CARIO — Housing and Urban Development, the subject of scrutiny for years of oversight failures that have contributed to a housing crisis in Illinois' southernmost city, is now failing to adequately maintain the grounds in the most basic of ways at Elmwood and McBride.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the grass apparently had not been mowed for several weeks. It was upwards of two feet tall in some places, and knee-high weeds — and even waist-high in some places — had grown around the perimeter fences, next to door frames, and in the playground areas.
Trash was everywhere.
Overgrown grass and weeds also had overtaken the walkway leading to a statue honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The overrun memorial area — inscribed with King's face and the words of his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," is located in front of the McBride complex, which houses almost entirely black families in this predominantly African-American city where public housing residents have been subjected to decades of civil rights violations, and their housing allowed to deteriorate to such a state of abject ruin that it has been slated for demolition.
Because of years of local mismanagement, and HUD's failures to intervene, people are being asked to relocate from their home city.
“Oh gosh. It’s disgusting. … I’m appalled by this actually,” state Sen. Dale Fowler said on Tuesday, while driving around the city with a reporter for a story about efforts to recruit new industry to the community. Upon seeing how run-down HUD had allowed the grounds to become, Fowler, a Republican from Harrisburg in his first term, said it is frustrating, primarily because people still live here, but also because it's a deterrent to efforts to bring new businesses to the community. Fowler's deep Southern Illinois district includes all or parts of 13 counties, including all of Alexander County.
“There needs to be answers to this," Fowler said. "There needs to be accountability, continued accountability. It looks like there’s been no maintenance, no mowing. These kids, these children, have to go out and play in this?"
Fowler was visibly shaken by the scene. HUD has not set a deadline by which families must move, and many remain.
“Have we already thrown in the towel? We’re supposed to be the greatest government in the world, the greatest nation in the world, and we are allowing something like this, we’re allowing the children to have to be exposed to a foot-and-a-half to two feet of grass to play in, and the trash — it’s absolutely disgraceful.”
Elmwood, the other complex from which people are being relocated in Cairo, was in a similar condition as of Tuesday afternoon.
Asked about the overgrown, trash-ridden apartment complexes of the Alexander County Housing Authority, which HUD is managing in administrative receivership, agency spokesman Jereon Brown said housing authority staff were in the process of cutting the grass as of Tuesday afternoon.
The newspaper saw one person cutting grass at McBride later in the day, some time after posing the question. The grass was so tall that the mowing process was moving slowly, and leaving behind large clumps of grass because of how long it had grown.
Brown said the issue for HUD staff overseeing the housing authority is that there are competing priorities for a small maintenance crew. In June, HUD moved to end the collective bargaining agreement between the ACHA and Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 773, which had represented housing authority employees. At the time, Brown said the housing authority could no longer afford to pay the salaries and benefits called for in the union contract.
CAIRO – Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, in a memo dated Tuesday, moved t…
As a result, a mix of 19 part- and full-time workers were given notice their positions would be eliminated in 30 days. The employees were given the option of reapplying for a downsized and realigned set of positions, all but one of them part-time. The union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which is pending.
Brown acknowledged that it is still the housing authority’s — and therefore HUD's, since it is in administrative receivership — responsibility to maintain the grounds even as the agency works to move people from Elmwood and McBride. The complexes are slated for demolition because they are no longer safe and sanitary. Dozens of families, including children, still live at both locations.
“It’s also their responsibility to get units turned (at other ACHA complexes) so people can stay, which they are making every effort to do. It’s also their responsibility to ensure that the financial stability for the long run is set up for when we turn it back over. They are all competing priorities,” Brown said. HUD is planning to turn the housing authority back over to local control sometime in 2018, which is relatively quick considering the extent of the damage done where it concerns mismanagement of the housing authority.
Specifically concerning the trash issue, Brown said the ACHA recently switched trash vendors. It was unclear to the newspaper how that affected the trash that is all over ground and along the side of the roads of the two complexes that remain home to some 150 families. “We would hope people would put their trash in the dumpster instead of on the ground, but if it has blown out we’ll have people go by and clean it up.” There is more trash around both properties than there has been in months.
Across a vacant field from McBride, a city sign in front of a vacant field reminds residents, "Litter and weeds draw rodents and rodents draw snakes." Rampant and uncontrollable infestation is one of the many health and safety issues that has been cited as to why residents must move out of Elmwood and McBride. Residents who continue to live at Elmwood and McBride while searching for alternative housing say the infestation also is worse than it's ever been.
Brown said efforts would be made in the future to make sure the grass does not get this tall again, and that the grounds are adequately maintained. He added that it is difficult to discuss overgrown grass and trash given the widespread devastation and humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria, to which multiple federal agencies are preparing a response effort.
HUD has been managing the day-to-day operations of the ACHA since February 2016. After taking over in Cairo and booting local managers, HUD waited more than a year to announce a relocation plan to address the woefully inadequate housing conditions of families living at McBride and Elmwood. At the time, HUD said it intended to have the majority of the relocation effort completed by the start of the school year, which did not happen. Only about 30 of 185 families have moved so far, according to the latest count the agency provided to the newspaper.
“It’s worse now that it’s in receivership than prior to it being in receivership as far as the appearance goes,” said Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman.
“They have a mowing staff so I don’t understand the problem either,” said Councilwoman Connie Williams. “There’s no excuse for it.”