-track and tenured faculty.

“I believe in unions,” Chwalisz said. “I grew up in a family where people worked in blue collar jobs. When we had our strike here, I honored it. But I am not happy about this union at all.”

The FA represents all tenure-track and tenured faculty, including Chwalisz, in contract and salary negotiations, and tenure and workplace issues.

“The union has gotten us some raises over the years,” Chwalisz acknowledged, and she continues to respect its leader, Dave Johnson, who is her neighbor, as well as her frequent debate opponent.

But she sees Johnson and the FA leadership as holding SIUC back by refusing to relinquish control and allow for real change, which she says the majority of faculty desire.

Johnson sees things differently. Much of what has been approved so far, he says, are basically the same old departments, with new names. The changes that faculty may truly oppose have not even been brought up yet, and the reorganization is already set to take much longer than it was projected to.

"Our consistent position has been that where changes are supported by students and faculty, they should go forward, and that has begun to happen," Johnson said of the FA. "What we've opposed are moves the administration has made that may violate our contract. We also continue to support those faculty who believe that some changes aren't in their best interest, or that of their students."

In March, just before she took on Dunn, Chwalisz stepped down from her role as Faculty Senate president a month early. She felt that her disagreements with critics had begun to obstruct the progress of the reorganization, and that controversy over her leadership was becoming a distraction, as some alleged she was using her platform to push her own views.

After resigning, Chwalisz published an April 11 editorial, denouncing the "small group of faculty and students," that "has been purposefully disrupting badly needed renovations to the SIUC organization,” including the reorganization.

Just a month later, the $5.125 million reallocation proposal came to the Board of Trustees, and Chwalisz responded with her now-famous “Carbondale bitchers” editorial. Slightly over a month later, a member of the Board of Trustees called for Dunn’s resignation. Two weeks after that, Dunn stepped down.

Then on October 11, Chancellor Montemagno died suddenly, after battling cancer.

Chwalisz vowed to Montemagno’s wife, Pamela, that she would continue Carlo’s legacy, and the reorganization.

Chwalisz was never Montemagno’s "buddy," she said, but from the first time she met him, she believed he could transform the university.

“My interest is in the survival and thriving of SIU Carbondale,” she said. “I think he could imagine statues of himself here down the road, after turning things around.”

These days, Chwalisz is back to relative anonymity on the Faculty Senate, serving out her last year on the budget committee. At work, she’s focused on training her psychology students, and mentoring them in their research.

She’s still in the habit of reserving a turn to speak at every Board meeting, even if she doesn’t plan on saying anything. It’s a holdover from her days as president, when contentious meetings over Dunn’s funding reallocation brought dozens of speakers from both Carbondale and Edwardsville.

“I even made a comment last week, when I didn’t plan to,” Chwalisz said, again defending progress on the reorganization, and calling out the “naysayers.”

Dave Johnson gave his own critiques at the two-day meeting, raising issues with dangerously vague elements of the plan, and defending the rights of faculty and students to review all changes as they're made.

Even as she’s been accused of manipulating information in favor of the reorganization, and against Randy Dunn, Chwalisz remains optimistic about the potential of SIUC and the importance of sticking together with Edwardsville.

“One thing I’ve appreciated about being in this position, is that I’ve learned a lot about our sister schools, how we work together, and how we could work together, if people weren't pitting us against each other,” Chwalisz said.

She’s happy to no longer be in the middle of a storm of rumors and controversy, she said, but Chwalisz assures she's “still watching the weather.”


The Southern’s Year in Review
123018-nws-top-2018

Gaege Bethune

Varughese

These are the top stories we covered in Southern Illinois this year.

Controversy, conspiracy at Southern Illinois University

The year at SIU Carbondale was marked by conspiracy and controversy in the office of the university president.

Randy Dunn, who was appointed to lead the two-campus system in 2014, stepped down in July after the publication of almost 1,900 pages of internal emails revealed actions that shocked the Carbondale community.

Dunn’s emails revealed he worked quietly with SIU Edwardsville Chancellor Randy Pembrook to advance a proposal to shift $5.1 million from the Carbondale campus to Edwardsville, to help rectify a perceived funding inequality between the two campuses. Meanwhile, SIU Carbondale leadership, including then-Chancellor Carlo Montemagno, were left in the dark, as was the university board of trustees.

When that proposal was voted down, emails revealed Dunn took other secretive actions that could have hurt SIU Carbondale.

