PADUCAH – This is a tale of two Elmwoods.
Paducah, Kentucky’s public housing complex known as Elmwood was built in 1953.
Cairo’s Elmwood was built about ten years prior, in the early 1940s.
The two brick housing developments are located about 40 miles apart in cities that both sit on the Ohio River. Constructed in the same era, the units are cut from the same architectural pattern. They are two stories with a small kitchen off the living room, a pantry off the kitchen, and bedrooms upstairs.
That’s about where the similarities end.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Bernice Harmon sat outside her Paducah Elmwood apartment chatting with her daughter. Both said they’d come outside to get fresh air. A cool breeze hinted at fall around the corner, and the break in the hot, suffocating Midwest summer heat had drawn numerous people outside.
Harmon said she enjoys her apartment, and has found it to be a pretty good place to live since moving in six months ago. Harmon said she’d heard about the living conditions of residents at Cairo’s Elmwood and McBride public housing complexes. She said it tugged on her heart.
“Cairo looks bad. Yes it does,” she said. “They need to do something about Cairo, they really do.” Harmon pointed back toward her front door. “This is nice right here,” she said.
Paducah's Elmwood has central heating and air conditioning, an improvement made years ago. In Cairo's Elmwood, people heat their homes with gas ovens due to an outdated boiler heating system, and suffer through sweltering summer months if they can't afford a window unit -- woefully inadequate and inefficient for the job at hand.
“I think they should have something just like this, too, for the kids and for the elderly and all of that,” she said.
'I love it here,' Paducah resident says
Harmon’s neighbor, Katherine Crawford, agreed. “I love it here,” Crawford said, noting she became worried when she heard a television news report some months ago about Housing and Urban Development shuttering two housing complexes in Cairo. Paducah and Cairo are in the same media market, and Crawford said that when the news story came on about HUD’s relocation plan, when the reporter mentioned Elmwood, for a second she thought that they might talking about the place she calls home.
Crawford said she doesn’t understand why the public housing residents of Cairo’s Elmwood and McBride have had to live in such poor conditions while the public housing residents of Paducah, just shy of an hour drive to the east, have it so much better, at least where their public housing is concerned.
At Paducah's Elmwood, children played on a basketball court with painted lines and hoops — something Cairo's children don't have. A nearby swing set had working swings, which may seem like a little thing, but stands in stark contrast to Cairo's apartment complexes, where swing sets go without actual swings — a sad metaphor for a community that has been oppressed and forgotten for decades.
The Southern spoke with several public housing residents in Paducah, all of whom shared a similar response: they are pretty happy at Paducah’s Elmwood. One resident complained about an uptick in her utility bill, and another said that on occasion, it can be noisy, but that was pretty much the extent of the grievances of residents randomly surveyed by the newspaper.
“They maintain this property so excellent, and they are on top of it with HUD and everything,” Crawford said, while also praising the complex’s site manager.
“If Paducah can keep up such a nice place anybody can,” she said. “I really feel for the people of Cairo. I really do.”
Cairo’s Elmwood set for demolition
By contrast to Paducah’s Elmwood, Cairo’s Elmwood, only 10 years older, has fallen into such derelict conditions, besieged by infestation and health and safety violations a mile long, that federal housing officials have said they have no option but to tear it down and relocate residents.
HUD also is set to raze Cairo’s McBride public housing complex, which is in even worse condition. When Elmwood and McBride were erected in Cairo in the early 1940s, Elmwood was for white families and McBride, constructed of cheaper materials in a low-lying area more prone to flooding, was for black families. Today, Elmwood and McBride almost exclusively house black families.
While in the not-so-distant past the complexes housed more families, people have been moving out for years over the poor conditions. As of April, there were about 185 families living between the two family complexes in Cairo.
The Paducah Housing Authority’s Elmwood houses 468 people, about 60 percent of whom are African-American, and close to 40 percent white. In total, 1,435 people live in Paducah Housing Authority units spread across the city.
There are several factors that set Paducah and Cairo apart, making it difficult to draw exact comparisons between them. Both are river towns and though Paducah also has faced declining economic conditions, job loses and a shrinking population, it boasts a vibrant medical community with two-state-of-the-art hospitals and an attractive downtown arts district, as well as retail stores and restaurants. All of those offerings draw people from parts of Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.
Paducah’s population is about 25,000, compared to less than 2,500 in Cairo.
Still, at its core, the simple contrast of the two Elmwoods is startling.
It shows the world of difference that proper use of federal funds on maintenance and rehabilitation can have — even on buildings that are 65 to 75 years old.
HUD oversight role questioned
It also begs the question, why didn’t the federal housing agency, which hires inspectors to periodically review public housing complexes across the country, notice the decline of Cairo’s Elmwood and McBride much sooner? And if someone or multiple agency directors did notice, why did HUD not do anything about it until now? (Of note, Kentucky and Illinois are overseen by different regional offices).
HUD has been slow to acknowledge that it could have, or should have, done more to address the mismanagement and poor housing conditions that have culminated in a housing crisis in Illinois’ southernmost city. The relocation of roughly a fifth of the city’s population threatens to further dismantle a community that many families have called home for generations, and that holds significance in African-American history in the United States, particularly in the Midwest.
In April, just prior to federal housing officials announcing a relocation plan to residents packed inside a Baptist church, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown was asked by the newspaper what the agency is doing to prevent this type of situation in the future, where the housing fails and the community is too rural, small and poor to attract a private developer to replace what must go.
Despite HUD’s apparent longstanding oversight failures in Cairo, the agency announced it will not rebuild housing here. Rental vouchers and moving expenses are being offered to Cairo’s public housing residents, but many families have no choice but to relocate to communities outside of Cairo because of the shortage of affordable housing in the city.
