Rats. Mold. Roaches. No heat. Toilet water. Bedbugs.
Those aren’t pretty things to think about on their own. But for residents of Cairo living in the Elmwood Place and McBride Place apartment complexes within the Alexander County Housing Authority, these things are just a way of life.
The lives of these residents shouldn't be this grim.
It’s been more than a year since U.S. Housing and Urban Development, a multibillion dollar agency, took possession of the Alexander County Housing Authority, after years of mismanagement and discriminatory practices by local managers.
What has HUD accomplished in the past year? Virtually nothing.
These problems aren’t new. Reporter Molly Parker and The Southern have been chronicling the issues for nearly 18 months. The pathetic living conditions are no longer a surprise. They've been exposed for the wider world to see. That’s what makes the situation even sadder.
So, where is HUD in all of this? What is it going to do to fix this situation for Cairo and its residents?
Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman said he spoke with the then-Midwest regional administrator for HUD, Antonio Riley, in January. Riley assured him HUD would not make any decisions about moving forward without consulting with residents and community leaders in Cairo. But, Riley served under President Barack Obama’s administration. When Donald Trump was sworn in as president, Riley was transitioned out of that position.
Right now, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s nominee for HUD secretary, but Carson hasn't received U.S. Senate confirmation. That vote, as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in today’s story, is expected to come up in the next few weeks.
So that leaves Cairo, again, in a state of not knowing what happens next.
It’s obvious that the Elmwood and McBride complexes need to come down and be replaced. There’s no questioning that. HUD must put together a plan, like providing residents with adequate accommodations while new housing is developed and built in the city.
But the problem is this: Condemn and destroy the housing projects without a workable plan for the future, and most of the people will leave Cairo. And, there’s no guarantee that those who take vouchers to move into other public housing outside of Cairo will ever return.
That could leave Cairo even more empty than it is now. That would leave an already struggling school district in shambles. In essence, that could ruin what is left of Cairo.
On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option. The current apartments aren’t suitable for anybody.
Mayor Coleman believes safe public housing is vital to the future of Cairo. But in order for that to happen the city also needs an economic upturn.
Geographically, Cairo is poised to thrive. It sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
And, the city has plenty of history. Just take a walk near Magnolia Manor and you’ll get a sense of a thriving era of old Cairo. Walk through Fort Defiance, and you’ll get a sense of the Civil War.
In 1920, census figures show that more than 15,000 people lived in Cairo. Today, there are less than 2,500.
The issues Cairo is dealing with will not be fixed overnight. It’s going to take time.
But, HUD needs to step up and move quickly. The federal agency was brought in to fix a terrible situation. Nothing has happened in the year since HUD has taken over the ACHA.
Recently, Sen. Dale Fowler took a tour of the complexes with The Southern to see for himself the issues that are at hand.
“A trip like this validates the concerns we have,” Fowler said. “This is not to be tolerated.”
He’s right. It should not be tolerated.
The time is now. It’s beyond time HUD steps up and present a workable plan that doesn’t destroy the fiber of Cairo.
After all, it is vital to the people that still live there.