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Illinois lawmakers, HUD Secretary Carson talk Cairo in Washington; Sen. Durbin says Carson's concern for residents is 'genuine'

Carbondale Southern Illinoisan

Monday, July 17, 2017  |  Article  |  Molly Parker

Congress (22) , Federal Government (22A) , Housing (51)

WASHINGTON — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson met with U.S. Rep. Mike Bost and Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin this past week in Washington to discuss the public housing situation in Cairo.

Durbin said he gives Carson “high marks” for his responsiveness to their requests for information. “He has shown a lot of personal attention to this and was kind enough to come in here into my office and meet with both of us for a lengthy meeting,” Durbin said. “I think his concern about the future of the residents there at the housing authority is genuine.”

“Of course, we want to make sure at the end of the day that they are the highest priority — that they feel that we are doing everything in our power to resolve this terrible chapter in their lives and that for these families, the next place they move will be a dramatic improvement … We want to make sure that both the secretary and the department get high marks when it comes to responding to the needs of these residents. That’s the highest priority.”

Carson held two separate meetings with the Illinois congressional lawmakers on Thursday — one with Bost, a Republican whose district includes Cairo, and another with Durbin and Duckworth, both Democrats.

Bost said that during his visit with Carson, the two discussed the federal agency’s planned pursuit of civil penalties to hold responsible parties accountable for alleged mismanagement of the Alexander County Housing Authority. As well, Bost said they discussed the relocation process and the efforts of community leaders to rebuild the city.

Bost said that he expressed to Carson that it is imperative that everyone is pulling in the same direction to improve the city’s economic position. Bost said he’s committed to offering what support he can to local officials’ pursuit of an inland river port, and other industry, to the depressed city that sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. An important aspect of that, Bost said, is making sure that if new businesses open up that the jobs are primarily offered to Cairo residents and people willing to relocate to Cairo rather than commuters.

“They have truly fallen so low, it’s going to take a major lift, and a group of people working together, staying away from any political footballs and actually working for the people,” said Bost, R-Murphysboro.

Bost said he and Carson also discussed the fact that regardless of who is at fault for the housing crisis, the difficult and unfortunate reality of the current situation is that there are no easy answers. In April, HUD officials overseeing the ACHA in federal receivership announced that they would begin relocating about 185 families from Elmwood and McBride because the developments, built in 1941, are no longer safe, because of their age and years of neglect.

They told the residents that many would likely have to relocate to places outside of Cairo because there is a shortage of safe, affordable housing within the city limits.

Bost said past administrators of the ACHA shoulder most of the blame for the housing crisis. He has also raised questions about whether HUD dropped the ball in its oversight role, as the federal agency is responsible for ensuring locally controlled housing authorities that are allocated federal housing dollars are following laws and regulations and maintaining safe and adequate housing. Durbin and Duckworth also have sought an independent investigation of HUD’s culpability in the situation.

“But that doesn’t change the fact that right now we’re in a situation where we’ve got to make some decisions … and safety has to be first. It has to be. So that makes it real rough for HUD,” Bost said, noting Carson was confirmed as the HUD secretary in March and inherited a situation that began under previous administrations.

“They’ve got to make sure if they’re allowing them to stay until they can make a decision, or until other housing is available, they have to make sure that it’s in safe conditions. That has to be priority.”

Durbin said Carson informed him and Duckworth that residents in Cairo are meeting with relocation counselors and discussing next steps with families. 

According to HUD spokesman Jereon Brown, 95 Tenant Protection Vouchers have been issued to residents. The vouchers work the same as Housing Choice Vouchers by subsidizing rent to a private landlord in a certified home anywhere in the U.S. Residents also have the option of relocating to another public housing project.

Brown said that since June 8, four families have been relocated and 85 percent have received relocation counseling. At this time, there is not a deadline by which residents must move.

Readdressing an issue she raised following her visit a week ago to Cairo, Duckworth said she pressed Carson to release details of a survey HUD has conducted about whether people want to remain in Cairo or prefer to relocate to another community. 

Duckworth said she’s heard from numerous people who say they want to remain in Cairo, but she’d like to obtain a more accurate picture of the situation because a HUD official informed her that the survey showed that most families want to relocate. 

“I understand that sometimes it’s the loud voices in the community who are saying, ‘No, I don’t want to go’ but there are folks there who do want to move but they don’t feel like they can say that.” Because of that conflicting information, Duckworth said she hopes that HUD will finalize its report and release it to the senators. She said that in the meeting with Carson, they were informed that it would be released at some point but that HUD was still interviewing families and collecting data. 

Duckworth and Durbin also both said that they discussed HUD’s intention to indefinitely ban two past ACHA executive directors — James Wilson and Martha Franklin — from participating in federal government programs and seek civil penalties against them for their alleged mismanagement and neglect. This past week, HUD proposed the debarment — the agency’s most serious sanction — of Wilson and Franklin. As well, the agency proposed a three-year debarment for John Price, a former ACHA board member who also represented employees in collective bargaining.

“They indicated to us that they are definitely committed to pursuing those penalties and so we’ll see where that goes,” she said.

Bost said he stressed to Carson that he wants to see housing officials working with the city, including Mayor Tyrone Coleman, to expand the options for affordable housing within Cairo.

At Coleman’s request, Bost also said he expressed his concern about Caron’s description of Cairo as a ‘dying community’ when the secretary appeared before a Senate panel in early June concerning HUD’s proposed budget.

“And he understood my concerns about that,” Bost said. “I said, ‘We’re not going to say it’s a dying town. We’re going to say we are in a situation where we must aggressively go to bring new industry in and rebuild the city from the devastation that has occurred by some very bad players.’”

Bost said Carson reassured him that HUD is still working to increase the affordable housing options in Cairo, though it’s not clear at this time how many new units will be made available. HUD no longer builds housing projects on its own. Rather, most new subsidized housing that comes online in the country is through public-private partnerships, and it’s been difficult for Cairo to secure private investors because of its struggling economy. 

“…you know how close I am with the mayor, and I’m going to help him every way we can. But if there’s not enough safe housing and there’s not going to be until a project that takes a year or two years? What’s the answer? Well, we’ve got to make sure that they’re safe and I’m pretty sure that’s where HUD has to be,” Bost said.

Bost said Carson told him that the agency’s goal is to return the housing authority to local control at the end of 2018. Durbin, Duckworth and Bost said they also took the opportunity to formally extend an invitation for Carson to visit Cairo. While many questions remain unanswered, all described the meeting as positive. 

Brown, the spokesman for HUD, said Secretary Carson has made Cairo a departmental priority and the team will remain engaged and intact until the housing authority is released from receivership. Carson has named Ginnie Mae Executive Vice President Maren Kasper his senior adviser on Cairo and the ACHA.