WSIU InFocus: Poverty and Housing Issues Go Hand in Hand

May 25, 2016

As we conclude our month long series on poverty in southern Illinois, WSIU's Brad Palmer reports on how poverty and housing issues are inextricably linked.

Nowhere in Illinois is that link more pronounced than in the southernmost part of the state.

Heartland Alliance’s annual report on poverty shows Alexander County is the poorest in Illinois. Sixty percent of the people in the county seat of Cairo fall into that category, according to the Illinois Poverty Report. The state average is 19%.

Credit Brad Palmer, WSIU Radio

In February, Housing and Urban Development assumed control of the Alexander County Public Housing Authority in Cairo after what it called years of financial and operational mismanagement, poor housing conditions and alleged civil rights violations.

HUD’s Towanda Macon is the co-recovery administrator in Cairo. She says many of the 350 tenants in the facility welcomed her with open arms three months ago.

"There are folks who are depending on us and we hear it. They tell us, 'hey we've been waiting for you for a change for a long time.' I think folks are beginning to see that what we said initially, we are trying our best to keep our word, to what was said from day one." 

She says one of HUD’s major pledges to tenants is pest control.

Thomas Richardson has lived in the complex for 10 years. He says last year pests took over his apartment.

Richardson's apartment now. Mice overtook his living space just over a year ago.
Credit Brad Palmer, WSIU Radio

"My son came over to help me clean my apartment...I lost all my furniture...mice. Not this last winter, but winter before, we had an infestation like you've never seen. I mean I was catching like 20 or 25 a week in my apartment. They ate up my furniture. He started finding the nests and everything went out."

Macon says HUD has contracted with a pest control firm to get the situation under control.

She says another top priority is security. After a breach of master keys, Macon says HUD is in the process of changing all the locks in the complex that has over 450 units.

Despite the challenges, HUD is making a difference in the eyes of some tenants. Allen Fletcher has called the Alexander County Housing Authority home for the last 9 years.

"People say it's not any different, but it takes time. This place didn't go down overnight. But, they're really working hard at it. (I'm) really proud of them. I think it's better."

Richardson agrees. In fact, he says this is the first time he’s had hope about his building in about 5 years.

Cracks in the concrete under the 6th floor of the Alexander County Housing complex show the decay of the decades old building.
Credit Brad Palmer, WSIU Radio

"I think they're going to get a lot done. I really do. That makes a big difference in whether you want to stay here or not. I moved here because of my mother and she's passed on. But, this feels like home and I'd like to see it treated that way."

This is Macon’s first time in Cairo. She says it’s sad to see such a beautiful area diminished like it is.

"I think people are aware that things are bad. When you're driving through the town and you don't see a grocery store, you don't see a pharmacy, there's no where to do laundry, I think you kind of realize you're in a place that just doesn't offer much, which leads you to think there's poverty around you."

Another community dealing with poverty and housing issues is Mt. Vernon.

Rev. Erie Patton.
Credit Facebook

Reverend Erie Patton is President of the Jefferson County NAACP. She says the Mt. Vernon South Side Revitalization Project is designed to bring affordable housing to this blighted area and provide vocational training to increase job opportunities for those who want to live and thrive in this area of town.

"There are so many homes that have been torn down, and as far as we know there hasn't been a plan to replace anything. A lot of our local businesses in that area have moved out and so we have residents that are somewhat homeless because you have two and three families living in one household again."

Reverend Patton says the coalition of groups spearheading the revitalization effort is working on purchasing dozens of lots from the city of Mt. Vernon at a discounted price to construct affordable homes.

A lack of affordable housing is one of the major causes of sub-par living conditions or homelessness for those who suffer from poverty.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority says it’s trying to help. Executive director Audra Hamernik says there is a website where people can go to look for an affordable place to live.

"An online portfolio of all of our properties, and others, that you can go on and search by location, by town,  by type of unit you need, for example three bedrooms."

She says there are currently 4,000 permanent, supportive housing units in the portfolio.

Although not all of southern Illinois has homes to offer, Hamernik says Carbondale has a program where people can rent affordable homes.

"It's called Carbondale Neighbors. It was built in 2010 and it was the construction of 20 new, single family homes scattered about Carbondale. They rent for $500-600 a month."

Hamernik admits the demand outweighs the supply right now, but they are adding around a thousand new, rental units each year and preserving around 3,000 more.

She says in 2015, 3.8 million people visited the website, which is IL-housing-search.org. People without internet access can call to find out more information. That toll-free number is 877-428-8844.