Series: HUD’s House of Cards
Public Housing Failures
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It was the last Friday in October, and barges filled with mounds of glistening coal sat parked in the Ohio River below Lee Esther Logan’s high-rise public housing apartment complex in Cairo, Illinois. Wispy white clouds streaked a baby blue sky. The panoramic waterfront view is one that normally gives Logan peace as she takes it in from the brown recliner on her balcony.
But on the day I visited her, Logan wasn’t at peace. She was anxious.
Two days prior, officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had called Logan and about 60 of her fellow public housing residents to a meeting. An engineering assessment has found that the Connell F. Smith Sr. Building may not be structurally sound enough to withstand an earthquake. The federal government plans to raze their home, and they have to move out by early next year, the federal housing officials told them.
The building mostly houses seniors and people with disabilities and is also home to a small number of children and their parents. Officials told the residents they’d get vouchers and moving assistance. But that’s of little comfort to the many residents who want to stay in Cairo.
Since its population peaked at 15,000 residents in the 1920s, Cairo has faced decades of population and economic decline. It’s now one of the poorest cities in Illinois, and its population has dropped to about 1,600. There’s no grocery store or gas station — and most critically for the high-rise residents facing eviction, there’s an extreme shortage of safe rental options. That means that under HUD’s plan, most residents will have to move at least 30 miles away to find available units in other towns’ public housing complexes or private-market rentals.
The decision sent residents reeling. Logan’s close-knit, majority-Black town sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where the borders of Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri meet.
When newcomers visit, they’re often struck by the blight of a hollowed-out city: streets lined with boarded-up homes, vacant buildings and empty lots. The Smith building itself holds a lot of history — not all of it good. Constructed in 1968, it’s named for a former housing authority board member who, the decade before, had affixed a flashing neon arrow to his garage roof; it pointed at the home of an attorney who was working to integrate Cairo’s public schools alongside Thurgood Marshall. In an essay, Langston Hughes described it as a 4-foot “red arrow of bigotry.”
But for residents, a strong sense of community remains. Cairo is known regionally for its historic churches — some of which still gather a spirited crowd on Sundays — ties to American history, music festivals, acclaimed barbecue and standout high school basketball teams over the years. It’s one of the few small towns in southern Illinois to offer a children’s orchestra and ballet lessons.
For many of the seniors and people with disabilities who live at the Smith building, the prospect of heading out of town — for some, the only place they’ve ever lived — is daunting.
“A lot of people are scared. I’m scared,” said Logan, 55, a disabled woman who has spent her entire life here. “I don’t want to leave Cairo.” I heard many neighbors echo her concerns as I knocked on doors that afternoon. “I don’t know where I’m gonna go. I’m 83 years old,” said Harry “Mack” McDowell Jr., a retired car salesman who is still grieving the death of his wife in July and who is dreading having to apartment shop and move during the holidays.
Few federal agencies have a mission so squarely aligned with what Cairo needs: to uplift disadvantaged people and places and, as HUD describes it on its website, “to deliver on America’s dreams.”
But HUD has let generations of Cairo residents down time and again. And although HUD could oversee the building of new apartments in the city, it has no plans to do so.
Cairo isn’t just another Midwestern river town befallen by hard economic luck.
The storied epicenter of a region colloquially known as “Little Egypt,” Cairo holds a central place in the American story. The town, the most southern point in a northern state, was a key station on the Underground Railroad and a Midwestern staging area for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union armies along the Mississippi artery.
It had been a mostly white city until thousands of formerly enslaved Black Americans fled on steamers headed north along the Mississippi River during the height of the war. The federal government sent them to Cairo and housed them in what were called “contraband camps,” shanty tents set up near the riverbanks where people had little to eat and disease ran rampant.
At the war’s end, the camps disbanded and many people left. But at least 3,000 Black Americans stayed in Cairo and established a vibrant, though largely segregated, community of churches, schools and businesses. By the early 1900s, nearly 40% of the population was Black, and the strongly organized community leveraged its political power to win elected seats in town.
Despite those gains, white supremacists maintained the balance of power and ensured that Cairo’s Black population remained locked out of the best jobs and public schools. Jim Crow-era policies that followed Reconstruction remained firmly rooted in Cairo well after they’d begun to unravel elsewhere.
Housing discrimination was a common thread.
In the 1940s, the town built two large family housing complexes: one for Black families using cheap wood materials at the site of the old “contraband camp” and one for white families built of brick.
In 1972, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings in the town. Numerous Black citizens testified about being forced to live in the segregated and dilapidated public housing complex; they were terrorized by rodents and white vigilantes who, for months, fired into the apartment complex from the Mississippi levee, shattering windows and streets lights, to intimidate a Black civil rights leader and his followers who lived there. The commission concluded that federal housing officials had known about the town’s defiance of federal fair housing laws for years but done little.
