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Alexander County public housing

As crews raze public housing complexes in Cairo, residents wonder if there will ever be justice

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CAIRO — Seven months after the federal government ordered former Alexander County Housing Authority Director James Wilson to pay a $500,000 fine for mismanaging public housing funds and program fraud, he’s yet to make a single payment.

The civil claim against Wilson was brought under the Program Fraud Civil Remedies Act. A HUD administrative law judge issued an order of consent judgment against Wilson in November for about half of the total penalties for which HUD claimed he was liable.

A year after action was brought against him, Wilson admitted to making 125 false claims to HUD, and “essentially admitted to engaging in fraud,” the final order states.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth recently wrote a letter to HUD asking the agency to detail the payment schedule Wilson agreed to — if one exists — and what steps it plans to take next if Wilson fails to make any payments.

“Residents of the ACHA, particularly those of color, lived in squalor while executives directed federal funds toward staff bonuses, alcohol and travel ... It is imperative that justice and accountability are brought to the community of Cairo, Illinois,” they wrote in their letter dated June 14. Wilson did not return a phone call from The Southern seeking comment.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown confirmed last week that Wilson has not made any payments to date, and that the agency is contemplating next steps. The order does not prescribe a timeline for payment, and Brown declined to answer any further questions on the matter. Former ACHA official Martha Franklin agreed to pay $30,000 in a settlement agreement with HUD, and has already paid in full, federal records indicate. 

Razing the past

McBride Demolition

Zanthe Matthews hauls cabinets out of a unit at McBride as crews work to tear down the complex. 

Meanwhile, work crews are mowing down McBride Place’s row buildings one by one, turning Cairo’s first public housing complexes, constructed in the early 1940s for African-American families, into piles of rubble. In March, the county housing authority awarded a $1.9 million contract to Benton-based Earth Services to tear down McBride and nearby Elmwood, constructed around the same time, originally for white families. In more recent decades, both complexes predominately housed black families. The neglected properties were infested with rodents, overrun with mold and structurally unsound.  

About midway through the demolition process, the heaping mounds of bricks, doors and concrete, shattered glass littering the property, and windowless building skeletons awaiting their fate leave a post-apocalyptic impression.

But Zanthe Matthews sees something else.

“You know how they do it in the movies, like when they show a person going to a place that’s ruined, but then they start showing how it was before it got to there? That’s what I see when I’m working out here — a movie flashback. I see us playing ball, barbecuing, hanging out — all that stuff.”

Matthews was raised by his aunt here, the late Lauretta Matthews. Now he’s part of the team helping raze the buildings two years after HUD officials declared them unsafe, and began moving families out. Matthews left Cairo as a young man for about 15 years, relocating to the Chicago area.

He returned in 2010 as his mom, who lives in Brookport, was battling cancer. Then, his aunt passed away the following year. He decided to stick around. Matthews, who lives in a public housing high rise in Cairo overlooking the Ohio River, said he’s glad for the work. But it’s a surreal experience watching them come down, he added.

Walking over to Unit 605, where he grew up with five cousins who were more like brothers and sisters, Matthews pointed to the kitchen area. This, he said, is where his aunt spent many hours working to feed the family. It was a labor of love. Sometimes she fed the entire neighborhood. “She would feed most of the projects. She was very open-hearted. A good woman.” Her homemade biscuits burned such an impression into his childhood that he said he could almost smell them. “She would home-make everything,” he said. “I was in there greasing the pans to help. It all went on right there.”

On Friday afternoon, Matthews was ripping out cabinets and doors in a building across the property from the one where he spent his youth. Matthews said he’s bracing for an emotional day when it comes time to gut 605.

McBride Demolition

Child's artwork hangs on a door at McBride as one of the few remaining signs that people once lived here. 

Matthews said it that it seems justice has not been served here. He said it’s hard to believe that Wilson, the former ACHA director, has faced no repercussions for not having yet made a single payment for his misdeeds. “The judicial system, it only works for the ones that got money,” he said. “If it would have been me that did that, you wouldn’t even be sitting here talking to me right now. I’d probably have about 15, 20 years federal time.”

No criminal charges forthcoming

The Southern previously reported that, based on conversations with people familiar with the matter, criminal charges against Wilson were unexpected following an investigation into past management practices of the ACHA. A June 14 report released by the HUD Office of Inspector General confirmed this.

The “Report of Investigation” stated that the information obtained from the yearslong investigation was presented to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Illinois, for prosecutorial consideration, and that “the office declined to prosecute the case.” Steven Weinhoeft, the U.S. attorney who heads that office, previously told The Southern in a statement that the office believed the $500,000 penalty created a “just resolution to the serious allegations of gross mismanagement.”