Emails showed he helped Pembrook build political support for legislation that would have split the SIU System into separate Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses, with separate boards of trustees for SIUC and SIUE, while divvying up the university’s crown jewels, and transferring the medical school to SIUE.

SIU Carbondale professors, members of the board of trustees and local lawmakers all called for Dunn’s resignation, and he was replaced on an interim basis by J. Kevin Dorsey, a retired SIU School of Medicine dean, in mid-July.

Chancellor Montemagno dies suddenly at 62

Three months later, on Oct. 11, SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno died at age 62.

He had been hired in August of 2017 to turn around the struggling Carbondale campus, which has been plagued by enrollment decline. He was a renowned nanotechnology researcher and biomedical engineer, who said he saw SIUC as his last great challenge before retirement.

When he publicly announced his diagnosis with cancer, in late June, Montemagno said it wouldn’t slow him down.

“We are treating it aggressively and I am confident that I will be around for a long time,” he wrote on his Chancellor’s Blog on June 27.

He worked throughout an arduous treatment regimen that included chemotherapy, and continued to make frequent public appearances, sometimes moving with the help of a cane or mobility scooter.

Montemagno’s sudden death stunned university leaders, who promised to carry on his legacy.

They have carried forward the academic reorganization that became Montemagno’s signature initiative to revitalize SIUC. Recently approved by the board of trustees, the reorganization remains a source of hope to many on campus, though others are critical of the plan.

A Navy veteran, Chancellor Montemagno was laid to rest with full military honors at Mound City National Cemetery.

His replacement, John M. Dunn, was appointed interim chancellor of SIUC on Dec. 13.

President Trump visits Southern Illinois

It started as a rumor close to midnight and ended days later with thousands descending on a small, rural airport between Murphysboro and Carbondale.

Rumblings of President Donald Trump’s visit to Southern Illinois began to circulate Oct. 19 — about one week before the planned visit — and was confirmed Oct. 21 by U.S. Rep. Mike Bost.

The campaign style-stop was used as stumping opportunity for Republicans running in state and national races.

The president was met with cheers and in some cases tears, both the happy and sad variety.

Trump’s speech didn’t deviate from his typical rhetoric on immigration, liberal-bashing — namely Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton — and touting tax cuts.

Seeming to sweep aside the movement for emancipation during the Civil War, the fight for civil rights this last century and even the revolution to form the country itself, President Trump said, “This is the greatest political movement in the history of our country,” and was met with the roar and thunder of a people ready to go to the mat for the man and anyone he throws his weight behind.

The trip was the first time a sitting president had visited the region since President Bill Clinton came to SIU in 1995, and the first time a sitting president came to Murphysboro.

Reporting partnership uncovers HUD failures

This year, The Southern Illinoisan teamed up with ProPublica through its Local Reporting Network to explore the affordable housing challenges facing rural towns and midsize cities. This work was an extension of the newspaper’s yearslong investigation into the housing crisis in Cairo that upended the town when federal housing officials told 400 people in early 2017 that they had to move out of their unsafe apartments.

Our reporting this year found that HUD’s sluggish response to assist families in Cairo, despite that the federal agency documented deteriorating conditions and mismanagement for years, is symptomatic of much broader problems within the department. HUD has suffered years of congressional cuts and lost nearly 10,000 employees over the past three decades, rendering its oversight abilities ineffective. As cash-starved federally subsidized apartments age, many are being lost to neglect, particularly in economically depressed areas.

With ProPublica, we wrote about how programs that rely more heavily on the private sector to fund repairs to public housing or build new affordable apartments leaves struggling small cities like East St. Louis and Wellston, Missouri, behind. We also revealed that HUD’s system for inspecting federally subsidized properties has led to massive oversight failures across the country, including in New York City; Hartford, Connecticut; Springfield, Massachusetts; Houston; St. Louis and Memphis.

End of the road for the Marion mall

The future has looked bleak for the Marion mall for years, and this year the struggling retail hub announced it would be calling it quits.

The year was bumpy for The Illinois Star Centre Mall — the owning company’s bankruptcy and legal troubles brought the ire of the city of Marion, and even some tenants.

While the city said mall owners owed back taxes on the property, management claimed it didn't, and had maybe even overpaid the levy that was designed to pay down bonds used to pay for the mall’s development decades ago. City officials disagreed, and Marion Mayor Anthony Rinella and City Council proposed putting a lien on the property.

