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Saving Cairo: A Once Thriving River Town Finds Itself On Life Support


A barge loaded with Illinois Basin coal sits in the Ohio River in Cairo, Ill.
Scott Olson, Getty Images
A barge loaded with Illinois Basin coal sits in the Ohio River in Cairo, Ill.

Monte Ellis's whole world is being uprooted.

"They're just forcing us out," he says, as he watches his 11-year old sister, Ashay, at what passes for a playground in the battered McBride Housing projects on the south end of Cairo, Ill.

For years, families like the Ellis's complained to the local housing authority of squalid conditions here – leaky ceilings, mold, bugs and rats. Sometimes there is no heat so people turn their ovens on to keep warm. Things never got fixed.

"A lot of broken promises," Ellis says.

Last year, when the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, HUD, took over the scandal-ridden local housing authority, there was hope that things would turn around. Instead, a few weeks ago, the dreaded news: the projects were deemed uninhabitable and will be demolished within months. HUD says it doesn't have the estimated $7.5 million to bring these buildings up to code. Instead they'll offer relocation assistance and housing vouchers to the estimated 400 residents of the two projects.

The anger here is palpable.

"It's not all about money, it's about us too," Ashay Ellis, 11, says. "We're not just gonna leave."

The housing crisis is just the latest blow for this isolated rural town at the northern tip of the Mississippi Delta. Once a thriving river port and manufacturing hub, Cairo (pronounced CARE-row) today has one of the fastest depopulation rates in the United States. Most of the factories have closed. The town's history is also plagued with racial tension and violence as well as corruption and poverty.

Support comes from

Many people who live in the two projects slated to close have few options. A lot of the other properties in town are abandoned or condemned. Some residents of the projects don't have cars. The nearest cities of size, Cape Girardeau, Mo. and Paducah, Ky. are close to an hour's drive away. Anyway, most people's families, support networks and jobs are here in Cairo.

"I go to Cairo High School," Monte Ellis says proudly. "I want to see Cairo High School get big and succeed and you can't do that if there's no community."

A domino effect

Cairo and its schools were already on life support before the announcement that the projects are being demolished. One elementary school recently closed and the high school and middle school recently consolidated. If everyone from the projects were to leave town, the district's enrollment would drop another 40 percent, leading some to question whether the town is even viable without its school.

There are real fears of a domino effect here, with the school district also being Cairo's largest employer. Sixth grade teacher Mary Beth Goff got so frustrated that she had her students write letters to HUD Secretary Ben Carson, pleading with him to reconsider the decision.

"I get what Ben Carson says, public housing should be a springboard, not a hammock, I've read that statement," Goff says. "But these are kids."

In a letter back, the secretary promised to help the families find a better home. Goff says she will hold him to that. This housing crisis is just the latest disruption for her students. Most teachers have had to abandon their lesson plans to help kids cope — and survive.

"Our kids are living in conditions that they should not have to live in, I don't think anybody disagrees with that," Goff says. "So then the question is, do you make it better or do you abandon them."

For its part, HUD says it's committed to finding better, safer homes for the affected families.

"Nothing is simple with Cairo," says Jerry Brown, a deputy undersecretary at the agency. "Because when you go there and you look at the units it literally tugs at your heart."

But Brown says the unfortunate reality is that HUD is no longer in the housing construction business. It relies on private developers, and attracting them to an isolated, predominately low-income rural area like Cairo is tough. The agency also says it doesn't have enough money to rehabilitate the projects as well as keep open the other Section 8 properties in town it acquired after taking over the Alexander County Housing Authority. Demolishing and rebuilding the projects entirely has an estimated price tag of nearly $40 million.

Originally, residents were told they'd have 150 days to vacate after receiving their vouchers, but recently it was announced there is some flexibility.

"We're going to do everything we can to allow everyone that can find affordable housing in that community to remain there," Brown says.

Saving Cairo

Brown's right, there is stuff happening in a frenzy on the ground in Cairo right now to try to house the soon-to-be-displaced families who want to stay. Illinois' Gov. Bruce Rauner sent down teams to assess abandoned properties to see which, if any, could be quickly brought up to code. The state's housing agency is offering grants of up to $35,000 to interested landlords. The city also recently held a landlord fair.

"I am 99.9 percent sure there will be housing available for those who want to stay," says Tyrone Coleman, Cairo's mayor.

For the first time in years, the mayor's office has also been fielding calls from developers who have expressed interest in building new housing. There hasn't been a new, private home built in Cairo for an astonishing 50 years.

"I'll never give in to the point that Cairo is finished, never," Coleman says. "There's enough of us here to keep life here."

But just how far do you go to keep people in a town where opportunities are few? Like a lot of rural America, Cairo was also built for industries — river barges, manufacturing — that are not as relevant today.

A frustrated Coleman shakes his head at questions like these. The housing crisis is especially bad timing. Cairo is close to getting a grocery store back. A state senator is also trying to establish a port authority on the Mississippi River, which would attract new investment and jobs.

"Cairo is used to having to overcome," Coleman says. "That's just a part of our character, our nature."

Leaving is a 'last resort'

Not unlike in a lot of small towns, people's character, their identity, is wrapped up tightly in Cairo, Ill. So even if it was easy to pick up and move to a new city, a lot of people probably wouldn't.

"They're literally gonna have to put me out," says Melvin Duncan. "I'm going to do what I can to stay."

Duncan, 38, has lived most of his life in the McBride projects on Cairo's south end. One morning on a break from his job as a handyman at the school district, Duncan pointed out possible properties on abandoned lots surrounding McBride that he says could have been easily redeveloped over the years.

Duncan says people from outside Cairo are making decisions without fully understanding the ramifications. For instance, he figures he could find work elsewhere – and may have to if the district enrollment drops further and there are more staff layoffs – but it's not that easy.

Duncan has some possible leads on housing for his family in a another town, but he's not sure whether they'll take Section 8 vouchers.

It's also a last resort, he says firmly.

"I was born here, I've been here most of my life, this is home," Duncan says. "Who wants their home destroyed?"

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