Ben Carson, whose outsider bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination faltered after he proclaimed that Egypt’s great pyramids had been built simply to store grain, paid an uncomfortable visit to a very different Cairo on Tuesday.
Hundreds of low-income families are being pushed out of their homes in Cairo, Illinois, as a result of decisions Carson has made in his first few months as HUD secretary. The pair of housing projects at risk have become notorious across the state in the past two years for chronic and possibly criminal mismanagement, sewage backups in parking lots and lawns, dangerous mold, and broken or nonexistent smoke alarms — but HUD’s decision to tear the Elmwood and McBride apartments down rather than fix them leaves 400 Americans looking down the barrel of homelessness.
Many of those residents showed up to meet with Carson Tuesday in what NPR called “a hastily organized forum.” Some didn’t come away very happy.
“I think it’s a political thing, the reason why he’s coming down here,” McBride Apartments resident Melvin Duncan told the radio news group. “He already sent a letter saying ‘it’s unfortunate but we can’t help you.’”
Elmwood resident Steven Tarver seconded Duncan’s cynicism, telling local television reporters Carson’s visit “was just more of a ‘frequent flyer miles’ trip for him and the rest of the people who came. It was a beautiful setting, but as usual we have to got back into the trenches and do what’s best for our own.”
Cairo residents have been waiting to find out what HUD would do with Elmwood and McBride since February, when federal officials took over management of the Alexander County Housing Authority. But the ax has been hanging over these buildings for much longer. One architecture firm that reviewed the facilities in 2015 estimated the two tumbledown complexes needed about $7.5 million of immediate work to render the apartments habitable, and another $37.5 million of work over the next two decades to remain that way.
In early April, HUD announced it would close and destroy the nearly 40 buildings that make up the two projects — and would not rebuild them, a worst-case combination of choices from locals’ perspective. HUD’s choice of “the most extreme option,” the editors of the local Southern Illinoisan newspaper wrote at the time, “could be the death knell for Cairo.” Carson’s staff told residents to expect housing vouchers which they could use to find new homes, but were given little other detail. Public housing systems across the country already have long waitlists even before they lose capacity to decisions like the one Carson signed off on in Cairo. “[W]e all know it’s not as easy as that just to pick up and move,” the Southern’s editors wrote. “What about school? What about family? Do we expect these residents just to forget about all that and start a new life elsewhere?
Carson responded to community members’ frustration, disappointment, and pleas for help by seeming to contradict the decision his staff has already taken. “I think the right steps involve preserving as many housing units as we possibly can,” the secretary said at one point. “I think by the grace of God it’s possible to save this place,” he said at another. His overall message, per NPR, was “to offer assurances that HUD will help everyone who wants to stay in Cairo to be able to do so.”
That’s a very different message than HUD officials have been delivering to Cairo residents since this spring’s decision to destroy the ailing World War 2-era houses. While they haven’t published any hard deadline for people to move out, one city councilwoman said she was told privately in April that everyone needed to find new homes within six months. While Carson made it sound like those new homes might still be in Cairo, his subordinates have portrayed that as a long-shot fantasy. “Finding adequate housing in or near Cairo will be difficult,” HUD’s special FAQ for Elmwood and McBride residents says. “Families will have the option to live anywhere in the country, including available units in Cairo and surrounding communities. However, given the availability of vacant units in the area, Elmwood and McBride residents may be moving to communities outside of Cairo and Alexander County.”
Carson’s heartfelt remarks to Cairo residents on Tuesday can be read one of two ways. Perhaps something has changed and the agency now intends to spend what it takes to keep nearly 200 displaced families from having to up stakes and find some new community that miraculously does not have a backlog in its own public housing system. Or perhaps it is simply easier, when face to face with those materially harmed by policy choices that are rendered in abstract dollars-and-sense terms in faraway offices, to tell people what they want to hear and get out of the room.
If the former interpretation is correct and HUD has changed its mind about the fate of Cairo’s poorest residents, no one seems to know about it. “”I didn’t get a lot of real concrete, ‘what are they doing next’,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said after the forum. Carson “made some commitments to work with us,” Mayor Tyrone Coleman said, without specifying.
The truth is that Carson is presiding over a housing policy agenda guaranteed to produce hundreds of thousands of Cairo-style evictions across the public housing system in the coming years. The White House’s plan calls for underfunding public housing systems by several billion dollars compared to what would need to be spent just to keep current tenants stable, let alone shrink waiting lists for those poor enough to qualify for help but unable to receive it because America is too thrifty to fulfill the promises of its housing laws.
While budget documents insinuate that rent hikes for low-income tenants will make up the difference, housing policy experts have told ThinkProgress that is fantasy math — and the reality is these families have no ability to pay more and nowhere else to go if HUD turns them away.
Carson may be right that Cairo’s poorest could be saved “by the grace of God.” But whatever role higher powers might play, Carson and the politicians he works with in Washington have it in their power now to spend the money required to build the affordable housing capacity the country needs in small-town Illinois and big coastal cities alike. Instead, the people in charge of federal authority today are looking to slash spending on the poor and give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the richest participants in a roughly $18 trillion economy.