East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks on Monday called on the city's residents to begin a petition drive asking President Barack Obama to get involved and stop St. Clair County from taking over the city's housing authority.
Parks said the appeal to various agencies and local politicians and representatives has failed to stop a takeover of the East St. Louis Housing Authority, so he wants people power to accomplish the task. And he wants East St. Louis to be one of the rail stops for the high speed rail that is being planned from St. Louis to Chicago and back.
The housing authority issue has been on the table for about a year "when HUD officials came to East St. Louis and indicated that they were looking to take the East St. Louis Housing Authority (ESLHA) out of federal receivership and give it back to some agency," Parks said.
The ESLHA has been in receivership since 1985. "They (HUD) want to take the East St. Louis Housing Authority out of East St. Louis and send it to St. Clair County. This we adamantly and vehemently disagree with," Parks said, his comments receiving lots of applause from the handful of people who were there.
"We do not need our city picked apart agency by agency. We are absolutely rejecting the notion of anyone having the East St. Louis' Housing Authority but East St. Louis," he said.
Parks handed out what was called "The Citizens Petition" that he said was being circulated to deal with the housing authority issue and the issue of several agencies that are being looked at for taking out of East St. Louis or have already gone, such as the East St. Louis Community Development Block Grant program, the Economic Opportunity Center, Small Business Development Center, School District 189, elected Board members, East Side Health District, the state of Illinois unemployment office, St. Mary's Hospital -- which became Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital -- and various other social service agencies.
"We're looking to stop the attacks on our local government and to protect our equal rights as guaranteed by the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution also implied citizenship with the right to govern ourselves, AKA democracy. Stop the attempts to create the image of inferiority and a no confidence attitude in East St. Louis appointed and elected officials," Parks told the audience.
"Those who are here and many who are not here are being asked to join with us. We're looking to keep the East St. Louis Housing Authority in East St. Louis. It does not need to be folded into St. Clair County," Parks said.
Edith Moore, president of the advisory board of the East St. Louis Housing Authority addressed the audience, too.
She said "For the last 11 years, volunteer members of the advisory board (Chris Hudlin, Scott Randolph, Christine Hendricks and herself), have been going, at the expense of HUD, to training all over this country getting ourselves geared up to take over the Housing Authority in its totality and getting it from up under HUD's oversight."
And for the last six years, Moore said HUD officials have told them they were getting ready to step away and that the local board was ready to take over.
"All of the promises of letting it go back to local control was nixed with no explanation to us. We went to a meeting last month, and lo and behold, they had unseated us with no prior notice -- none whatsoever. There were three people at the table -- the housing authority attorney, the HUD oversight representative from Chicago and Elizabeth Tolliver, the local director," she said.
Moore said the board was unseated as a result of a lawsuit filed by the East St. Louis Housing Authority Board. She said they were told by a HUD official that they couldn't sit there and then sue HUD at the same time.
"They nullified the board's existence. We're asking at this point on what basis do they have to nullify the advisory board's existence. We reject that; also we absolutely rebuke that kind of action. That's a wrong action on HUD's part," Moore said.
"What's happening to us is a takeover not just because of the housing authority but because of the gold mine we have downtown called riverfront. Anybody who knows the history of East St. Louis knows this to be a fact.
"Some of you may be too young to remember what we went through in the '60s. It reminds me so vividly of how we had to lay down in the parking lots of banks, of how we could go downtown on Collinsville Avenue and couldn't sit at the counter at Woolworth's to eat. It reminds me of the back door people that we were. We weren't allowed to go in the front door. Some people may not want to hear this history. Some of you may think we've come further than that. Now, we are blatantly having it thrown in our face. Different words are being used; different strategies are being used. But, all rendering the same result. It's no different now than it was then. Rather than being called the N word you're being called Mr. N word or Miss N word. It's time that we stand up and rebel. It's time to say no we are not going to take this. I hope each of you have had some experience in this so you can realize and see what is happening to us," Moore said.
Moore said the ESLHA was established by state statue. "That's the only way they were able to receive money from HUD to establish the ESLHA. State law prohibits St. Clair County from operating two housing authorities. State law says that no municipality can operate more than one housing authority," she told the people who were present.
Moore said she and others have done some research and learned that residents living in Curtis Miller apartments and the Greystone apartments, which are a part of St. Clair County Housing Authority, have made worse complaints than any received in East St. Louis.
Moore said HUD has gotten two extensions since the lawsuit was filed in September. "We're waiting on our day in court. We're appealing to CORE (Congress On Racial Equality) and the NAACP to join us too.
City Manager Deletra Hudson said the action taken Monday was not a knee-jerk reaction. "Capacity being in question was never something that was raised by HUD in any audit reports or information given to the city," Hudson said.
Parks announced that city leaders, on Feb.13, reappointed the board members that HUD removed and he said they were sworn in again Monday afternoon to their seats.
Parks said, "We have sought several remedies outside of what we're doing right now. The first remedy was to talk to individuals who can help perpetuate the change. We've talked to Congressman (Bill) Enyart. We've talked to Senator Dick Durbin's staff. We have talked with individuals at the federal, state and county level to assist with the situation. We haven't gotten the results we were looking for. We did everything we could without having to file a lawsuit. But that is the step we took back in September. The lawsuit has been filed by the law firm of Clayborne, Sabo and Wagner."
Parks said city leaders are confident they can prevail on the lawsuit. "But you simply can not rely on the law and the judicial system to give you the result you are looking for, which is why we're taking the next step," Parks said.
Meanwhile, Parks said city leaders are continuing to work behind the scene to try to get the result they want -- to keep the East St. Louis Housing Authority in East St. Louis and managed by East St. Louis.
"We have the extreme action of taking people power -- taking it to the streets. We want to get a message to our president, President Barack Obama, a president that this community voted 99.02 percent for on his last election in November 2012. So, President Obama certainly knows East St. Louis. We're not sure that the president is even aware that there are individuals looking to take the East St. Louis Housing authority and make it another housing authority. We're not sure that he understands they are trying to fold it into the county's housing authority and make it the second largest housing authority in the nation. The reason we're circulating these petitions is that we'd like to send them en masse to President Obama and copy them to our other federal legislators and make sure they know we adamantly oppose anything that makes it anything other than the East St. Louis Housing Authority," he said.
Parks said the city's housing authority is already the second-largest in Illinois.
When a resident asked why HUD is taking over the housing authority, Parks said HUD officials told city leaders that they do not have the capacity to govern the housing authority. He said the city's response to that was "You gotta be kidding me."
"You're talking about the same city that has been protecting the East St. Louis Housing Authority properties a s well as properties all throughout the city for the last 55 years, ever since the ESLHA went into existence in the 1950's. In many cases, we've been doing that protecting of the housing authority properties with zero monies coming in the way of property taxes or zero monies coming as payment in lieu of taxes from the federal government," Parks said.
Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly attributed quotes about nullifying the city authority and civil rights activism to the mayor. They are Edith Moore's quotes. Earlier versions also incorrectly stated how the combined housing authorities would rank as far as size.