HUD Long Neglected These Residents. Now As They Move Out, Some Feel HUD Let Them Down Again

CAIRO, Ill. — For years, residents of public housing complexes here were stuck living in aging and neglected buildings with inoperable heat, leaky ceilings, broken windows, mold, mice, roaches, and frequently clogged toilets and sinks.

And for years, federal authorities failed to step in despite regular financial reviews and building inspections that should have flagged problems and prompted corrective action much sooner.

But the solution once the Department of Housing and Urban Development finally faced the scope of the decay in Illinois’ most southern city has turned out to be every bit as thorny and painful.

Last spring, HUD announced it would shutter two sprawling World War II-era family housing complexes in Cairo and help residents move out. Ten months later, HUD officials delivered similar news to residents of two more public housing complexes in the nearby village of Thebes.

All told, nearly 500 people, half of them children, are being forced to find new homes.

While HUD’s moves address residents’ repeated complaints about neglect, the agency is falling short in meeting the needs of those displaced, experts and some residents say.

HUD’s solution in Cairo and Thebes is to offer residents spots in other public housing units or give them vouchers that subsidize rent in the private market. The resulting mad scramble for housing, however, has been fraught with mixed messages and false hope, tough conversations and hard landings. A scarcity of rental housing in the two towns means most families must relocate to other communities, where landlords are reluctant to participate in the voucher program commonly known as Section 8. Some residents also face increased rental and utility costs.

In the best circumstances, residents with limited resources must arrange rushed moves and acclimate to new neighborhoods, in some cases, across state lines. In the worst, their social networks and support systems will be torn apart in the process.

“The chances of people ending up in better situations are not great,” said David Omotoso Stovall, a professor of educational policy studies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

When people are forced to quickly relocate without adequate supportive services or assurances of improved living circumstances, “it’s a structural failure of HUD,” said Stovall, whose research focuses on the influence of race in urban education, community development and housing.

Communities are also left suffering in the wake of HUD’s mistakes. The Cairo school district, which has a student count of just more than 350, has lost a fourth of its students in the past two years due to the housing crisis, and will likely lose more before the start of school next fall. Thebes stands to lose its largest utility customer.

Thousands of housing authorities around the country have similarly aging complexes, many of which are degrading beyond the point of repair. But small, economically destitute places like Cairo and Thebes are often unable to leverage either the political will or private capital necessary to replace what’s lost.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the agency recognizes that “moving is one of the most traumatic life experiences” and carefully weighed “a variety of housing solutions” before deciding to close the four public housing complexes. The finances of the Alexander County Housing Authority, which includes both Cairo and Thebes, were precarious before HUD took over its operations in early 2016.

“Nationwide housing vouchers were extended to each leaseholder and our relocation and mobility specialists have provided a range of options, including tours and providing school and employment information, to make families as informed as possible,” Brown said in a statement. “Experience tells us that despite our very best efforts, it’s difficult to anticipate everything relocating families encounter.”

Of the about 130 families that had relocated from the two Cairo complexes — Elmwood and McBride — as of the end of March, about two-thirds of them have landed in other cities, particularly Carbondale, Illinois, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri — both about an hour away.

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