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CAIRO — Cairo citizens are rallying together to brainstorm ways to save their community after federal housing officials announced Monday that about 185 families would have to move out of their unsafe housing complexes, and that most of the residents will have to relocate to communities outside of Cairo.

In total, about 400 people, including children, could be displaced by the housing crisis in Cairo. About 15 percent of the city's population is directly affected. Housing and Urban Development is providing transportable vouchers to all heads of household being relocated from the Elmwood and McBride complexes, and also will provide moving expenses and access to relocation specialists.

But many residents say they don’t want to go, and they are frustrated that HUD made the announcement Monday about the relocation effort without first coming up with a plan to provide alternative housing within the city limits.

“We can save ourselves,” said Shawn Tarver, who owns an establishment called Talk of the Town in Cairo and, with his brothers, assembled a group of concerned citizens over a year and a half ago, when the housing situation first came to light. The group calls itself Men of Power-Sisters of Strength.

Tarver and others announced this week that they are going to start a fundraising campaign in an attempt to raise enough capital to construct new units through a nonprofit, or provide enough matching funds to entice a developer to partner with them. While he said that there are still many details to be ironed out, Tarver said one thing is for certain: Cairo citizens will not give up.

“This is not just a public housing problem. This is a Cairo city problem,” Tarver told a gathering of about 150 community members on Thursday evening who gathered at the Cairo Junior/Senior High School gymnasium to talk about next steps for the community and organize an action plan.

The gathering at the high school followed HUD’s meeting on Monday at which the relocation plan was announced.

Scott Fletcher, executive director of Community Action Place, Inc., a nonprofit social service agency who attended the meeting, noted that print outs were available listing the names and phone numbers of the public officials that represent Alexander County at the state and federal level. “Reach out and tell them keeping Cairo alive is important to you,” he said.

Anthony Walker, the president and founder of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, told the group he was working with the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to bring light to the situation in the Statehouse, and see what can be done. (Note: The Black Chamber of Commerce of Illinois is a separate organization from the nationally affiliated Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce.) “This is not going to be a New Orleans situation,” he said. “This is going to be a right-now situation. We need help right now. I commit to you I’m with you until the new complexes get built.”

Numerous city and state leaders, politicians, HUD officials and other citizens also gathered in-person and by teleconference Tuesday at City Hall for a meeting that City Councilwoman Connie Williams described as positive and collaborative toward the search for solutions.

In that initial meeting on Monday, Towanda Macon, a HUD administrator who has served as co-director of the Alexander County Housing Authority since it was placed in federal receivership in February 2016, told the packed house at the First Baptist Missionary Church that she did not want to have to tell the residents this was the outcome that had been reached. She said HUD officials have been meeting with residents for months trying to find a solution that was based on their wants and needs. But to offer that HUD could leverage large sums of money to build new complexes, “that would be giving you false hope,” Macon said.

HUD officials said that over the past year, they have worked to identify possible options for alternative housing within Cairo, and that they will continue that effort.

But they also stressed to residents that, in the meantime, they can no longer delay beginning the process of moving people out of the aging developments that have become health and safety risks to the people living in them. The relocation effort is set to begin in May, though there is not a deadline established at this time by which people must move out. The process could take between nine and 11 months, according to HUD.

“Do I want to see a community destroyed? No I don’t. No I don’t,” Macon said on Monday. “But at this point we don’t have any other solutions.”

HUD estimates it would cost $41 million to bring the Elmwood and McBride complexes, constructed in 1942, up to minimal standards and protect them from future flood risks. And it would cost another $12 million to bring all of the ACHA properties up to minimal standards, according to the agency’s figures. Including Elmwood and McBride, the ACHA operates 11 separate sites, ranging in size from four to 158 units. In total, the ACHA manages 438 units across its housing portfolio.

As for new construction, it would be a rare thing for HUD to go solo in building new public housing complexes, not only in Cairo but anywhere. In recent history, most subsidized housing has been built through partnerships that include some mix of federal housing dollars, private developers, state tax credits, nonprofits and other commitments from state or local governments. Typically in these types of developments, the renters receive varying levels of government subsidy and some people pay full rent.