Then, in late November, a letter was circulated to the few remaining tenants in the mall that it would be closing its doors, potentially as soon as 30 days from the letter’s delivery.

A bankruptcy judge in December sided with the mall, saying it could begin terminating leases with tenants, allowing some to stay on with the understanding they would pay their own utilities. No firm closure date has been set yet.

Broken pipe at Rend Lake causes water crisis; 9 Southern Illinois counties declared disaster areas

A breach in a 36-inch pipe at the Rend Lake Conservancy District water plant caused a water shortage for the region. 

The pipe broke on May 16, and by the next day, some Southern Illinois cities had run out of water, schools and businesses had closed, communities were under boil orders and residents were asked to conserve every bit of water.

Some cities, including West Frankfort and Christopher, suspended water service to homes in an effort to conserve, while Carterville completely ran out of water.

Marion High School graduation went on as scheduled May 17, with portable restrooms set up to accommodate graduates and their families. There was a run on bottled water, with residents from Marion driving into Carbondale to stock up.

By May 18, the pipe was repaired and water was again flowing from Rend Lake to the conservancy district's clients around the region. Still, Gov. Bruce Rauner declared nine Southern Illinois counties disaster areas, which allowed state resources to be available to the areas affected by the loss of water.

Saline County Clerk unseated after two-year battle with County Board

Former Saline County Clerk Kim Buchanan was voted out in November after her office went head-to-head for more than two years with the County Board over everything from meeting minutes to payroll to how money collected by the clerk's office should be split among funds.

Buchanan sued the County Treasurer and the County Board in February over payroll duties the board had removed from her office and transferred to the Treasurer's Office.

The County Board had also voted to take legal action against the former clerk. The board sued Buchanan over her accounting for certain funds collected by her office; in August, the court ordered Buchanan to deposit funds into accounts as the County Board directed, and she agreed.

Former Saline County Board member Roger Craig won the seat after beating Buchanan in the Republican primary. He died on Dec. 12, less than two weeks into his term.

Southern Illinois is even deeper red after midterms

The midterm election this past November saw stiff challenges to incumbents, most of whom were able to fend off their challengers.

The race between incumbent Republican Congressman Mike Bost, of Murphysboro, and Democratic challenger Brendan Kelly, brought big names to stump in Southern Illinois, including President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. In the end, Bost fought off Kelly and won a third term as the U.S. representative for Illinois' 12th District.

At the state level, all the incumbent Republican legislators held on to their seats. The last remaining deep Southern Illinois Democrat, Natalie Phelps Finnie, was defeated by Republican Patrick Windhorst, former Massac County State's Attorney.

At the county level, eight-year incumbent Democrat Franklin County Sheriff Don Jones was bested by Republican Dave Bartoni. Republicans also took the Franklin County Treasurer's Office and picked up two County Board seats.

Franklin County has historically voted Democrat — as has much of Southern Illinois — because of the large population of union mine workers. But as union coal jobs have left the area, so too has an affinity for union-supporting Democrats.

Judge overturns Gaege Bethune's murder conviction in death of Pravin Varughese

In one of Southern Illinois' most closely watched criminal trials in recent memory, Gaege Bethune was convicted in June of first-degree murder in the February 2014 death of Southern Illinois University student Pravin Varughese. But, a judge overturned that conviction three months later.

Varughese died of environmental hypothermia on a cold February night after an alleged altercation with Bethune. The prosecution had argued that Varughese had died in the elements as a result of being hit in the head by Bethune.

Judge Mark Clarke set aside the murder conviction because of possibly confusing wording in the original indictment that charged Bethune of the crime. Clarke said in his official ruling that while he had no reason to believe the jury was confused by the charges, he also could not rule it out.

Prosecutors have said they plan to start from scratch and rebuild a case against Bethune.

Travis Tyler convicted of killing Carbondale musician Tim Beaty

Two years to the day after Carbondale musician Tim Beaty was killed in his home due to a nearby shooting, Cape Girardeau man Travis Tyler was convicted of murdering him.

Beaty had been at home in Carbondale on March 27, 2016, when shots rang out at a house party next door. According to testimony at trial, Beaty pulled a group of young women inside his home in an attempt to shield them from the gunfire, and he was killed when he was struck by a stray bullet.

The jury agreed at trial that the bullet that killed Beaty was shot from Tyler's gun. He was sentenced to serve 85 years in prison.

