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Housing authority director reflects on time in Cairo

From the Story collection: Chaos in Cairo series

CAIRO — After working more than six months as the interim director of the Alexander County Housing Authority, Tom Upchurch said he is walking away with a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the state’s southernmost county.

As he was approaching his last few weeks on the job, Upchurch reflected recently on the experience that began with struggling to make payroll and keep the lights on and ended around the time four federal agents showed up with a subpoena and spent hours carting off boxes of paperwork and electronics as part of an ongoing federal investigation of the housing authority’s spending and practices by the former administration.

“I’ve heard about Cairo almost all my life,” said Upchurch of Mount Vernon. “There was a perception that it wasn’t safe to be at the housing authority’s developments and walk around.”

But Upchurch said he never encountered any problems, and met many people eager to speak with him about their hopes for a better future at the complexes managed by the authority that are overrun with crime and have fallen into disrepair.

“I have met wonderful people down there,” he said. “It’s just surreal for me to walk away from this because I look at these folks and I’ve gotten to know them and care about them.”

Upchurch said his primary responsibility as the interim director was to recover and stabilize a troubled housing authority.

“I’m not naïve enough to know that something horrible didn’t go wrong for it to happen like this,” he said. “What I learned did happen made me more diligent in my work toward the housing authority because I felt these tenants had been victimized.”

Upchurch said he met many tenants whom he described as “extremely resilient people trying to make the most out of very little.”

“I have had experiences with tenants who had everything going for them and they complain about the least little things,” he said. “These folks have made the most of their situation.”

In April, Upchurch agreed to a six-month contract to assist the troubled housing authority that, when he had taken over, was operating without sufficient staffing because budget woes — alleged, at least partly, to have been caused by misspending and mismanagement by former employees — had prompted layoffs, depleted operating funds and resulted in the federal government freezing its capital funds.

Upchurch, who also remained full-time as director of the Jefferson County Housing Authority, had to work swiftly with officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring back employees, make payroll and find funds for other critical services the authority was struggling to pay, such as the electric bill.

He also helped facilitate a voluntary compliance agreement with HUD to correct a laundry list of citations including discriminatory housing and hiring practices, and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I went down there and basically I was triaging the housing authority,” Upchurch said. “I was able to bring the staff back to work, make necessary adjustments and catch up the bills and start the healing of the housing authority functioning back as a housing authority.”

Not everyone appreciated his efforts helping the agency. The former longtime executive director of the agency, James Wilson, sent multiple letters to tenants under Upchurch’s brief tenure, expressing that he believed the housing authority’s conditions had deteriorated largely since he left the full-time post in 2012, and questioning the amount of money being paid to Upchuch.

He additionally sent a letter to HUD’s Office of Inspector General asking that the agency launch an investigation into Upchurch’s dual roles, even though HUD had asked him to temporarily assist in bringing stability to a tumultuous situation that threatened the housing security of many.

HUD’s Office of Inspector General has launched an investigation, though not into the actions of Upchurch. According to the subpoena obtained under a Freedom of Information Act, the federal oversight agency is investigating polices, contracts and spending that took place during the tenure of Wilson, and Martha Franklin, the authority’s longtime finance director that was also briefly the executive director.

Having agreed to extend his original six-month contract a few additional weeks, Upchurch’s last official day on the job was this past Thursday, though he said he will remain available to assist the new interim executive director as needs arise.

On Wednesday morning, the Alexander County Housing Authority’s board named Joann Pink the interim executive director, a position she began on Friday.

Pink has been the executive director of the neighboring Pulaski County Housing Authority since 2008, and an employee since 1997. She will maintain both director positions while plans are finalized for management of the Alexander County Housing Authority, whether that includes hiring an executive director via a comprehensive search, or a joint management plan with Pulaski County, or another structure.

“She’s a good director and I think she’ll bring a lot of capacity,” Upchurch said of Pink, noting he’ll remain available for technical assistance if and when she requests backup. “It’s not that I’m just walking away. I’ll still be helping her quite a bit.”

In a recent interview with the newspaper, Pink said she was eager to begin work in Cairo that moves the housing authority into a better position to serve residents.

“That is my goal, to try to get the housing authority back to a level of integrity to serve the low-income community, and to make sure things are run correctly to the best of my ability.”

As for the future of the authority’s management, Pink said the plan is to take it one day at a time and work out a plan with HUD. A review of the conditions of the various developments is underway, which is expected to provide a clearer outline of how to move forward in regards to infrastructure needs.

“As I began this new task in life, I understand the changes won’t happen overnight,” she said. “The things I want to focus on is getting in and figuring out where the changes need to begin, where I can be the most helpful early on and bring changes to the housing authority. If you bring back integrity things will come back where it needs to be.”


On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​


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Note: This story launched a series of stories about the Alexander County Housing Authority. Read the rest of the stories here.

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