There has not been any new residential development in the community in more than 40 years. Many people in the city have argued that HUD should help those families who want to relocate do so, but also build something new in the community for the people who want to stay.
“I’m not sure, outside of everyday oversight of the expenditures and directing them, in a place like Cairo … Would you have been able to turn this around decades ago?” Brown said. “I’m not sure anyone thought it was problem decades ago but the housing authorities, keep in mind, usually fall underneath the city, the auspices of the city. The federal government does not oversee each housing authority.”
Further, though Brown stated the agency was not made aware of problems until recent years — and worked to address those problems with local managers before placing the housing authority in administrative receivership — official documents tell a different story. As far back as 1972, African-American public housing residents shut out of the nicer Elmwood Place — even after HUD had ordered the desegregation of public housing, aired complaints about McBride (then known as Pyramid Courts) at a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Many of the complaints discussed then are the same ones residents have today.
In more recent history, HUD documents obtained by The Southern show the federal agency was aware of growing problems with financial mismanagement of the ACHA beginning in 2010.
Local NAACP president: ‘I had no idea it was this bad’
Richard Grigsby, president of the Alexander-Pulaski branch of the NAACP, said he filed a lengthy list of complaints in 2013 with HUD after several black employees of the housing authority expressed concerns to him about nepotism and other issues of alleged mismanagement, as well as about the deteriorating condition of the complexes. Grigsby said he had what he thought was a good relationship with former longtime ACHA executive director James Wilson, and so first took his concerns to him.
But Grigsby said he was not satisfied by Wilson’s response. He also wasn't satisfied with how long it took HUD to respond to the problems he pointed out. “They were slow about acknowledging it,” he said of HUD.
In 2014, HUD conducted an extensive review of the ACHA. The agency issued several reports that year citing concerns of financial mismanagement, civil rights violations against employees and residents, and inadequate accommodations for people with disabilities, among other problems.
Grigsby said he now feels as though his complaints just scratched the surface. “I had no idea it was this bad ... no idea,” he said. It was another three years after Grigsby said he filed his list of complaints that HUD placed the housing authority into administrative receivership. Another year passed before HUD announced a plan to address the squalor living conditions of residents.
Grigsby said it raises questions in his mind about how HUD’s inspectors could have gotten it so wrong. “Coming down all those years, they must not have been doing their jobs,” he said.
HUD’s physical inspection scores that are available online for Cairo’s Elmwood complex are all over the place. Between the years 2000 and 2007, the complex scored between 38.29 and 91.25 on a 100-point score. A score of 79 or below triggers annual inspections, while a score over 90 allows for inspections only every three years. A score below 60 is considered failing, and triggers more serious corrective action, which varies depending on how low the score is.
Interestingly, Paducah’s Elmwood, which clearly has been better maintained over the years, scored worse than Cairo’s Elmwood in 2000. That year, the Paducah complex scored a 69.96 and the Cairo complex a 91.25. During 2000 and 2007, Paducah’s Elmwood overall scored between 69.96 and 97.92, according to HUD records available online.
HUD addresses review process
More lately, HUD has acknowledged some of its culpability in failures that resulted in a housing crisis.
“It seems unfair that the people who are here now have to suffer the consequences of the mistakes that were made by others,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said when he visited Cairo in early August, while acknowledging HUD, prior to his taking over, also played a role in what happened here by an apparent oversight failure. “But unfortunately, that’s the world that we live in. There is a lot of unfairness in our world."
Carson said he was committed to trying to help Cairo's economy grow. He offered that by the "grace of God" maybe Cairo could be saved, but he did not change course on the plan previously announced by his staff. Carson said it's a matter of balancing compassion with common sense in dealing with the current-day situation facing Cairo.
Carson also previously told The Southern, and also federal officials representing Illinois, that one thing the federal agency has done to rectify situations such as what happened in Cairo is to review and improve the inspection process. Carson has said that HUD has fired 42 contract inspectors because of inconsistencies in scores.
According to Brown, HUD’s spokesman, the agency has implemented a tracker that flags variances and when they are noticed, a career quality inspector does another inspection to verify the score.
In response to a question about when this process started, Brown said it began in 2014. Brown said he could not say if any of the 42 inspectors Carson said were fired ever inspected a development in Cairo. It also was not clear if it was the situation in Cairo that prompted the closer look at inspectors, or another similar situation elsewhere.
Asked for the contractors curtailed by year, Brown responded that it was 10 in 2014; 10 in 2015; 28 in 2016; and 44 in 2017. Though the process apparently started under a previous administration, according to Brown’s figures, it does appear that HUD has taken action against problematic inspectors this year at a greater clip. Carson assumed the role of HUD Secretary in March.
When The Southern asked Brown for the names and/or affiliated companies of the inspectors whose job it was to inspect Elmwood and McBride in Cairo in recent years, Brown said he could not provide that. He directed The Southern to file a Freedom of Information Act request, which is pending.
“The contract inspectors who were fired were the result of inconsistencies that we've seen in inspections like those that occurred in Cairo,” Brown said. “The Secretary is replacing the fired contract inspectors with career inspectors.
“One of the goals is to improve the inspection process. We recognize that when two different inspectors inspect the same property and there's a wide variance in scoring, there's usually a problem. There is the off chance that they didn't inspect the same units, but we believe it's a matter of standardization of training and consistently enforcing expectations."
Brown said that HUD is in the process of hiring about 30 inspectors who will work directly for HUD rather than on a contract basis. “You can do that better with career employees,” he said.