Also this year, Otha Don Watkins III, 35, of Cairo, pleaded guilty to assisting James Watkins in an attempted armed robbery at a Cairo bank in May of 2014, during which two bank employees were killed. He was later sentenced to 23 years in federal prison.

Brian Pheasant, of Christopher, was found guilty in May of first-degree murder in the 2016 shooting death of his wife, Beth Pheasant. He was sentenced to 67 years in prison.

Chester resident Jason Stoker pleaded guilty in May to reckless homicide in the 2016 death of Chester Police Officer James Brockmeyer. Brockmeyer died in a car crash while he was chasing the fleeing Stoker. Stoker was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison.

Former Zeigler Treasurer Ryan Thorpe pleaded guilty to fraud and embezzlement; he had stolen over $320,000 from the city between 2013 and 2017. He was later sentenced to serve four year in federal prison and to pay back the money he stole.

Bob Butler, who served as Marion's mayor for over half a century, retires

Bob Butler, the longest serving mayor in Illinois and second-longest serving mayor in the country, retired from office on Jan. 31, 2018, after serving for nearly 55 years.

Butler took office in May 1963.

“I have been given more credit than I deserved and more criticism than was warranted. I’ve learned you cannot let criticism deter you from what is right,” Butler said on his last day in office. “If I am convinced I’m doing what is right, I am not concerned about criticism.”


bhetzler / THE SOUTHERN FILE PHOTO 

Former Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn speaks during the SIU Board of Trustees meeting in December 2017 in Carbondale.


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PUBLIC housing crisis
What I learned covering HUD: Oversight failures are symptoms of deeper dysfunction
My goal this year was to explore HUD’s failure to enforce legal standards for decent, safe, sanitary housing. What started as a simple premise brought to light greater challenges: Years of congressional cuts have left the agency in a state of chaos as communities suffer.

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica. The Southern Illinoisan is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Parker

When I pulled my Jeep into the Clay Arsenal neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut, in July, I knew intuitively that I had arrived by the sights of neglect: Beautifully crafted brick homes in varying stages of decay. Boarded up buildings. A feeling of isolation in an otherwise bustling city.

I had driven 1,100 miles from Southern Illinois for an appointment with Josh Serrano. He was among a handful of tenants who had led a monthslong campaign to implore the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to take action against an absentee landlord over poor conditions. I wanted to meet Serrano because I had covered poor living conditions and seeming federal indifference in places like the Illinois cities of Cairo and East St. Louis, in my region, and he was optimistic that by speaking with one voice, a community could achieve change.

I recognized Serrano’s neighborhood from online photographs. It’s what journalists would call “distressed,” a catchall word that quickly and diplomatically describes many of the places I visited this year while reporting on the affordable housing challenges facing economically struggling rural towns and midsize cities for The Southern Illinoisan, and supported by ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

But the word distressed, as one might also describe a favorite leather jacket or piece of reclaimed furniture, has never felt like a strong enough descriptor for the virus of political indifference that plagues these places and the people who call them home.

Forget the rural-urban divide. Places like Serrano’s neighborhood in Hartford and the Southern Illinois region I call home are connected by a resource gap as much as or more than we are divided by geographic boundaries. Few issues make that more apparent than the nation’s affordable housing crisis.

I knocked on Serrano’s door and he led a photographer and me upstairs. Serrano is 26 years old. He’s lived in this neighborhood his entire life. Before he was born, his mother moved to Hartford from Puerto Rico with his two older brothers, searching for opportunity. About 13 years ago, Serrano said, his mom moved the family into a federally subsidized property, where she raised him, his brothers and four foster siblings who are cousins.

It was fine at first, he said, but complaints about safety concerns went unaddressed in more recent years. A number of tenants, including his mom, were afraid to speak out because they feared losing their homes and ending up in a worse predicament, he said.

Finally, Serrano said he’d had enough. Around his kitchen table, Serrano told me how he and a half-dozen of his neighbors met for hours each week over the course of months studying HUD policies, canvassing their neighborhood to gather feedback from other renters and pushing for accountability as the rats multiplied and the mold grew inside their homes.

Eventually, the tenants won action from HUD. In May, the agency announced that it was ending its contract with Serrano’s landlord, and that he and the 150 families living in his building and others would receive vouchers to subsidize their rent in the private market. But it’s hard to celebrate the dismantling of a neighborhood and the loss of affordable housing, even if that’s the best of bad options. There is a shortage of subsidized four- and five-bedroom units in Hartford, the state capital, making it challenging for some larger families to find alternative rentals that will accept their vouchers, commonly known as Section 8, in the neighborhoods where they want to live.

