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In Cairo, residents still reeling from news that 400 people will soon have to relocate

Carbondale Southern Illinoisan

Thursday, April 20, 2017  |  Article  |  Molly Parker

Federal Government (22A) , Housing (51)

CAIRO — Anger, frustration, fear and confusion about the relocation decision announced by federal housing officials this past week spilled over into a routine tenant meeting Wednesday that was held at the Alexander County Housing Authority’s Connell F. Smith high rise building on the Ohio River. 

Towanda Macon, a Housing and Urban Development public housing administrator assigned to oversee the ACHA while it is in federal receivership, told the residents that a relocation specialist is already working on site in Cairo and taking appointments to meet with individuals and families to help them prepare for moving.

On April 10, HUD announced its decision to begin relocating 185 residents, amounting to about 400 individuals, from the aging and unsafe McBride and Elmwood family housing complexes in Cairo that were constructed in 1942 and that have been neglected for years.

At numerous times during the meeting as Macon attempted to walk through the agenda items and answer questions, residents talked over her and shouted in anger. Macon told the residents that the ACHA is installing water filtration systems in every unit at Elmwood and McBride as a precautionary measure, and residents demanded to know why HUD would make improvements now — as they're being asked to move out.

“You’ve been here how long? Who stole the money? Where’s the 20 million dollars at?” shouted a few residents, building off one another's frustrations. Macon reiterated, as she has on countless occasions, that she is not privy to what an ongoing investigation has revealed, and whether any past ACHA managers will end up charged as it relates to the dire conditions of the housing authority that prompted HUD’s takeover of the local agency on Feb. 22, 2016.

“You asked me a question and I’m going to give you an answer,” she said, trying to move the discussion back to why HUD is installing water filters while planning  on demolishing Elmwood and McBride. Loud chatter continued over her, and she asked for the opportunity to answer the question posed to her. “Again, the housing authority has a responsibility to maintain its properties as long as there are people residing in those properties," she said. 

Macon said 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. Though no amount of lead is safe for human consumption, the EPA’s action level is not a health-based standard. Studies suggest that in most adults, lead contaminated water near the action level is not likely enough to cause illness, though it could affect the health of an infant and some children younger than age 6.

During a sampling of lead testing of vacant units in May 2016, only one unit had water above the EPA’s action level. In the March 2017 testing, of the 11 units where water was sampled, five tested at or above the EPA’s action level. The city’s water, which is supplied by American Water Co., did not test positive for lead, leading officials to believe the lead contamination could be caused by the joints of the copper water pipes. Lead containing solder for copper piping was not banned until 1986 — more than 40 years after the complexes were built. 

The Illinois Department of Public Health lists Cairo as a high-risk region for lead exposure in children, and therefore all children are required to be tested before entering school. Macon suggested any concerned parent reach out to Southern Seven Health Department, and noted that for child Medicaid recipients, testing is free of charge.

Macon told nearly 50 residents who gathered Wednesday night that she understands that emotions are high, and that some people are scared and angry. Loretta Collier, a resident of McBride, asked how she was supposed to just up and move herself and her four children when she has no money saved. Macon stressed that HUD intends to provide everyone with a portable voucher, access to relocation specialists to help them find a place to live, moving expenses, child care and transportation. Macon said that the ACHA has applied for an emergency relocation grant to cover these costs. Macon said that though it has not been approved yet, she is confident it will be. 

At that, residents demanded to know how HUD could promise to pay moving expenses without having the grant approved. She was asked whether there was a Plan B, and Macon again stressed that it is highly anticipated the grant funds will be approved.

A representative of CRV Associates, Inc., with whom HUD contracted to assist residents in studying their housing options, said she has already met with several families, and that others should call her to book an appointment. She said that she is willing to work with families living in multiple units who want move together.

“Give me a call. I’m just here to help,” said Lashonna Hill. “I’m just a regular person, too.”

Macon noted that this is not the first time HUD has relocated people from public housing for health and safety reasons. At present, HUD is relocating residents from a lead contaminated housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana, and officials have said they hope to apply lessons learned there in Cairo.  

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.

Macon said discussions continue about how to expand the number of affordable housing units in Cairo, though options are limited, which is why officials previously told residents that they may have to move outside of Cairo. Macon also said she wanted to stress that not all of the rumors floating around town about the relocation are true. For example, she said it’s not true that residents only have 120 days to move. That is the amount of time that residents have to locate housing once they have been issued a voucher, but the vouchers have not been issued yet, and HUD has the ability to extend that deadline for families if they need more time.

Some of the rumors have made people “very, very afraid,” she said, and many of them are simply untrue. She encouraged anyone with questions about something they have heard to call the ACHA’s administrative offices and ask for clarification.