By USGS ([1] from [2]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

April 19, 2017; The Southern Illinoisan

News that 400 public housing residents in Cairo, Illinois, are being forced to leave their homes continues to rock this low-income southern Illinois community. On Wednesday, a meeting of the Alexander County Housing Authority (ACHA) turned into a shouting match. Angry tenants talked over the explanations by HUD officials about the decision to close two public housing developments. The HUD administrators, who have taken over control of ACHA, told angry residents that they were not able to share details about the federal government’s ongoing investigation of waste and fraud at the ACHA. The only mission of the current administrators is to help tenants find safe and decent housing somewhere else.

Just this week, HUD administrators claimed that risk of lead poisoning was the primary reason for HUD’s decision to vacate the two properties, Elmwood Place and McBride Place. HUD administrator Towanda Macon told the group, “The move is precautionary after a March test revealed that the drinking water in some units contained lead above the Environmental Protection Agency’s levels that encourage corrective action—15 parts per billion.” This news of possible lead contamination seems like a new twist on the steady decline of the housing conditions in ACHA properties.

On April 10th, about 185 families were notified that they’d have to move. “U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials said that they came to the decision to move people out because the developments have deteriorated past the point of repair, and are a hazard to their health and safety.” While around 200 families continue to live in the properties despite the conditions, many more units are vacant. Tenants have been offered housing choice vouchers and relocation assistance, but finding affordable alternatives in Illinois’s poorest community may be difficult.

At the April 19th meeting with the tenants, HUD administrators gave assurances that they knew what they were doing and cited the example of HUD efforts to relocate tenants from a public housing property in East Chicago, Indiana. Residents don’t seem to be reassured that they will be able find homes in the Cairo area.

[Tenant] Terri Childs told the HUD officials she did not want to leave the community. This is home, and she also does not want to lose her job and have to start over somewhere else. She said she has worked as a teacher’s aide at the Cairo Unit School District 1 for 23 years.

A letter writing campaign by elementary school students to HUD Secretary Ben Carson made the same point. One 11-year-old wrote, “I have a best friend who lives there and friends who live there. When they move, I will be heartbroken.” The underlying theme of the tenants’ resistance is that HUD should build new public housing units for them, instead of providing vouchers for tenants to find housing on the private market.

HUD’s announcement of impending demolition of the properties comes a year and a half after the news that HUD was taking over control of the ACHA. At the time, the Southern Illinoisan reported, “The condition of the developments deteriorated as past managers—namely James Wilson, who was director for 24 years, part of which time he also was the mayor of Cairo—are alleged to have misspent money on their own excessive travel, benefits, golden parachutes and sweetheart retirement deals.”

At the time of the takeover in 2016, tenants believed that the HUD takeover would lead to improved conditions. According to the Southern Illinoisan, the proposed displacement will impact 15 percent of Cairo’s population.

The shock of the federal takeover of the housing authority and the closure of Elmwood Place and McBride Place has rocked the broader Cairo community into action. A Southern article, “Cairo citizens lean in, brainstorm ways to save their town as 400 residents could be displaced by housing crisis,” reports on how local community-based organizations like Men of Power–Sisters of Strength, Black Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, and Community Action Place are stepping up to address these needs. To varying degrees, each organization sees the challenge as more than displacement and relocation. Shawn Tarver is quoted as saying, “This is not just a public housing problem. This is a Cairo city problem.” Anthony Walker of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Illinois compared the crisis to New Orleans and called on elected officials to support the tenants. In contrast, local and state politicians have expressed sympathy but taken a hands-off approach to the problem: “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.”

The unwillingness of local officials may be related to the fact that the failed ACHA is a creature of the local political establishment, which appoints the housing authority’s trustees. Congressman James Bost (R-IL) called on the residents to blame the Housing Authority, not HUD, for the substandard conditions. “Bost said the problems in Cairo are to blame on ‘terrible people’ who abused their power.”—Spencer Wells