At the start of the year, my goal was to explore HUD’s failure to enforce legal standards for decent, safe, sanitary housing in apartments subsidized by federal tax dollars, particularly in regions like mine that modern-day HUD policy seems to have left behind. I visited Evansville, Indiana; Wellston, Missouri; Steubenville, Ohio; Peoria, Illinois; and Hudson, New York, and found that they are all dealing with similar challenges.

What started as a simple premise brought to light much greater challenges. HUD’s oversight failures are profound, and they have left thousands of children and their families, seniors and people with disabilities living in unsafe housing for years. As landlords have slapped paint over mold, cardboard over holes, and hid problems behind walls and “Do Not Enter” signs, the agency has often looked the other way.

But these failures are symptomatic of much broader problems. To some extent, HUD has been put in an impossible position, starved for years by congressional budget cuts and lacking adequate staffing levels to monitor public and private landlords. Republicans have spent years eviscerating HUD, beginning with the Reagan administration and accelerating after the GOP won control of Congress in 1994, promising to rein in spending on social welfare programs. Chronic underfunding has persisted since then, especially for programs that fund public housing authorities.

More recently, some have blamed HUD Secretary Ben Carson, trained as a neurosurgeon, as problems deepened, and his administration has done little to dislodge the inertia. But few Democratic politicians have publicly championed public housing or prioritized HUD either.

As buildings age, HUD is increasingly looking to the private sector to fund a backlog of repairs and to provide new affordable units, and the agency has offered few solutions to those places that cannot attract private landlords to replace what’s being lost to neglect. These policies are based on the belief that housing should follow the economy, thereby encouraging low-income families to move into areas with more opportunities for jobs and education. While that makes for a great political pitch, it infrequently plays out that way in reality.

The shortcomings of this push toward privatization are felt most in struggling rural towns and midsize cities — the places that rely the most heavily on HUD. This allows old, unsafe housing to deteriorate beyond the point of repair.

In the midst of a nationwide affordable housing crisis, the agency is sometimes forced to choose between looking the other way despite knowledge of unsafe conditions or forcing tenants to leave and find their way in a tight housing market with few better alternatives. This has paralyzed HUD, forcing agency officials to run from one embarrassing oversight failure to the next instead of creating systems and policies that proactively improve access to affordable housing.

Will Widmer, special to ProPublica 

The “senior building,” a public housing development on Wellston Place. 

Just last month, HUD told city officials in Wellston that it planned to dissolve the housing authority on Jan. 1, and then demolish or sell all of its public housing units. Nearly a fifth of Wellston’s 2,300 citizens live in public housing. Behind closed doors, a senior HUD official told Wellston’s Council members that it was a tough decision to make, but that the federal government isn’t investing in public housing like it once did.

When Carson visited Cairo in August 2017, four months after agency officials told families their 1940s-era apartments would be torn down and not replaced, he told tenants that it “seems unfair” that people have to suffer the consequences of past failures, “but that’s the world we live in. There’s a lot of unfairness in the world.”

But unfairness implies some sort of bad luck beyond one’s circumstances, like a person who has never smoked but is diagnosed with lung cancer. The housing challenges in evidence today are solvable, advocates say, and ignoring them amounts to injustice.

William Widmer, Special to ProPublica 

The John Robinson Homes, part of the East St. Louis Housing Authority.

As my year working with ProPublica draws to a close, I’m left with more questions than answers. Among them: Why will HUD officials only acknowledge what’s happening to their agency and the people they serve behind closed doors? Why are so few people aware that the dismantling of HUD over many years is having a devastating effect on communities? When will politicians stop pretending they are surprised and outraged by massive housing failures from Cairo to New York after decades of funding and staff cuts and indifference?

As I left Hartford, I wondered what would become of Serrano and his neighborhood. Several months later, Serrano told me by phone that he’d found another place nearby. He started working part time for the neighborhood advocacy organization that helped him and the other tenants organize, and he hopes to be able to pass on what he learned to others in similar situations.

“I’m not trying to sugarcoat it,” he said of the neighborhood’s challenges, including crime. “But what people don’t see is the other side of it: the love out here, the care we take of each other.”