The inspector general’s most recent report did not draw any conclusions. Most of it rehashed information that had already been made public by the newspaper, HUD and HUD’s investigatory arm. But it did shed some new light on what transpired. 

For instance, computer hard drives appeared to have been wiped clean as investigators and HUD overseers honed in on the ACHA in 2015. Wilson told investigators he was aware that an employee had scrubbed one with his personal information on it. Wilson also told investigators that, in hindsight, it was a mistake to spend $420,000 to purchase land and build four houses in Cairo.

James Wilson (copy)

Wilson 

The median value of an owner-occupied home in Cairo is $30,500. His ultimate goal was to replace the Elmwood and McBride units with single-family homes over the course of a decade. Wilson also blamed federal sequestration and high utility bills for the ACHA’s financial woes. He told investigators that “we made mistakes” but “I did not do anything wrong criminally.” The report also provides new details about the extent senior HUD officials with the agency went to distance themselves from growing problems in Cairo.

One senior HUD official at the agency's Washington headquarters reportedly told regional agency officials in an August 2014 conference call to “make it a local problem” and “make it go away,” which regional officials interpreted to mean that HUD headquarters was not interested in getting involved in Cairo's housing problems, and wanted local officials and the ACHA to deal with it. Around this time, according to the report, a senior official told another HUD employee concerning the ACHA, “I don’t want another receivership on my hands." 

Regional officials were told not to take any action until the housing authority was labeled “troubled,” a designation that was significantly delayed because HUD inspectors did not properly grade the Elmwood and McBride complexes during routine assessments.

Moving forward

Allesha Collins said she was grateful for Elmwood when, as a new mom at the age of 19 in the late 1980s, she needed a place to stay.

Collins married the child's father after moving into Elmwood, and not long after, they had a second child and bought a house in town. Collins, who has since moved out of the area to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she works as a hospital patient advocate, said she knows that it’s sad for a lot of people who spent many years here to see the buildings coming down.

But she said that she believes it was necessary.

“Good can come from the change,” she said. 

Collins said she had a great upbringing in Cairo, but things changed when her mother passed away when she was just 14. After that, her home life became unstable, and she needed to find her own place. But Collins said that because she was raised in a house, she always saw home ownership as the ultimate goal, and public housing as a temporary option until she could make that happen for her family.

Collins said that because a lot of the families who lived at Elmwood and McBride had never known what it was like to live in a home of their own, the adjustment has been hard and scary for some. But she believes it can also be rewarding for families in the long run. 

Of the 185 families who were living at Elmwood and McBride in 2017 when HUD announced plans to tear them down, 70 were able to remain in Cairo. Of those families, 36 moved into other federally assisted housing units in town; 22 were able to use their vouchers to rent a place in Cairo; five moved on their own without assistance; and 12 families purchased their own homes, according to Brown, the HUD spokesman. Most other families moved to communities located about an hour from Cairo, such as Cape Girardeau, Carbondale and Marion. A smaller number left the region entirely. 

Terri Childs, a longtime McBride resident, is among those new to homeownership. A teacher’s aide at the local school district, she likes her new place, but the last year has been rocky. One month, she had a utility bill that was more than $400, stretching her personal budget to the brink. She’s since been able to bring her utility bills under control, by doing things like making sure the lights aren't left on when no one is using a room.

McBride Demolition

Terri Childs and her daughter, Mircale, stand at the foot of the steps inside their former unit at McBride. "If only these walls could talk," Childs says, reminiscing about her time here. 

A friend at church later told her about the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program that can help people with modest incomes pay their utility bills. She signed up, and was able to reduce her payments drastically. “I had a hard time last year,” she said. “But I’m doing really good now.”

While HUD offered financial counseling and other classes prior to families moving, Childs said it would have been helpful for the agency to assist families with unexpected challenges after they made the transition, as well. 

Childs and her 10-year-old daughter, Miracle, were standing outside McBride on Friday because Childs had received word that the bulldozer was coming for the building on the corner where she raised her girls, just feet from a monument commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

McBride Demolition

Terri Childs and her daughter, Miracle, pose for a picture outside the unit where they lived until a year ago at McBride. 

While trying to move forward, Childs said she still comes down to watch the demolition several times a week. She’s been documenting it in photos that she posts to her Facebook page. Sometimes, it brings her to tears. 

Miracle said she likes having her own bedroom, but misses having other children to play with closer by. “I used to ride my Hoverboard, RipStik and bike on this sidewalk,” she said, giving a tour to a reporter and reminiscing. “I fell right there.” Miracle said that she and her cousin would visit the King memorial almost every day. It was one of the things she liked best about living at McBride.

“We’d come down here and pray, and then start riding again,” she said. Mircale said she hopes that HUD preserves the memorial. Plans call for making sure it has a permanent home in Cairo. 

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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