CAIRO — For more than two years, The Southern has studied and written about alleged wrongdoing and failures at the local and federal level where it concerns the housing crisis in Cairo.
Looking in the rear-view mirror serves the purpose of documenting what went wrong, so that it can be a learning lesson for the future. The newspaper will continue to investigate what led to this housing crisis. And we will continue to hold public officials accountable for what they have promised to do to help Cairo.
But it also is important to recognize that what has transpired happened over the course of years, perhaps decades, and that unfortunately there is no way to travel back in time and undo the damage.
There have been a few positive developments in recent months, such as Shawnee Enterprises purchasing what was once known as the Stenger building, and there may be a few more in the future. But there is no magic solution to turn around Cairo’s economy, and therefore its housing market.
Pushing for, and celebrating, incremental improvements that build upon one another may be the best and most likely path forward. At the same time, steps can be taken to assist local leaders in endeavors to improve local economies, in Cairo and throughout the seven southernmost counties of Illinois, as well as enhance the accountability and efficiency of regional housing authorities that collectively manage millions of federal housing dollars throughout rural Southern Illinois.
In that vein, and based on The Southern's extensive reporting of this issue, below are four action items in need of attention or consideration in the short term as it relates to this housing crisis and the broader economic and social issues it has exposed.
1. Let the residents and Cairo city leaders know whether HUD intends to repair some of the buildings at Elmwood and McBride.
It's been more than six months since Housing and Urban Development officials announced that they would help 185 families relocate because the buildings are no longer safe and beyond repair. But residents have received mixed messages since then.
When HUD Secretary Ben Carson visited Cairo on Aug. 8, he met with community stakeholders, who suggested that his team review whether some of the row-style buildings were in better condition than others and could be salvaged to allow some families to remain. HUD had already extensively studied the feasibility of repairing Elmwood and McBride in the months prior to Carson's visit and leading up to the April 10 relocation announcement and determined that was not a cost feasible option.
Agency officials had another assessment conducted at the request of the stakeholders, under Carson's orders. That review has been completed for several weeks. While the agency has not provided a definitive answer on what it intends to do, they did provide a synopsis of the study, which showed that there are not any significant differences in the buildings. They are all in disrepair. While the insides of units in some buildings may be better than others, at issue across the complexes is the extremely old and outdated electrical, plumbing and heating systems, among numerous other health and safety issues.
The price tag for fixing these items is beyond the means of a housing authority that has been described by HUD as “nearly bankrupt” unless a cash infusion is in the works, and no one at HUD has suggested it is.
HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the agency wants to inform the stakeholders of the agency’s decision first, before making its intentions public. It is unclear to the newspaper why the agency has stalled in placing that letter in the mail to the community leaders Carson promised the second look. Barring an unlikely change of heart, the answer will probably be that HUD intends to demolish all of Elmwood and McBride.
2. Address HUD's plans for the Mary Alice Meadows family housing complex in Thebes that is also part of the Alexander County Housing Authority's portfolio.
The roughly 30 families living there need to know as soon as possible what is the future of their homes. Like Cairo, Thebes is an economically destitute village where there will be few affordable housing options for people to remain if the building cannot be maintained in the short- or long-term.
Federal housing officials made a request to the Alexander County Board to utilize $400,000 sitting in a county fund to partner in renovating 10 uninhabitable units at Mary Alice Meadows, which though not as old as Elmwood and McBride, is also in need of immediate and long-term renovations because of years of neglect.
HUD has estimated it would cost $700,000 to renovate all 10 units and make them available for families that want to relocate to the Thebes property from Elmwood and McBride in Cairo. HUD Region V Deputy Regional Administrator Jim Cunningham formally made the request on HUD’s behalf at a Sept. 19 county board meeting in Cairo to tap into some of the county's fund.
At that meeting, Cunningham said that the ACHA (which HUD is administering in federal receivership) could contribute $250,000 to the project as well. County Board Chairman Chalen Tatum told Cunningham that the money was already earmarked for repair of the Len Small Levee.
In late September, the newspaper asked HUD’s Brown what is Plan B given that the county has declined to use its money to participate in the needed repairs. He said the ACHA would repair as many units as it could with the $250,000 it has set aside for the project. But at the cost estimates HUD provided for the needed repairs to the units — ranging from $45,000 to $106,000 per unit — that amount would only allow the housing authority to reopen three to four units. Further, that would not address the numerous structural issues with the building as a whole that need to be addressed to protect the health, safety and welfare of its inhabitants. County Commissioner Joe Griggs asked Cunningham at the meeting if HUD was essentially throwing good money after bad. Cunningham said that’s a question that has to be taken into consideration.
