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In heated meeting, HUD tells Cairo public housing residents they have to move

Emotions ran high at the HUD meeting concerning the Alexander County Housing Authority's McBride Place and Elmwood Place public housing developments that was held at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Cairo in April.

CAIRO — Following an announcement by federal housing officials on Monday that they intend to relocate 185 families from two public housing developments in Cairo, and that there is no immediate plan to provide for new housing in the city, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost said he will continue to work in concert with others to “do all we can to find opportunities for revitalizing and reinvesting in this community.”

“I have pleaded with HUD to continue working with us on solutions to sustain the city of Cairo and provide adequate and safe housing for its residents,” Bost said, while noting that he continues to remain in close contact with Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman and other local officials about what can be done to ensure the long-term sustainability of the city of about 2,600 people in deep Southern Illinois that sits between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

“We’re all working and praying for the best outcome for local families,” said Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district includes Alexander County.

HUD officials said Monday that they intend to provide residents with transportable vouchers, fund their moving expenses, and provide each with relocation expenses. Agency leaders indicated they would do their best to work to provide housing in Cairo for those who want to stay, but also indicated that because of a shortage of available affordable housing in the city, many families may need to relocate to other areas.

Towanda Macon, the HUD administrator assigned to Cairo, told a packed house at a meeting called by HUD on Monday at the First Missionary Baptist Church that because of the health and safety concerns presented by the developments, HUD intends to begin the process of moving people out in May, even as those conversations continue about whether there are solutions for new or repurposed housing in Cairo to accommodate the families that want to stay.

Many people expressed anger and frustration at the meeting, at the fact that HUD has not identified a solution for alternative housing within the city limits in the past year it has had the ACHA in receivership, and that no one has been held officially accountable for the allegations of misspending and mismanagement that contributed to the decline of their family housing developments.

This past week, Bost and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, spoke by phone with newly minted Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson concerning the situation with the Alexander County Housing Authority.

Durbin and Duckworth, in a joint letter, urged Carson to visit Cairo to see the situation for himself, and pleaded with HUD to come up with a solution for the people living in the 75-year-old McBride and Elmwood apartment complexes that, according to HUD, have deteriorated beyond repair and are no longer safe for residents to inhabit. Combined, McBride and Elmwood, constructed in 1942, include 278 housing units across 37 buildings. At present, the units at the two developments are about 66 percent occupied, as over the past year, units have been left vacant as people have moved out, several of them in response to the housing crisis.

In a joint statement Monday night following HUD’s announcement, Durbin and Duckworth, both Democrats, said that “after years of mismanagement and misuse of funds” by past ACHA managers, “strong federal action is welcome to address the housing crisis in Cairo.”

“This is a massive undertaking for HUD, and it will require close dialogue with local authorities and residents to mitigate the destabilizing effects of relocation — not only for the affected families, but for the city of Cairo, which is already suffering the consequences of population decline,” the senators said.

They encouraged HUD to continue meeting with residents to ensure they have a clear understanding of their options moving forward.

Durbin and Duckworth also penned a separate letter to Inspector General David Montoya, who leads HUD’s investigatory arm. The senators requested from Montoya an update on the status of the investigation and a timeline for when it is expected to be complete. In response to the newspaper concerning the investigation, a spokesperson for the office has only repeatedly provided a generic, standard response, which is that the office can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. On Monday, Macon, of HUD, said she is not able to speak for the Office of Inspector General, but informed the crowd that it is her understanding that the investigation remains open, and has not been forgotten.

Wrote Durbin and Duckworth in the April 6 letter: “This past February marked the one year anniversary of HUD’s takeover of the ACHA and the residents still live in housing that has been described as ‘third world’ and unfit for humans as many of the units are overrun by rodents, roaches, mold and violent crime. What is more frustrating for these residents is the perceived lack of accountability for the gross mismanagement and the complete and total disregard of their health and safety shown by former ACHA officials.”

“Responsible entities or individuals must be held accountable and the necessary reforms should be put in place to prevent this from happening at other housing authorities,” continues the letter. “And, it is imperative that this investigation be concluded in a timely manner.”

They concluded their letter by stating that they would look forward to Inspector General Montoya’s response by April 24.

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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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