More than 40 years later, I, along with several colleagues from The Southern Illinoisan, documented unsafe conditions in the same buildings cited in the federal report. They had fallen into even worse disrepair. There were severe foundational issues. Homes were overrun with mice and roaches. Doctors expressed alarm at the number of mothers bringing in children with asthma and other breathing problems from mold. The heating system was so poor that many families used their gas ovens to stay warm in the winter. Similar to the commission’s findings, our reporting revealed that HUD had known about problems and done little. In 2016, on the heels of our investigative series, HUD exercised its rarely utilized authority to remove the housing authority based in Cairo from local control and place it into federal receivership.
A year later, under President Donald Trump and his HUD secretary, Ben Carson, the federal agency announced the closure of two family housing complexes in Cairo, and 10 months after that, two more in nearby Thebes. The buildings were home to about 500 people, and most of them ended up leaving the area to find housing. The community was livid — not at HUD’s decisions to tear down buildings long past their prime but at the fact that HUD would not commit to replacing even a small fraction of what had been lost.
At the time, federal officials promised they would do what they could to maintain the public housing that remained in Cairo, including the high-rise where Logan lives. At least 14 families forced out of the demolished homes moved into the Smith building. And residents were hopeful that President Joe Biden’s administration might take a different approach.
But to residents in Cairo, last month’s announcement is another broken promise in a long line.
“Here we go again,” a frustrated Thomas Simpson, Cairo’s mayor, quipped on his way out the door of the meeting with HUD officials. He’s working with other community leaders to open a co-op grocery store. And he’s hopeful that plans to build a new inland river port in town — a development that Gov. J.B. Pritzker has committed $40 million in state funds toward — will boost the region’s economy.
But HUD’s continued gutting of his community makes it hard to stay a step ahead, he said. After more than seven years under HUD control, the local housing authority has not managed to replace a single unit in his town. The mayor believes HUD has overstated the urgent need for people to move. (HUD does not typically assess seismic risk; it ordered an architectural assessment after an agency official noticed cracks in the building in 2021. The study identified problems but did not make any recommendations, and there’s no HUD policy that dictates what is an acceptable seismic risk for a public housing property). He’d like to see the agency slow down and come up with an alternative solution.
One is already on the table.
A developer with extensive affordable housing experience has offered HUD a plan to build a 40-unit housing community in Cairo at the site of one of the previously demolished homes. The roughly $5 million needed for the project already exists in the housing authority’s coffers. And the developer who pitched the solution, Nashville, Tennessee-based U.S. Management Services, is already under contract with HUD to develop a long-term plan for the housing authority and its tenants in Cairo. The owner of the development company told HUD he could complete the Cairo project in six months by shipping in manufactured homes.
But while a HUD official later told me that the project hasn’t been rejected outright, he said that the deal is more complicated than meets the eye. More detailed questions, he said, would have to be directed to HUD’s spokesperson. Christina Wilkes, HUD’s press secretary, did not specifically respond to my questions about the proposed development. In an emailed response, she said the agency is “committed to partnering with the Mayor and community leaders to develop a plan for the future, based upon the Mayor’s vision.”
The mayor, however, said HUD only notified him of its plan to demolish the Smith building a few hours before notifying the residents, even though the agency first noticed problems with the building more than a year ago. He wants the agency to pursue all viable options to keep people in Cairo. And if the agency goes ahead with the plan to move people out of the high-rise, those residents will take their vouchers with them, leaving insufficient funding for the new units.
On the afternoon that HUD broke the news, the residents and other community leaders packed into the meeting room shoulder to shoulder. People spilled into the hallways. A few residents shed tears; others begged HUD officials to come up with another solution. Community leaders admonished the agency for the pain it has caused the town.
Phillip Matthews, a pastor and community activist, stood up, stared the officials down and told them to deliver this message to their superiors in Washington on behalf of the town: “It’s not happening this time.”
“This was not an easy decision,” a defensive HUD official fired back. “If you think it was, you’re sorely mistaken.”
At the meeting, a HUD official promised to share the town residents’ concerns with higher-ups in Washington. But the agency has not backed off of its plans to move people from the building in Cairo, located in Alexander County. “The safety of the HUD assisted residents is our top priority and moving them to safe housing as soon as possible is our focus at this time. If there is any future ACHA housing, it would allow former ACHA residents the first priority to return,” Wilkes, the HUD spokesperson said, referring to the Alexander County Housing Authority that is in receivership.
In the days that followed that tense meeting, residents and community leaders have fought back. The state’s attorney filed a lawsuit challenging that HUD had not followed its own requirements for when a public housing property is slated to be demolished. That resulted in a county judge issuing a temporary restraining order, which has since expired; the case was then transferred to federal court, where it is pending. (HUD has maintained that it hasn’t violated any laws or regulations with its announcement.) Political leaders wrote letters to HUD advocating for the town. And residents say they plan to flood a housing authority board meeting next week, where HUD officials are expected to officially vote on the plan.
Kaneesha Mallory, who lives in the building slated for demolition with her 2-year-old daughter Bre’Chelle, is holding out hope that HUD will have a change of heart. She’s lived in other places but never felt the same sense of belonging.
“This is home. My roots are here in Cairo,” she said. “If you move anywhere else, you won’t find nowhere else like Cairo.”