‘Here we go again’: HUD forcing another 50 families from public housing in Cairo

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CAIRO — City officials and public housing residents in Cairo expressed dismay and anger at federal housing officials’ announcement on Wednesday night that they’re shuttering yet another apartment complex and forcing the relocation of an additional 50 families.

The reason they gave: An engineer’s recent architectural assessment of the eight-story high rise building found that it is at risk of collapsing if there’s an earthquake. The Connell F. Smith, Sr., apartment complex, as it’s known, was constructed in 1967 in downtown Cairo, with balconies that offer sweeping views of the Ohio River. But the fact that it sits near the New Madrid Seismic Zone and was constructed using wood piles – rather than the steel ones found in more modern buildings – presents a health and safety risk to residents, the U.S. The Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a media statement.

Numerous residents told HUD they didn’t want to move. “Don’t do this. It’s wrong, man,” one resident told them. “You don’t know what we’re going through because you’re not from here,” said another, noting he has lived in Cairo since the 1950s and doesn’t intend to live elsewhere. “Stop moving our people out of town. Build something new here.”

Five years ago, HUD committed to keeping the Smith building open, especially for seniors and people with disabilities. It was a promise made during a tumultuous time for the town.

In 2016, HUD booted the local management of the Alexander County Housing Authority, citing years of mismanagement, poor housing conditions and numerous civil rights violations against its mostly Black tenants. A year later, the agency announced a plan to demolish two large family public housing complexes that had fallen into extreme disrepair. That announcement resulted in the relocation of several hundred people from Cairo, most of them young families.

And HUD has invested money into the Smith building since then. It’s spent several million dollars, in fact, on big-ticket items like elevator and sewer system upgrades, further raising questions about why this issue had never been raised before. 

Word had already spread among residents and town leaders about HUD’s plans by time the meeting started. They showed up frustrated and with an arsenal of questions. They were skeptical about the seismic risk HUD outlined, and why HUD had not tried to first build new housing so that people had a place to move to within Cairo.

Jim Cunningham, one of the HUD officials who led the meeting, told them that new development is not off the table, but he did not offer any details about where those plans stand. He said that HUD stewed about the decision before announcing it. “This was not an easy decision,” he said. “If you think it was, you’re sorely mistaken.”

The residents were provided packets outlining their options: They’ll receive help moving into other public housing complexes, or they can apply for a voucher to subsidize their rent in the private market. But most will likely have to leave Cairo to find alternative housing as there are only six vacant units at the remaining public housing sites in the town.

Cairo Mayor Thomas Simpson said that HUD officials broke the news to him only hours before they told the residents, which he thought was disrespectful. He said he asked them for the engineer’s assessment that the decision was based upon, and was told he’d need to make a public records request to obtain it (HUD told a reporter the same, declining to make it immediately available).

Simpson said he has already reached out to a different architectural engineer that has agreed to review the housing authority’s assessment once he obtains it, and possibly offer a second opinion. Simpson said he doesn’t plan to take HUD at its word. He’s gearing up to fight for a fairer plan that allows people the option to stay in their hometown.

When HUD called him, Simpson said the first thing that popped into his mind was, “Here we go again.”

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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October 26, 2022 at 08:51PM

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