But private developers who agree to invest in an area expect a return on that investment, and solving that equation has apparently proven difficult in Cairo. “We’re exploring a range of options including private development. Developers however take a holistic view of prospective areas and the economy to support developments is a heavily weighted factor. That’s an issue we have to move beyond in Cairo.” Jereon Brown, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said Friday in a statement to the newspaper.

At present, Brown said HUD is attempting to acquire a boarded up, one-story unit near the Connell Smith high rise, and is in talks with local landlords to see if there are any other homes or apartments that meet HUD standards in the community. Studying available options has been a months-long effort, and Brown said that as part of a comprehensive review, HUD’s contractor explored the state’s low-income housing tax credit program administered by the Illinois Housing Development Authority, as well as public-private partnerships through the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program. He said all options are still on the table.

This past week, numerous politicians weighed in on the crisis, some of them by criticizing HUD’s announcement while offering up no concrete plans of their own, either during the past year or more recently, to provide affordable housing solutions within Cairo’s city limits. In Marion on Wednesday visiting Aisin Manufacturing, Gov. Bruce Rauner called the situation a “real tragedy.” ‘My heart goes out to the families who are suffering with this disaster in the public housing. It just shows why people don’t really have much confidence in government and what’s going on there,” he said, but passed on the opportunity to address what role the Illinois Housing Development Authority could play in increasing the affordable housing stock in Cairo.

“It’s really a federal government issue, but our team is trying to work and help where we can there,” the governor said.

State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, offered the strongest critique of HUD’s decision. He called it a “disgrace” that officials from HUD “do not have a plan to provide an adequate housing situation for these families, at a time when so many families throughout Southern Illinois are struggling.”

“While there are obvious problems and maintenance issues in the housing, evicting these families instead of improving their housing is wrong,” Phelps said. “Closing down the Alexander County Housing Authority’s developments is not only devastating to the families affected, but to the Cairo community as a whole. This is another example of Southern Illinois being overlooked and getting the short end of the stick.”

In a follow-up interview, Phelps said he had not been to Elmwood and McBride in at least a year, and said that if they need to be condemned and demolished, HUD should at least provide new housing in town. He said he is willing to do what he can in Springfield to see if there is any way to secure emergency funding. Yet, with the state budget crisis, such a feat could be difficult to pull off.

State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, also said he’s engaged in trying to figure out how he can best be of assistance. In a statement, Fowler said he met with about 50 concerned citizens at City Hall on Tuesday, and then toured a couple of potential alternative housing options within the city for a portion of the displaced residents. “The condition of Elmwood and McBride complexes are not fit for habitation, but obviously with their closure there will be notable side effects on the community,” Fowler said.

With so many unknowns, Coretta Cornelius, a McBride Place resident and member of the Men of Power, Sisters of Strength organization, said the community cannot wait for answers from the government — it has to secure its own future.

“It’s our time now to show we can be responsible as a community,” she said. Cornelius said her message to government leaders is, “We aren’t asking for your approval. If you don’t want to help us, step out of the way so we can find someone willing to help us.”

As Cornelius sat around a table at Talk of the Town on Wednesday with Steven and Shawn Tarver planning the community meeting for the next day, they were upbeat and optimistic about the future of the town. Shawn Tarver said he feels it is important that residents do not get hung up on rehashing how they were wronged by the ACHA or HUD’s relocation decision, because otherwise the opportunity will pass them by to lean in and do what needs to be done to keep Cairo alive. After navigating this difficult situation, “We will be empowered to handle our own selves,” said, Steven Tarver, who is a resident of Elmwood Place.

“And believe me, when we finish this project, this city is going to be the best city in Southern Illinois,” Shawn Tarver said.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately attribute comments from Shawn Tarver that in the original version were mistakenly attributed to his brother, Steven Tarver. The Southern regrets the error.

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

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On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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

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