WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth on Wednesday sent a joint letter to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson urging him to visit Cairo and calling on the federal housing agency to “make a decision as soon as possible” about the future of the Alexander County Housing Authority developments.
Illinois’ two senators also jointly asked for HUD to provide them with an update on the corrective actions the agency has taken since placing the ACHA under receivership on Feb. 22, 2016.
The letter went out a little more than two weeks after congressional staffers on behalf of Durbin and Duckworth met with housing residents in Cairo in a private meeting they convened to hear their concerns and gather feedback on what the residents would like to see happen.
“In February 2016, HUD took the extraordinary step of placing the ACHA under receivership after years of civil rights violations, neglect, mismanagement, and alleged misappropriation of federal funds. This was a welcome development for the residents who were living in rundown apartments overrun by rodents, roaches, mold, and violent crime,” reads the letter to Carson from Durbin and Duckworth. “However, as our staff has seen, more than a year later, residents continue to live in the same, if not worse, unsafe and unsanitary conditions and despair.”
Durbin and Duckworth’s letter provided a twofold reason for Carson to visit Cairo.
They said he should see “first-hand how dire and dangerous conditions have become for our constituents” but also to see “the potential of this community to be a productive, safe and prosperous environment with proper management and investments of resources.”
Carson has been on the job just more than a month. Public affairs specialists for HUD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday afternoon.
In December, Republican President Donald Trump tapped Carson to run the agency, and the U.S. Senate confirmed his appointment on March 2, by a vote of 58-41.
Durbin and Duckworth, both Democrats, opposed Carson’s appointment. Durbin has said that while he thinks Carson, a neurosurgeon who sought the Republican Party’s nod for president, is a bright man, he has concerns about Carson’s ability to run a multibillion-dollar agency as complex as HUD. The agency has a budget of nearly $50 billion, and a staff of about 8,000 employees.
Durbin also has not spoken optimistically regarding the outlook for HUD to build new public housing in Cairo to replace two aging complexes that have a host of issues, including rampant infestation, inadequate heating, plumbing issues, mold and electrical problems.
In February, Durbin told The Southern Illinoisan that he intends to fight for HUD to build new public housing units in Cairo, but also said he did not want to provide false hope by guaranteeing that would happen, noting that a false promise would do more harm than good.
“There’s nothing I’ve heard in Washington from this administration to suggest that this will be a priority. I hope I’m wrong,” Durbin said at the time. His comments were included in the newspaper’s latest story in its months-long investigative series on the ACHA titled “People Still Live Here.” In that story marking one year since HUD’s federal takeover of the ACHA, and an accompanying video documentary, residents expressed frustration that a year after HUD’s takeover, little substantive action has been taken to improve their housing conditions while they have been asked to continue paying rent.
Many residents also expressed anger that no one has been publicly held accountable for the alleged mismanagement and discriminatory actions of the ACHA by former managers that HUD cited when it made the rare decision to dismiss the local housing agency’s board and assign HUD staff to serve as administrators.
The letter from Duckworth and Durbin follows one that U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, whose congressional district includes Alexander County, sent to Carson in late March also asking Carson to visit Cairo and tour the ACHA’s developments. On March 23, Bost wrote, “I want to commend you on your action to establish a national listening tour initiative, while inviting your attention to issues related to the mismanagement” of the ACHA. Carson announced some time ago that he intended to travel the country to learn about issues facing people managing and living in public housing. Thus far, he has visited Detroit, his home city, and Dallas.
Bost’s letter stated that HUD’s “action of last resort” to place the ACHA into receivership more than a year ago appears to be "more than warranted" given problems that include “inoperable heating and cooling systems, water intrusion into units and insect and vermin infestation.” But he urged Carson to visit Cairo to discuss with residents the ongoing efforts to resolve these issues impacting residents.
None of the political leaders have publicly made a specific recommendation about what HUD should do to fix the situation in Cairo; rather, each has more generally issued a call to action as federal officials have had, at this point, more than a year to study the situation and initiate a corrective plan.
In response to a follow-up question, Durbin’s communications director, Ben Marter, said the senator does not want to prejudge possible outcomes and will await HUD’s response.
“The bottom line is for us is that HUD engages with the residents on a solution ASAP,” Marter said.