HUD has not provided any clarity on its plans for the Thebes complex in the weeks since appearing before the county board.
3. Gov. Bruce Rauner or members of the Illinois General Assembly could convene a task force or call for a legislative study and/or hearing to review the enabling statute for the creation of local housing authorities.
As part of that, they could study whether some consolidation of small local housing authorities could reduce overhead costs and allow for a pooling of limited capital fund resources by increasing the number of units managed. They also could review the process by which board members are appointed across the state to see if there are ways to insert more accountability at the local level. HUD, in its oversight role, has taken its fair share of blame for what’s transpired in Cairo, but it also may be worthwhile to see if there are ways to prevent this type of situation in the future by diversifying appointing powers to local housing authority boards.
Though HUD is a federal agency, housing authorities are entities of state and local — not federal — government. In Southern Illinois, almost all housing authorities are functions of county government. Housing board members are appointed solely by the respective county board chairperson in each county. The housing board members then select an executive director. In Williamson and Jefferson counties, there are both county and city housing authorities, in Marion and Mount Vernon, respectively. The same is true for St. Clair County and East St. Louis in southwest Illinois.
In speaking to The Southern's editorial board in late July, Gov. Bruce Rauner called the Cairo housing crisis a frustrating situation but said it’s largely a federal issue. The newspaper has attempted to reach his office staff for weeks on what he and his administration can bring to the table to help. Through changeovers in numerous spokespeople since July, his office has never responded to these various requests for the administration to outline what it is doing in response to the housing crisis in Cairo.
Rauner has made government efficiency and reducing units of local government in Illinois — which claims between 6,963 and 8,516, according to counts from the U.S. Census and Illinois Comptroller's Office, more than any other state — a hallmark of his administration. Therefore, he could offer his assistance in this area by calling for the task force himself, or working alongside Sen. Dale Fowler, a Republican, and Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie, a Democrat, both of whom represent Cairo and the broader local region, to craft legislation, if necessary. That Illinois study the way its housing authorities are structured is a suggestion U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin first floated shortly after HUD seized control of the ACHA on Feb. 22, 2016, removing the local board as they cited years of mismanagement and alleged civil rights violations against residents. Looking to other states for ideas may be a one way to begin the study of how to make downstate housing authorities more effective and responsible to the residents they serve, and to taxpayers.
4. State and local leaders could collaborate more closely to address the underlying economic and social crises this housing situation in Cairo has exposed.
These issues facing Cairo were brought to a head by HUD’s April 10 decision to relocate residents rather than rebuild, but they are not new. History shows the underlying socioeconomic struggles that contributed to this decision have been brewing for years not only in Cairo, but throughout southernmost Southern Illinois. Across the state’s southern seven counties — Massac, Alexander, Pulaski, Union, Johnson, Pope and Hardin — there are schools struggling to maintain as student populations shrink. Social services have been stretched thin by the state’s budget woes and political rancor.
Fewer taxpayers and homeowners continue to bear the brunt of providing services to populations that are shrinking in size but growing in need. These counties regularly produce data indicators more in line with the Mississippi Delta than the rest of Illinois. That’s not to say this region suffers alone in Illinois, but what is transpiring across the bottom stretch of the state is shocking and deeply troubling, and few agencies it seems — at the state or federal level — are paying close attention outside of HUD.
There are families who have lived in poverty for generations, and there are families who are being introduced to poverty for the first time. Unemployment rates are high across the region, as are rates of people who have unstable work or who have stopped looking for work altogether. Alongside that economic hopelessness taking root in the "lower seven" comes a rise in drug and alcohol abuse, and trouble in the home in the form of domestic and child abuse and neglect. Law enforcement officials and social workers know this sad story too well.
When he visited Cairo, Carson committed to speaking to President Donald Trump and other cabinet level members of a task force on rural America. It is not clear to the newspaper whether he has upheld that promise yet. A few weeks ago, Illinois U.S. Sens. Durbin and Tammy Duckworth co-wrote a letter to Trump asking him to convene a cabinet-level task force on the housing, economic and health crises facing Cairo, citing HUD’s culpability in the downfall of the community because the agency should have intervened sooner. Trump has not responded at this point to that request, according to an aide to Duckworth. If the president is willing to convene a federal commission on Cairo, it can’t hurt. But again, state and local leaders are the ones who should lead the way, and then invite federal stakeholders to the table as well.